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.
1/31/2019 07:12:22 am
So good to read this! It's so supportive to know that if it's working for your family, it's working, whether or not it looks like how it is supposed to by way of gurus, cultural pressure, or family lore.
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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.