When I worked with sleep clients, I often hear them lament that because of their babies’ or toddlers’ tricky bedtimes or sleep interruptions they have no “me time.”
I sympathize with this greatly, because I’ve been there, too, believing if only my baby behaved like “normal” babies that I could get the self-care time I craved.
Indeed, many popular books on sleep and child rearing equate baby's sleep time with sacred alone time for the caregiver.
While this sounds logical enough on the surface, in practice it sets up those whose babies have more or different needs around sleep for difficulty.
And, for me, it meant self-sabotaging my happiness.
When I made self-care time contingent on my baby’s sleep, I unwittingly raised the stakes of my baby’s sleep to a new level. No longer about my baby’s need for rest, now my adult need for self-care came along for the ride of any sleep frustrations.
The “shoulds” in my head became louder and my feelings about sleep became bigger.
You see, I’d invited my baby to a power struggle so far beyond her comprehension. Given the roller coaster that is baby and toddler sleep, even the most predictable of sleepers will have tricky spots and interruptions. My expectations were ahead of her abilities and my frustrations loomed large.
This mindset often proves even more challenging in the toddler years, as little ones become more vocal about their many needs at bedtime. Asking for one more drink, one more hug, or parental reassurance can turn the implicit power struggle of baby sleep to a very explicit one.
When I work one-on-one with parents, I often hear that they feel like their self-care time is held hostage by their little one’s ever so vocal and pressing nighttime desires. As a result, bedtime becomes a time of stress and conflict rather than ease and connection.
Imagine having an argument with your partner or a beloved family member and then trying to fall asleep. How long do you think it would take you to drift off?
When we create a power struggle that not only includes bedtime but a narrative around how and when we can care for ourselves, we set ourselves up for the opposite of joy. Bedtime as a battle means everyone’s stress level is high and rest and relaxation is that much harder to achieve for all parties involved.
So, what can we do when we find we’ve fallen into this sleep-time trap? Here are a few quick tips to dissolve the power struggle and find more room for self-care.
Change your mindset
If you take an honest look at your own attitude toward bedtime and acknowledge that the “shoulds” and power-struggle mentality have taken hold, you’ve take the first powerful step in changing the narrative and experience of that time. Hold limits with love, find ease and connection in closeness with your child, and turn sleep time into one that feels good for everyone involved. It may not immediately equal “one tuck and done,” but know that gentle transitions and growth are always on the horizon.
Schedule it in
One powerful way to change your narrative around sleep is to change what is at stake. Instead of making your yoga practice contingent on naptime, schedule a class or two a week in your calendar that don’t depend on your baby’s sleep for you to attend. Communicate clearly with your partner about your needs, dial in your support people, exchange childcare with a friends so you both get the time you need - basically, separate the baby sleep = self-care equation by making your self-care a priority.
Find joy together
Sometimes, especially with tiny ones, it is possible to make progress toward self-care and sleep at the same time. Maybe you enjoy a quiet coffee obtained via drive-though after errands because you know little one will nap a bit in the car. Maybe your little one sleeps best for naps in a carrier, so you leverage that time to take a walk, a hike, or a babywearing dance class. Look for parent and baby classes in your community that give you more of what you love while being with your little one.
Sometimes the thought of changing the narrative, making gentle transitions, or finding collaborative solutions that work for the family may seem completely out of reach. Here, a one-on-one consultation with an infant sleep educator may be just what you need to refocus and have a plan to help your whole family flourish.
Looking to make some gentle changes or want support as you switch up the narrative around your experience of baby and toddler sleep? Schedule a free 15 min discovery call to see if Nested Mama services are the right fit for your family.
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.