[full of it]

Redefining sleep success

Posted in Uncategorized by susieyarbs on August 22, 2011

I’m a bad parent.  Felix wakes up 4, 5, 6 times a night.  Thus – bad parent.


I’m not sure when or why sleeping through the night became a benchmark of parental success.  The ability to sleep for hours and hours without waking is a sign of a healthy baby, healthy habits, good parenting.  If your baby doesn’t sleep “well,” never fear!  You can take your pick of literally hundreds of sleep training methods (ok, there may not be hundreds, but that sounded better than “literally tens”), peruse thousands of articles on baby sleep, read testimonials on every trademarked program out there (but to find the true secret to its success, first you have to buy the book or DVD).

I get why there is such a demand for these programs, I really do.  But the truth is that we’ve created our own sleep problems with babies through our cultural standards for infant care.  The problem isn’t that babies wake up a lot – they just do, they’re supposed to.  They have tiny tummies, they need to eat frequently.  Even when they get older, frequent waking is assurance that you are still near and they are still protected.  Even the best sleepers will go through phases of frequent waking with every bout of teething and every growth spurt.

Babies are vulnerable, utterly helpless without you – it only makes good sense that they should want you near all the time, and especially at night, when they are especially vulnerable.  Are you still there, mom?  Am I still safe?  Yes, sweetheart, I’m still here.  Back to sleep, now.

For us, that exchange of reassurance takes one or two minutes.  I roll on my side, scoot him in close, latch him on, and then we’re both back in dreamland.

But if you’re like most American families, the baby probably sleeps in his own space, probably in another room.  You probably hear his cries over a monitor, and get out of bed, walk to the other room, pick him up, and nurse or rock him back to sleep before setting him back in the crib and walking back to your room.  I can’t say exactly how long that takes because I’ve never done it…but let’s say 20 minutes.  Let’s say you do that every two hours.  No wonder you’re tired!  Let’s also say that you have a 9-5 job and can’t afford to be a sleep deprived zombie – if that were me I’d be shelling out big bucks and trying every sleep training method available (or maybe hiring a professional sleep consultant – yeah, they exist).

In that situation, something has to give.  It isn’t a sustainable cycle.  The problem, though, is the idea that something is wrong with the baby.  There isn’t.  The baby isn’t broken; the baby is doing exactly what nature intended it to do.

Babies have much faster sleep cycles than adults.  They spend more of their time asleep in vulnerable periods of light sleep where they are easily woken.  Again, as entirely helpless little things, this allows them to be on their guard in a sense, making sure that all is still well.

When mom and baby share a sleep space, mom’s sleep cycles align with the baby’s.  Mom’s sleep cycles shorten and her vulnerable periods coincide with the baby’s.  This means that when the baby wakes up, she isn’t waking up from a dead sleep.  In fact, a lot of cosleeping moms (myself included) report waking up before the baby starts to stir.  And when the baby does wake up, it’s a very fast interaction where I barely need to open my eyes.  I’d say a good portion of night wakings have us back to sleep in under a minute.  The result is that, excepting the worst of teething nights, I wake up refreshed and rested.

Now, shouldn’t that be the mark of sleep success?  A rested family?

I probably don’t need to tell you that sleep methods involving cry-it-out and “self-soothing” techniques (which, for the record, are the same) are potentially harmful to the baby.  That is really fodder for another whole entry.  For now, let’s suffice it to say that thinking about CIO gives me a visceral, stomach-sinking feeling.  Babies shouldn’t be made to cry in distress, for any amount of time, at any age, for any reason – not even if the end result after three days of use is that the baby sleeps for 12 hours.

I’m not trying to say that our way is the best way.  Some babies sleep better in their own space.  I’ve heard of several mothers saying that when they transitioned the baby out of the bed is when they started getting longer stretches.  I’ve considered that, but the cost of a crib and the fact that I can’t lay Felix down without waking him stops me.  I do wish that there weren’t a stigma and so much misinformation about cosleeping; I think more families might choose it as an option and maybe they wouldn’t feel compelled to employ harsh sleep training methods.

Sometimes we have bad nights.  Sometimes in the middle of the night I swear to myself that in the morning, I’m going out and buying a crib and researching sleep programs.  But then I smell his sweet breath and curl him up against me…nope.  I couldn’t give this up, not even for 12 straight hours of sleep.