When Baby Sleep is a Problem
As a infant sleep educator and a professional who provides sleep consultation services, you may be surprised that my outlook when it comes to sleep can be summed up by saying “sleep isn’t a problem unless it is a problem.”
I approach sleep as a spectrum of normal variation and maintain an evidence-based perspective that sees the need for nighttime parenting as developmentally and biologically normal for infants.
As I often share when teaching prenatal classes on infant sleep, I did not always understand babies’ needs for nighttime parenting as a spectrum that represents both their personality and the more general needs of relatively helpless mammalian offspring.
Instead, I truly believed the commercials and cultural images of babies sleeping peacefully without need for adult interaction - if only you purchased the right diaper, the right swaddle, the right sleep gizmo, the right sleep book, and so forth.
All that changed, abruptly, with the introduction of my first child. Now with three children and over six years of nighttime parenting in, I know that as far as baby sleepers go, she was relatively easy.
My experience of her sleep needs, however, was not.
Because my expectations were informed more by commercial and cultural rhetoric of “good” babies than developmental norms, I found sleep life with my sweet little one much more stressful than blissful.
Far worse than any nighttime wakings was the pressure I felt to make my daughter conform to the ideals set forth in baby parenting books. Words like “routine,” “habits,” “props,” and “self-soothing” dominated my thoughts day and night. Fears about independence and life long sleep kept me from returning to sleep with ease after a night waking.
And, what of my little one? While occasionally cranky when working on a new skill or under the weather, she was a happy baby who was growing well and meeting milestones on pace for her age.
Sleep, then, wasn’t a problem - for her.
Had I known that she would make gentle transitions to no night feedings and make progress toward finding sleep without nighttime parenting in the coming months and years, I’m sure I could have enjoyed the present and found more rest even amidst her nighttime needs.
Hindsight certainly brings clarity in parenting as in everything else.
Though particular to my child and experience, I share this narrative because what I needed, more than anything, during this challenging season of nighttime parenting was support and encouragement to trust my child and my instincts.
Even if baby sleep isn’t a problem, negotiating nighttime parenting and making gentle transitions certainly can be. Add in outdated parenting advice handed down to us by well-meaning friends and relatives and packaged as universal cultural wisdom - oof - and baby sleep can be just plain hard.
Because our culture places so much emphasis on our babies figuring out how not to need us at night at such an early age, it can be challenging to reach out and ask for help to navigate our busy lives if choosing a more developmental approach to sleep.
That is to say, embracing your baby’s needs for you as developmentally normal doesn’t automatically equal bliss.
In fact, as I was to learn with my second and highly-sensitive baby, it can be brutally hard to see through the fog of sleep deprivation and find solutions that work for everyone.
While with my first, I needed education and an encouraging word to trust my instincts, with my second, I could have used an honest assessment of our sleep situation and a bucketful of collaborative solutions.
In either case, it was me, not my baby, who truly needed a sleep intervention.
Instead of advocating I “fix” my baby, I could have benefited immensely from a listening ear with responses of compassion and empathy, support that expressed confidence in me and my intuition as a mother, and encouragement as I made changes that held true to our family's long term values and goals.
That's an approach to the problems of baby sleep could have made all the difference for me then and why I'm passionate about the work of infant sleep education now.
Are you looking for prenatal education on infant sleep or a holistic, heart-centered approach to navigating your families nighttime needs? Schedule a free 15 min discover call and find out if Nested Mama's services are the right fit for your family.
In the absence of a "village" to nurture us postpartum, it can be hard to know where and when to reach out for support. Our culture maintains a myth wherein the birthing parent can do it all. In reality, the days, weeks, and months after baby's arrival are a time when a go-it-alone approach can lead to isolation and exhaustion.
At least, it did for me.
Hiring a postpartum doula is one way families can say "yes" to more support and invest in a service that can bring ease into that first year after baby.
But, depending on your lifestyle or little one's age, traditional postpartum doula services that focus on in-home day and overnight support may not be the right fit.
Maybe your support network is great with laundry and meal prep, but you need more nonjudgmental, compassionate conversation to uplift you as you navigate a tricky stage postpartum.
Perhaps you've got your household running smoothly but the thought of having a link to evidence-based resources and a sounding board for your transition into parenthood would offer you a sense of ease.
Or, maybe the idea of a doula in your home doesn't sound like the right match, but a combo of emotional and informational support offered online fits perfectly with your preferences.
If any of the above sounds like you, Online Postpartum Doula services may be the support you always felt you needed but didn't know you could ask for. Now, you can.
So what is Online Postpartum Doula Support?
Nested Mama combines weekly video chats and unlimited emails to provide you heart-centered support when and where you are in life with baby.
Nested Mama is all about your parenting journey and how you build confidence and joy along the way. Online doula support is a flexible way to make that happen when and where you need it.
Want to learn more? Schedule a free 15-min discovery call and see if Nested Mama is the right fit for what you need.
Gentle Transitions from Shared Sleep
Looking for evidence-based support as you make gentle transitions in your toddler's sleep? Schedule your free chat to learn about Nested Mama's holistic approach.
“I want to sleep in my little beddy.”
Last night was a first, a first for this sweet little toddler who has been my sleep companion for her whole life. As a little baby, we used breastsleeping and side-lying nursing to make it through the tricky patches and big developmental leaps of that first year. *
When shortly after a year, she made clear that sleep in her crib in our room was not preferred for even a short portion of the night, she joined us in our bed where she has been night in and night out ever since.
We took down that unused crib - which I have to say made for excellent laundry storage - and turned that corner of our room into a nook for a toddler bed.
Having only bedshared on and off with my older two kiddos, I imagined we’d make slow steady progress toward more independent sleep as she moved toward age two.
Here we are, days from 2.5 and just now making that tiny but grand leap.
Our culture frames discussions of baby/toddler/kiddo sleep with such fear - fear that our little ones may need us both day AND night.
Given this cultural conversation, I’ve had friends and clients share with me that even when they know about biologically normal sleep they still fear they’ve messed something up or somehow gone wrong in parenting because their little one finds rest best close to a loving caregiver.
As a parent, I’ve felt that fear - the stress and the worry that I’ve somehow misstepped and if only I’d done the right thing, my littles wouldn’t need me so intensely.
As an Infant Sleep Educator with a background in developmentally normal infant and toddler sleep and an understanding of attachment theory, I know that our little ones needing us isn’t something to fear - their need for us is normal and healthy and the stuff of future independence when ready.
Embracing sleep as a spectrum of normal variation means acknowledging that just as some grownups can’t fall asleep well without the sleepy breathing of their partner next to them, some kiddos innately find sleep best when close to a warm family member.
And, it also means acknowledging that some little ones don’t seem to need constant touch quite so much to find rest. It is a spectrum, after all.
Perhaps most importantly, it means recognizing that just because a little one vocally insists on a parent’s presence to fall asleep at age two doesn’t mean that the parents have gone wrong or the child needs to “learn” independence.
Similarly, a little one who has happily babbled to sleep alone since x months may suddenly as an older baby or toddler require more support for initial sleep and more frequent nighttime parenting.
Embracing sleep as a spectrum of normal variation means just that - that just as our children are beautifully unique in the daytime, they may be varied in nighttime needs, as well.
So what of her first night in that “little beddy”? Alas, frequent growing pains meant many awakenings punctuated by the oldest announcing the presence of a stomach bug in our house at 4 a.m.
Such is the stuff of parenting.
What then do I expect from this gentle transition to slightly more independent sleep for our family? I’ll ask myself the same questions I ask my clients in one-on-one consultations - that I tune into my intuition and look at the situation both from my perspective and my child’s.
When we approach sleep as a spectrum of normal and each families' situation and needs as unique, there is so much space for empathy and collaborative solutions to meet everyone's needs rather than framing sleep as an either/or struggle for rest.
That means when I work with clients (and troubleshoot my own family sleep), there is no one-size solution. No discussion of "habits," "props," or forcing independence.
Just empathy and compassion for all parties involved and a supportive conversation that places emphasis on what each family values as most important.
So for now, I’ll trust that when ready, that little beddy will become her default spot for slumber.
Until then, I’ll savor her sleepy cuddles and know that this is just a short season I’ll never get back.
And, I won’t regret a second of it.
*For safety information on breastsleeping or bedsharing, please consult the work of Dr. James McKenna at the Mother Baby Sleep Lab of Notre Dame for a full understanding of safety guidelines and risk factors.
Are you looking for more education and support as you navigate your baby's or toddler's sleep? Looking to gently night wean or transition to solitary sleep? Nested Mama offers sleep workshop and consultations to help your family find more rest. Learn more here.
Johanna received a Ph.D. in English in 2014. Now a postpartum doula and educator of childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant sleep, she blogs about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting.