baby · Isabel

Baby Sleep and Mommy Wars

I’m fairly convinced that my daughter is never going to sleep through the night. I’m going to be nursing her at 1 am and 4 am until she’s 18 and moves out of the house.

(Of course, when I envision this, she’s always a baby. I can’t imagine her as a teenager. Not yet. I can’t even imagine her as a toddler and she hits that category in just a few months.)

Around 6 months, she was waking up every two hours. We attempted to cry-it-out, a sleep training technique that involves a relaxing bedtime routine – nursing, a book, a cuddle, a song – followed by what could be hours of screaming until the baby falls asleep on her own. We took a slightly modified approach called gradual extinction. Instead of just putting Isabel in her crib and closing the door, the Husband would go back into her room to comfort her after 3 minutes, then 5, then every 10.

It worked! After the third night, she woke up only once, nursed, and went right back to sleep.

Then, a week into our sleep training, we travelled. It was Christmas time. There was family to see. We both came home with a cold. We were a household of misery. Sleep training went out the window.

In the two weeks it took to get us both more or less healthy again, I read some things that made me second guess the sleep training thing. The world of attachment parenting doesn’t like it much, claiming it does long-term psychological damage by breaking the bond between mother and child. That community throws around words like “abandonment”, and “child abuse”, and links cry-it-out sleep training methods to all sorts of psychological and developmental issues that extend into adulthood. In response to all those claims, I found the other side of the debate refuting everything, presenting sleep as a learned skill that babies need a little help to learn to do on their own. Both sides had research and studies backing up their claims.

Even worse, both side sounded right. Those against cry-it-out methods point out the pain it causes a mother to listen to her children crying. Obviously, the discomfort I feel hearing my child’s discomfort must mean something. Proponents of cry-it-out, on the other hand, reminded me how important my own sleep is, both for myself, and for the happiness of my baby. How can I properly care for Isabel and keep her safe when I’m exhausted, frustrated, and testy due to a lack of sleep?

I weighed our options. Finally healthy again, but still exhausted, we started over.

In the end, all of my stress over the decision was for nothing. Isabel decided for us. Our second round of sleep training failed miserably. By the seventh day, nothing was better. She was still waking up just as often. Disappointed, still tired, but recognizing that continuing wasn’t fair to anyone, we gave up and turned to partial co-sleeping instead. After her first wake-up, she would go back in her crib. After her second, I would bring her to bed. She would nurse from 2 am to 6 am.

These days, sleep has improve considerably. She still wakes up once or twice at night to nurse, but we both wake up to start our day in our own beds. She wakes up happy and well-rested and I wake up tolerably. We’re waiting-it-out, confident that one day, she will sleep through the night.

But, in all this, I discovered that issues around sleep bring out the worst in people. Until I witnessed a conversation about sleep spiral out of control on social media, I didn’t think the mommy wars even existed. I’ve never see moms actually fight about formula vs. breastfeeding (feeding your baby! You’re a good mom.), cloth diapers vs. disposable (do what works! You’re a good mom.), babywearing vs. SUV strollers (I prefer this, you prefer that! You’re a good mom.), stay at home vs. working (do what’s best for you! You’re a good mom). In most things, it seems moms rally around each other and support whatever decision they choose. But sleep? Sleep divides people.

The one thing for which new moms need the most support is the one thing that causes the biggest issue in the world of parenting. I don’t know what the right answer about sleep and crying-it-out is. I don’t claim to know if cry-it-out techniques are good or bad, dangerous or life-saving. My guess is that no one really knows for sure yet. Until we do, all we can do is what we believe is best and withhold our judgement of those who believe best is something different.

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