Recently, Kveller has been running a series of posts with professional sleep coach Batya Sherizen, in which she answers readers’ questions about issues they are having with their children’s sleep. I’m not a professional sleep coach and I respect people like Batya, but there are actually other perspectives on sleep, and I wanted to share some of the “other side.” I speak from the perspective of someone who got (free) sleep advice from people who don’t support sleep training and I also come from my training as a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor. Some of us don’t prescribe to sleep training, especially for the first year, and especially if you are breastfeeding. Here’s why.
I wrote a book a few years ago called Beyond the Sling. It was a very straightforward, very honest, very accurate portrayal of what Attachment Parenting looked like in my home. More specifically, there were chapters on my experiences with natural birth and homebirth, breastfeeding on demand as well as extended breastfeeding, not using harsh discipline or punitive discipline, the magic of baby-wearing, and other such enthralling AP-related topics.
And of course there was a chapter on sleep. Sleep training and sleep management is one of the most profitable and difficult topics for new parents. I chose to safely co-sleep with my sons, participating in the subset of co-sleeping known as bed-sharing. That means my sons and I shared–and still share on many nights–a sleeping surface. As I discuss in my book, this arrangement is not for everyone and it is most certainly not for people who cannot or will not abide by the rules of safe co-sleeping. However, from my experience as a mother of two breastfeeding and securely attached children, as well as a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor (C.L.E.C.), I have a lot of things to say about babies and sleep.
Here are the reasons why I don’t believe in sleep training. If you want to be conservative about the matter, these beliefs of mine hold most strongly for children under 6 months of age.
Disclaimer: There is an anecdotal exception to everything I am going to say and I promise you that it is not necessary to comment and “dislike”on this article because your particular situation negates everything I have said. I understand that there are single women with no family and no friends and no one able to help them, and I understand that for many women, not sleeping eight hours straight is not something they are ever interested in participating in, even if they are told it’s best for their babies to wake up at night. I am not speaking to extraordinary situations when I talk about handling night waking; I am trying to appeal to the women who have the resources and support and ability to shift their perspectives to garner support from others and believe in their instinct as mothers to care for their new babies.
That being said.
1. Night waking is normal.
We’re four words in to the “meat” of my post and already every tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated mom of a baby is rolling her eyes at me. I know it doesn’t help to hear that waking throughout the night and sometimes every hour or two is normal, but it simply is, especially for a baby in the first three months of life. It’s biologically normal and healthy in fact. I’m not insinuating that you need to “get over it,” but I’m kind of insinuating that you need to get over it.
Maybe you had previous babies who slept really nicely from the first week on and this other baby of yours is frequently waking up at night. They’re all different and in the scope of normal healthy mammalian development, waking at night ensures appropriate bonding, appropriate intake of breastmilk, and a replenishing of the hormones in both baby and mother that make the baby/mother dyad work. If you don’t tend to a baby’s all night needs, do you fail as a mother? No. Does your baby suffer permanent trauma? No. But what if as a culture, we were told what normal is rather than being told our babies are manipulating us? Imagine if we didn’t birth babies only to fight with them over their normal needs? Imagine all the people living life in peace!
2. Babies don’t have a schedule.
As my La Leche League leader told me time and again (I was not always a good listener and sometimes I was calling her after sleeping a combined three hours in a 12-hour stretch so it bore repeating), babies don’t need schedules. We as adults need schedules.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a pattern or rhythm in the early months and I applaud those of you who find a pattern or rhythm and can maintain it. Every time I thought I figured out my boys’ rhythms, they seemed to change them on me and the pattern was what you’d expect from high-needs babies: lots of holding, feeding, soothing, and napping, but never for more than 20 minutes ever unless my nipple was in their mouth. Know that any desire that you have for a rhythm, a routine, or a schedule will be met by resistance from your baby because there was no schedule in the womb and they don’t need one. And as we discuss above, that’s just normal.
3. An upset baby is upsetting.
One of the most disturbing sounds to a new mother is the sound of her baby crying. Just like Nature made babies wide-eyed and generally “coochy coo” adorable, Nature designed it so that mammal mothers would drop everything to tend to their crying baby. Any sleep training or sleep modification regimen that involves your baby crying and you not tending to it is going against your natural mammalian wiring.
Similarly, any time you become immune to those cries, you are pushing down a very strong hormonally primed instinct to protect and help your baby and that’s kind of sad to me. Does this mean that if you choose to sleep train your infant, you are a bad mom? No. Does it mean you are no longer a mammal? Still no. Does it mean that it will be extremely difficult and heart wrenching to endure your baby crying? Yes. And should that make you think twice? Perhaps.
4. Perspective is everything.
Most of the time that I speak to new mothers of frequently waking babies, they are sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and uninformed about the scientific basis for their baby’s night waking. I’ve been there myself and I recall one of my early parenting mentor’s advice. My friend Allison told me: “Stop looking at the clock. Stop counting how many times he wakes up. Turn the clock around. Unplug the clock.”
Once I was able to “give up” trying to win this battle with my baby and just do this, I literally was able to release the death grip I had on the way I thought things “should be” and was able to accept things the way they were. It’s not easy to force yourself to think differently, but it’s not impossible. It’s not only for rich people or white people or women with nannies (which I’ve never used). It’s also not only for women whose husbands help them care for their children and it’s not only for women who are at-home moms.
I had my first son as a graduate student and was editing my thesis with him on my body for months. No housekeeper, no one cooking my meals, no one watching my baby ever but me. All day and all night. Being “Blossom” didn’t give me any more ability to do this than anyone; I was a normal struggling exhausted mom who decided to shift my perspective so that I could stop fighting my baby. Shifting your expectations, having realistic expectations, and knowing when to stop fighting with a newborn are all things that are within every woman’s power to do.
5. Again, night waking is normal.
As Batya discusses in her many responses here on Kveller, there are techniques and ways to shift sleep patterns for older children. If reward and punishment fits into your style of parenting, that can often be used “effectively” to gain your desired nighttime outcome; it’s not my style personally.
Before 6 months of age, however, I simply don’t understand the need to fight with a baby over their normal and natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness. Many of us have handled night wakings with no night nanny, no relief in the morning from parents or in-laws, and no rest for the weary. I know many women make parenting choices based on their need for happiness. Many women say: “I can’t be a good mother if I’m so sleep-deprived.” While I acknowledge that that’s true, I also advocate for women shifting their perspective with the help of like-minded moms, scaling down on other commitments and lifestyle choices that take time away from you replenishing your resources, the support of organizations such as La Leche League International, and the tremendous resources available on the internet.
For a gentle method of changing the pattern in the family bed for babies over 12 months, I highly recommend this article by Dr. Jay Gordon. And for even more information, check out the La Leche League book Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family, which I wrote the forward to.