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.

0 thoughts on “Baby Sleep and Mommy Wars

  1. I guess I'm just going to comment on all your posts now (hope you don't mind!). It is amazing how much moms/parents argue about some of these things. My tactic is to ignore everything, rarely ask for advice, read no parenting books or websites and go by my instincts and what I feel is right, knowing my babe better than anyone. My parenting philosophy is to have no philosophy and to wing it. It's worked for me so far! On sleep, we trained, and no matter what you do – I've learned they just go through waves: sleeping nights, non-sleeping nights. There will always be variation in your nights, and I just keep my eye on the prize: in 16 years or so I should be able to sleep in again. Good luck, and sweet photos!

  2. Well.

    I always get a little angry with people spouting things about sleep. Because we tried at least some of them and they made things much worse — as measured in the amount of sleep that I got.

  3. I second the 'no books – no asking advice' philosophy. I have two little ones and can tell you that they are completely different in their sleep routines and needs. My first slept through the night at 4 months and my second woke up to nurse forever. At 21 months he STILL rarely sleeps through the night. And you know what? I cherish bringing him into our bed and cuddling in the wee hours of the morning. He might be my last baby and I want to soak up these snuggles for as long as he wants to cuddle. Also at almost 6, my first comes to our bed in the middle of the night sometimes too. And some Sunday mornings we're all piled up in our bed, cat and all. Sleep for mom is important, absolutely, especially if you're in school… but babyhood is fleating. Enjoy it!

  4. Ah, sleep. My first three were reasonably good night sleepers, and spotty nappers. My fourth fought sleep of any kind. He needed to be held for his naps until almost 7 months old, and was up every 2 hours overnight…. for 18 months.

    I got a ton of flack from friends and family because I didn't CIO at 6 weeks, 6 months or a year. He shared a room with one of his brothers, and I thought it was cruel to subject my other son to hours of baby screaming; my youngest didn't cry to exhaustion and pass out. He cried until he was a towering inferno of rage and then it took a minimum of two hours to settle him again. This, versus a half hour waking, nursing and back to bed. Plus, I couldn't shake the idea that he still needed me, even though I was told he shouldn't.

    After he was about 14 months old, every six weeks or so, we experimented to see if he was ready to sleep through the night (basically, CIO lite), and eventually, he was. I never could understand why many people were convinced that I was doing something wrong. Babies are people. They are not "blank slates". People have different innate preferences and needs. What works for one baby is not necessarily going to work for another, although there are some good basics: quiet, dark environment, good bedtime routine, etc.

    The bottom line is that eventually, babies do need to learn to self-soothe in order to sleep through the night. But how they learn this, and when, is highly subjective and variable. Personally, I think that for some babies it is a physical skill to be mastered, like rolling over and sitting. They tend to sleep through the night sooner. But for other babies (like mine), there is a psychological dimension to this skill (ie being without parental reassurance), and they have to be ready on that level, too.

    All this sleep fear-mongering (ha – I initially wrote fear-momgering) about setting kids up with bad habits, the perils of "catering" to your children, or abandoning them to CIO when they need you, can be so damaging to a new parent's often fragile self-esteem. Basically, the only sleep solution that works is the one that gets everyone the most sleep.

  5. I get irked when people assume that what worked for one baby will work for another.

    Also, you and your experience regularly reassures me that maybe inconsistent sleep is just part of who she is since it seems to be a part of who her cousin is too. That reassurance takes it out of my hands a bit.

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