Expectations about baby sleep set mothers up to fail.
One of the main questions I was asked when my son was born was whether he was sleeping through the night. I think I lost count of how many times the question was thrown my way in the first year—and they were words I started to dread, because Jovan was such a terrible sleeper. You would think that people would have worked out the answer just by looking at the bags under my eyes. I was so incredibly sleep deprived that even closing my eyes while having a shower felt like a dream. (Two whole minutes of peace... three if I was really lucky.)
Before I had my son, I could probably count on one hand how many times I discussed sleep with anyone. But after he was born, suddenly everyone seemed to be interested in my sleeping patterns. My family, friends, the lady at the grocery store checkout lane. Everyone seemed to be interested and have an opinion on what I should or should not be doing.
Baby sleep is one of those topics where assumptions are quickly drawn and you wonder how to respond without people thinking you are an awful mother. If you say your little one is sleeping through the night, they assume that this is simply impossible and that you must be allowing them to cry it out while you sit with your feet up, drinking wine and watching Netflix. If you say they are waking up numerous times through the night, the assumption is you are doing something wrong. "Are you sure they're not hungry?" "Are you still rocking them to sleep?" are usually the questions thrown at you. And forget about telling anyone if you co-sleep.
Don't get me wrong, I welcome advice from other mothers and I think most mothers do. Although some suggestions may not work for you, when you are at the point of desperation you are willing to try anything. But there is a fine line between giving tips and pointing out what other moms are doing wrong, making them feel like they are failing at being a parent.
When a mother may be at her most vulnerable—mentally, emotionally and physically—making judgmental comments like "you need to stop picking him up," or "you need to stop his night feeds," or "I hope you're putting him down drowsy but awake or he will never learn how to self soothe" is just not helpful. The overwhelming level of judgment and expectation about baby sleep sets mothers up to fail.
I can honestly say this was one of the biggest factors in my postpartum depression, as I constantly felt like I was not doing it "right," whatever that is. I read pretty much every article, blog and advice column on the internet on getting your child to sleep and my son was still waking up numerous times each night. I did not know what I was doing wrong. I felt like a failure.
He didn't start sleeping through the night until just before he turned 2. For the past few months, I've been able to put him down in his cot awake without the neighbors thinking we are carrying out an exorcism in our house. There has been no change in his routine whatsoever, he has just simply become (dare I say it) a "good sleeper." But until he became a good sleeper I attended to his needs. If he woke up through the night and needed some comfort, I cuddled him until he fell back to sleep. If he woke up for the hundredth time in a night, I would often co-sleep if it meant we were both getting much needed rest. If he wanted some milk or a sip of water through the night, I gave it to him. I did what worked for us. There were times I felt guilty for doing these things, because I was ignoring the advice of sleep coach professionals who would say let him cry it out. But mothers should not feel guilty for comforting their children.
It took me some time to say this to myself, but I think it is normal for babies to wake up regularly through the night and need comfort and reassurance to fall back to sleep. It is normal for babies to be nursed to sleep and even through the night. It is normal for a baby's sleep to take three steps forward and then two steps back. It is normal for families to room share, co-sleep, use white noise or whatever else works for them.
Because the truth is, human children are the most contact-dependent and immature social mammals on the planet. Which means human mothers are one of the most hardworking and exhausted mothers on the planet.
Each child will develop in their own way. So next time you cuddle your child back to sleep or give them that extra comfort, remember you are not spoiling your child, you are simply making them feel safe and secure. That's not discrediting any sleeping training methods or techniques, it is simply a reminder that it is okay to do what works for you if it means both you and baby are happy.
And when you speak to a mother about sleep, remember she does not need to be questioned or judged or expected to meet false standards of 'success.' Instead, offer her a cup of tea and cake and some conversation to bring a smile to her face.
That always worked for me.
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