The question most commonly asked of new parents is: ‘Is he/she sleeping through the night yet?’ There’s no doubt that dealing with disturbed sleep is a big challenge for new parents, but when people are always asking you this it would be easy to get the impression that getting your baby to sleep through the night should be the first and final goal of parenting. Oh really… hang on… you mean it’s not?
I remember when Birdy was about three months old she started catnapping. I had a copy of Save Our Sleep on the shelf, so I read it from cover to cover, and started Birdy on a feeding and sleeping routine. At the time, I thought it was an absolute lifesaver. There’s no question that her sleeping improved, she seemed more settled and life became more manageable for all of us. She would fall asleep easily, by herself, usually without crying. But I was also fairly strict about not cuddling her to sleep, or rocking her, or doing anything that would be a hard habit to break later.
But now that she’s older, I’ve started to change my point of view on this issue. I remember one night reading Birdy the Mem Fox picture book Time For Bed, which shows all the baby animals going to sleep with their mummy’s. One night, after reading that book, Birdy asked me why she couldn’t go to bed with her mummy. Suddenly I had this niggling feeling that it might be unnatural to put a baby to bed on their own and expect them to always fall asleep. So now if Birdy wakes in the night, I’m much more likely to lay down with her for a few minutes and give her a cuddle, rather than to just expect her to go back to sleep by herself. Don’t get me wrong, I know self-settling is an important skill to teach, but it doesn’t have to be taught overnight. It can and often does take time. And it may not be realistic to expect babies or very young children to consistently sleep through the night without any help from Mum or Dad.
So now whenever I hear new parents bragging about how their little one is sleeping through the night at ten weeks or twelve weeks I find it very hard to stop the corners of my mouth from curling up in a secret little smile. Because what those first-time parents don’t realize is that the baby who is sleeping through the night at three months, ain’t necessarily going to be sleeping through the night at six months, nine months, or even one or two years of age. Again, I’m not saying you don’t need to teach good sleeping skills, of course you do. But if you make ‘sleeping through the night’ the number one goal of your parenting, you’re going to be disappointed.
Because you can teach your child to self-settle at three months, and think you’ve got it sorted, and then at four months they start teething, at six months they want to feed more, at nine months they’re snotty and can’t breathe well, then they’re teething again, and then they develop separation anxiety and wake up just to check you’re still around. At one and a half they suddenly decide they don’t want to go in their sleeping bag anymore so then they kick off all their blankets and wake up cold. Then they get sick again and can’t sleep. Then at two they start having night terrors and bad dreams, then they move into a big bed and they fall out or they find themselves upside down with their head under the doona and their feet hanging out the window. Then they get sick again, then they develop asthma, or hayfever or eczema, and they wake up coughing, or sneezing or scratching, then by the time they’re three they’re toilet trained and they want to get up in the middle of the night and go to the toilet.
So now you can understand why, when some proud parent tells me gleefully at twelve weeks that their new baby is sleeping through the night, I have to turn my face away slightly and bite my tongue. Because I would have said the same thing when Birdy was three months old. And now I get up most nights to a snotty, coughing, itchy, upside down, uncovered or scared little girl who just wants a kiss and a cuddle from mummy. And it’s not really a big deal.
So what is the first and final goal of parenting if it’s not sleeping through the night? Just loving them. And yes, sometimes that means tough love, but sometimes it means finding it in your heart to be kind and patient and loving, even at two in the morning.
Is your child a good sleeper? When did they start sleeping through the night? If they don’t sleep well, why do you think that is? Do you sometimes feel pressure from other family members or friends to ‘fix’ them? Would you do anything differently next time around? How have your expectations changed over time?
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Useful Resources (If you really do have a sleep problem)
SMH Article: Baby Whisperers
The Australian Article: Tough Love