My middle child was a terrible sleeper. I mean really awful. He woke up every 40 minutes for the first eight months of his life (two of which I was pregnant with our third—but that’s a story for another time).
I was chasing a three-year-old, breastfeeding a baby and pregnant with another baby—I was tired. I mean feel it in your bones, Googling ‘can you die of sleep deprivation?’ utterly and hopelessly tired.
Why couldn’t my husband help at night, you ask?
He tried, desperately. But there was another problem: My terrible sleeper also refused to take a bottle—like, ever. Not ever. Yes, we tried them all. Yes, we did all. the. tricks. The child refused to sleep and refused to eat from anywhere but my boobs. And me? I was an absolute mess.
Because it was my fault—I knew it.
I cried when he woke up at night, partly because I was so tired and partly from the guilt. I shouldn’t have been so cocky after my first baby was such a good sleeper. I should have started sleep-training him sooner. I should have read that book my friend recommended. I shouldn’t have gone back to work so soon after he was born. I should have invested in those pricier bottles.
I should have been a better mother.
I knew in my heart that I broke my baby. And the guilt almost destroyed me.
We went to our pediatrician for a wellness check-up and in tears, exhausted to my very core, I told her our story. And that’s when she said it: the phrase that was wrong and heartless—and it turned out, exactly what I needed to hear to snap me out of it.
“Well, he’s a manipulator,” she said. “He knows how to get what he wants, and you respond accordingly.”
My son—my baby—was six months old.
I heard her words, and it was as if a bucket of cold mama-bear water was thrown on me to wake me up from my new-mom insecurities. A manipulator? Did she just call my baby a manipulator? I had spent months thinking that there was something wrong with my baby—wrong with me. But the moment that someone vocalized it and allowed me to hear instead of live it, I realized just how wrong it was.
He is a baby, and he needs his mama.
The revelation was so simple, yet it changed my entire perspective on motherhood.
I stopped crying. I stood up straighter. And I walked out of the room, with my squishy and “manipulative” baby protectively wrapped in my arms.
Three spoiler alerts: The first is that she is no longer my pediatrician. The second is that my terrible sleeper is now my best sleeper (and he eats out and off of anything we put in front of him). And the third is that it’s now my mission to find all the other ‘terrible new-mamas’ of ‘terrible babies,’ and tell them, “Mama, it isn’t so.”
So to the mama of a “terrible,” manipulative baby:
They aren’t terrible, at all. They just aren’t. The lack of sleep you are experiencing is terrible—I know, mama, believe me, I know. But your baby? There is nothing terrible about them.
They also are not manipulating you. No offense to your super-smart baby, but conniving manipulation is just not something that exists in their wheelhouse yet.
Your baby simply has needs. They may be more vocal about those needs than other babies, but it’s still in the range of normal.
Researchers have found that babies cannot tell the difference between themselves and their mothers for the first six months of life. They believe that you are the same person; that you are them and they are you—and mama, you are everything.
So when your baby is crying to be held, it’s not because you’ve spoiled them, it’s because they need the safety of your arms.
And when your baby refuses to take a bottle, it’s not because you didn’t train them right, it’s because their body is telling them that they need your breast.
And when your baby wakes up every 40 minutes FOR EIGHT MONTHS STRAIGHT, it’s not because you broke them, it’s because your baby couldn’t fathom spending a moment of the day away from you.
Now I know that this doesn’t help with your exhaustion. I know you need a break. I know you just want to get a solid night of sleep. All of these are completely valid, and I hope that you get them all soon. It also doesn’t mean that I am not an advocate of trying to fix all these issues—because your well-being is incredibly important, and if there is a hack to help you feel better, I am here for it.
But please, take guilt out of the equation. You didn’t break your baby, mama. You loved them so well and made them feel so safe and secure, that why in the world would they settle for anything less?