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Should You Sleep Train Your Baby?

Image courtesy of “papaija2008”; freedigitalphotos.net

Sleep, Judgment and Parenting – Should you sleep train your baby?

“You shouldn’t sleep train at all, before a year, before 6 months, or before 4 months, but if you wait too late, your baby will never be able to sleep without you. College-aged children never need to be nursed, rocked, helped to sleep, so don’t worry about any bad habits. Nursing, rocking, singing, swaddling, etc. to sleep are all bad habits and should be stopped immediately. White noise will help them fall asleep. White noise, heartbeat sounds, etc., don’t work. Naps should only be taken in the bed, never in a swing, car seat, stroller, or when worn. Letting them sleep in the car seat or swing will damage their skulls. If your baby has trouble falling asleep in the bed, put them in a swing, car seat, stroller, or wear them.

Put the baby in a nursery, bed in your room, in your bed. Cosleeping is the best way to get sleep, except that it can kill your baby, so never, ever do it. If your baby doesn’t die, you will need to bedshare until college.”

–       an excerpt from a tumblr post 

Ava Neyer, 31 year old mother of 5 month old twins, was on a desperate search for a fool-proof method of getting her children to sleep – and sleep well.  She read every book by every sleep expert she could possibly find.  The above citation is an excerpt of all that she learned – every contradictory, confusing, dire piece of what she learned.

There are certain questions that everyone gets asked:  when you are in high school, people want to know where you are going to college; when you are in college people ask about your major; when you graduate, you are asked about a job; once you have a job, you are asked about a significant other; once you have a significant other, you are asked about marriage; once you are married everyone wants to know when you are going to have children… And once you have a child everyone wants to know if they are sleeping through the night. 

Everyone is always asking about what comes next – and to some extent this is reasonable and socially appropriate – something to say in casual conversation.  I take no issue with the questions – but I do have concerns about the judgment that ensues when the answers deviate from what the questioner deems appropriate.

As early as one month after she was born, we found ourselves repeatedly answering questions about our daughter’s sleeping habits – at first this felt like empathy from parents who had gone through this rite/torture of sleep-deprivation and survived to tell the tale.  By 4 or 5 months, however, these questions were accompanied by looks of judgment, concern or consternation when we declared that she was still not sleeping through the night.

A brief interlude here to point out that “sleeping through the night” at this age technically means the infants are sleeping for a six hour stretch.  That said, one gets the distinct idea that this is not what the questioners have in mind; rather, there is an unspoken expectation within the question that to sleep through the night means that your child falls asleep at 7:00 PM and wakes at 7:00 AM.

I remember acutely the relief when, seven or eight months after our daughter’s birth, one physician nonchalantly inquired:  “So, is she a sleeper or a non-sleeper?”  Phew.  There was no good, no bad – no right or wrong way.  It was simply a question about who our daughter was and how she operated – not about our ability as parents.

As it turned out, our daughter was most definitely a non-sleeper.  She did not – does not – enjoy sleeping nor does she seem to need as much of it as most children her age.  Going on 20 months, she was still not sleeping through the night.  And on the rare (not more than 2 or 3 in total) nights that she did manage to sleep from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM we would wake up panicked, wondering if she was ill or dead because her behavior was so out of character.

Before we become parents we have so many fantasies about who our children will be and what we will and will not do as parents.  We imagine little versions of us – but better – running around, filling our hearts with love and our phones with funny videos and beautiful pictures.  Sure, we imagine a bit of sleeplessness at first and some gross dirty diapers and funny smelling spit-up, but these possibilities pale in comparison to the narcissistic gratification we anticipate in seeing someone we created walking, talking and interacting with the world.

A good friend of mine, after her first child was born, took a profound risk in admitting the following to me about 2 months after her son was born:  “After you give birth, you have to mourn the child you thought you were going to have.  Then you can get to know and love the one you did have.”  I think this statement is key – whatever our fantasies about our children and ourselves as parents, we have to let them go in order to be good parents.

The fact is that to be a good parent means you parent the child you have – not the child you wished for.  Some children will sleep, others will sleep less.  Eventually they will all sleep through the night.  When that happens, how that happens, emerges out of the delicate balance between the needs of the parents and the unique needs of the child.  And so it goes with virtually every developmental milestone.