icon • o • clast : noun : a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions (Merriam-Webster)
For the most part, I have avoided writing about sleep. Some years ago, not long after starting this blog, I wrote a series of posts adapting Attachment Parenting International’s principles of attachment parenting for working moms. When I got to the topic of sleep, I faltered. Ultimately, rather than tackle the topic, I abandoned the series all together.
Not only did I feel I had nothing to say worth reading about sleep, but my son’s sleep situation made me feel embarrassed. It was one area where I felt I was a complete parenting failure. (I have failed & continue to fail in many, many ways, but I felt I was a categorical failure when it came to sleep.)
My son didn’t sleep. Or couldn’t sleep. Or so I thought. He slept on someone. And when he woke up, forget about it. It was back to square one with the nursing & the bouncing & the rocking & the delicate operation that was laying him down in his crib. Forget about naps. We were lucky to get 15-25 minutes in the early days!
At the time, I just assumed that even AP families were supposed to be able to put their little ones down for a bit of independent sleep now & again. Looking back now, I see how cultural norms surrounding sleep crept into my attempt at AP nighttime parenting. I shouldn’t have assumed anything…
Beyond the sheer exhaustion that ensued for those first 2 years or so, the whole situation made me doubt everything about my parenting. Was I nursing too much? Not pumping enough? Not giving him the right solids during the day? Cosleeping too much? Too little? Studying too much? Working too much? Giving him too much stimulation during the day? Not enough?
Sleep, it turns out, is a big deal in the parenting world not only because there’s never enough of it at the right times, but also because it bleeds into all aspects of the early parenting journey.
And in American parenting culture (which is “independence”- & dominance-driven, rather than collaborative), sleep is a key barometer for your success or failure as a parent. I was clearly failing because my son did not sleep, at least not in the right ways.
And here’s a big admission: Because I misconstrued sleep as a key to parenting success, I got angry a lot at bedtime. This started in his infancy & continued through his two’s, after he transitioned to a big kid bed. I think this is perhaps why I’m most embarrassed by this episode in my mothering journey. I tried so hard to be a gentle parent, respectful of my son’s needs, but I just lost my temper so often at night. I never harmed my son physically & I was usually successful in bottling my anger, but I’m sure my tone & words were less than kind on
some many nights. I often had to just walk away.
I was & am ashamed of this. If I could do one thing over with my son, it would be all about sleep.
What’s different today? I am an exhausted, bed-sharing/co-sleeping mother to a 1 1/2 year old who still nurses a lot at night & has unpredictable nighttime patterns… But, I’m mostly okay with this. That last bit is the big difference: My attitude has shifted.
And, so, with some perspective on my experience with my son & additional experience with the baby, I feel like I can & should write about sleep.
When I had my daughter, I was determined to not repeat the mistakes I made with my son & in the process I discovered something: Sleep “training” is nothing more than a cottage industry offering books & services to unwitting parents caught up in the cultural tide that is mainstream, competetive parenting in America.
So, I decided to quit that rat race…
I am now officially a sleep iconoclast. Forging my own path without shame. Throwing out (almost) all the baby sleep advice sans guilt. Giving the boot to the concept of sleep “training.” Slaying expections surrounding normal infant & child (& adult) sleep patterns. (Mostly) loving bedtime & sleep & nighttime parenting proudly.
What did I discover is wrong with most sleep training advice? Why toss it all out? It’s all about perspective—The premise is wrong & all that follows is necessarily flawed.
Almost all sleep books start from the adult perspective. This perspective defines normal sleep as sleep that primarily takes place at night for blocks of 7-9 hours. From this perspective, sleep is also something that is self-initiated & occurs in large, uninterrupted chunks of time. Our modern days & lives are built around the construct of this big nighttime, 8-hour sleep.
Not to mention that the American cultural obsession with “independence” is also an adult concept that is overrated & often unfairly imposed on infants & children.
All of this must be quite different from the infant’s perspective. An infant (fresh from the womb & new to the concept of day & night) wants to sleep when he’s tired, whenever that happens to be. He wants to be close to his favorite person in the world (that’s you). He wants milk before falling asleep (or after… or both). He definitely wants milk while falling asleep. He prefers to sleep in short snippets of time, just like he did in the warm comfort of your belly.
Now, your response might be (understandably) that you have to function in a world that is designed around ingrained, typical adult sleep patterns. So, you have to train your baby or child to adapt to the typical pattern, too. This seems logical. (And as an attorney with a day job, I get it.)
But babies are anything but logical. They’re instinctual & biologically driven. Unfortunately for us adults, this means that their sleep patterns are incredibly inconvenient & difficult to change. So difficult, in fact, that trying to convince a baby to sleep at a time or in a manner different from what her little body is telling her is usually a frustrating endeavor for both parent & child. Sometimes (usually?) it’s simply futile.
Most sleep advice tacitly recognizes that infant sleep is fundamentally different from adult sleep by admitting that babies need a lot more sleep than adults need. They need naps. They need a larger total amount of hours at night dedicated to sleep.
Beyond the newborn days, though (when we’re admonished to “nap when baby naps”), sleep training advice is mostly adult-focused, often urging parents to impose a schedule & stick to it. Sure, that’s convenient, but it’s not always what the child needs. We should recognize that we, as adults, are the ones who primarily benefit from a predictable schedule not our children.
While the adult world keeps barreling along according to inflexible & often inscrutable schedules, from an infant’s perspective, sleep might be boring, scary, hard, intrusive, uncomfortable, lonely, unnecessary, etc. Or it might be easy & best done in solitude. You just don’t know until you know. And to know, you have to watch, listen, observe.
But even if your child is a “good” sleeper, there’s bound to be something inconvenient about it, whether it’s an early bedtime (as in, right after you get home from work) or a second (or third) nap in the afternoon (you know, when you have to pick up your older child from school…). So, what to do?
What’s wrong with relying on “experts” to help you fix these & other “problems” with your child’s sleep? Not only do the so-called “experts” almost always start from the wrong perspective, as explained above, they are most certainly not expert in your child’s sleep signals & patterns & needs. For example, your pediatrician is likely not a good source of advice on infant sleep because she’s not with your baby at bedtime or nap time. A book author, even if he has “Dr.” in front of his name, has never even met your baby! And sleep needs are nothing if not unique to the individual child.
If you must consult an expert, at least make sure it’s someone who understands & respects infants as having unique needs in the sleep department. Personally, I loved Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Newborns: Amazing Sleep From Day One—For Baby and You. This gem is one of the only books out there that focuses on the right things: namely, normal infant sleep patterns & learning your baby’s language. (Also safe sleep, which is a must.) Pantley clearly understands & respects the needs of infants.
Also, Sarah Ockwell-Smith has a wealth of solid information regarding normal infant sleep on her website (& presumably, her book on sleep, too, though that’s not available in the good ol’ USA).
But even the best writers on infant sleep will only get you so far. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to you to find your path. I’ll share deets on what my path has looked like in part two in this two-part series.