I haven’t wanted to write another post about sleep. It’s a loaded topic and I wasn’t sure I could convey my feelings accurately. I also didn’t want to be another voice in the sea of advice that is given to parents, as loving and caring as most advice is. Sleep, or lack thereof, is an overwhelmingly popular topic of conversation in the baby world. First-time parents expect to be tired when their newborn arrives, but nothing can prepare you for how the sleep deprivation will truly feel (well, besides getting a puppy, perhaps). And when you’re deep in the sleepless days, it’s difficult to trust that you will ever sleep solidly again, even when you are reassured of the fact. Sleep is a big deal. It is crucial to keeping everyone happy and healthy, and it’s a tricky one because babies’ sleeping habits change all the time, as they go through developmental leaps and grow teeth and get sick… and each family contains multiple individuals with different personalities and schedules, attempting to co-exist in harmony. What worked for one family, therefore, may not work for another. And though we may acknowledge these differences, when we are tired and hormonal, we don’t always respond the way we should when receiving advice (even if the advice is respectful and legitimately helpful, and even if we asked/begged for it), which is to take the ideas that resonate with you and tune out the rest. It is very easy to compare your baby and feel like you’re doing something wrong. Joan was never a baby to happily drift off to sleep on her own, Ben and I were always keenly assisting her, and very few of the tricks people suggested worked for us, which made me feel worse. This is why I have been hesitant to share more of our sleep story, as I don’t want anyone to compare their baby or question their gut, because that’s your guide, not me. You can learn very useful tips from gentle parenting books, like those written by Pinky McKay (clearly I’m a fan of gentle methods, here), such as learning how to swaddle and rock your baby, and encouraging a night-time routine. But you need to implement these strategies alongside the knowledge that your baby is unique and they may not take to these suggestions in the manner, time-frame or consistency that other babies do.
When Joan was around seven weeks old, I attended a New Parent Group session that was run by my local council. The topic was sleep – what was good and healthy sleep behaviour, and what not to do. As I stood in the circle, rocking and feeding my baby to sleep, I learnt that you shouldn’t rock or feed your baby to sleep. I understand where this thinking comes from, I do. It is GREAT if you can put babies down happily in their bassinet/cot when they’re drowsy yet still awake, so they learn to fall asleep on their own and don’t wake up going, “Hang on, where am I? Where’s my mum, I was just snuggling her!?!”, but that was never, ever going to happen for us without Joan screaming, and my instinct was to not put her through that distress, so we didn’t. Much advice given to new parents aims to help them survive those early, gruelling days and acknowledges the fact that many mothers won’t be staying home with their babies as long as previous generations (the going back to work thing is another loaded topic, and I won’t get into that now. I’ll simply say, wouldn’t it be great if we were all able to choose whether we wanted to go back to work or stay at home with our children, and for that choice to be properly supported by society and each other?) These days, many families have two working parents because they want to and/or they have to, and a baby who sleeps independently will be supportive of this. However, it was absolutely the wrong advice for Joan and I, and I left the session feeling ashamed and conflicted. I was vulnerable and lacked the wisdom that comes with time, when you see that eventually it all works out and none of the things you did in the early days spoiled your baby.
As Joan has grown, I’ve become more protective of her privacy. I post few shots of her face and I pause before sharing too much of what she says and does, even though I want to scream it loud and proud, because she’s so darn amazing. I adore seeing other families on Instagram, and if my gut told me to keep sharing lots of photographs of her cute little face I would, but it’s not. She’s not a baby anymore, she’s a little girl, and I’m feeling the pull to protect. Me? I’ll keep writing and sharing because it makes me happy, but her? That’s Joan’s call now. Despite all of this, Ben and I are very happy to flow freely on the topic of sleep and gentle parenting methods. The sleep stuff, especially newborn sleep, is less about personality anyway, and more about basic, primal needs. I think the main reason I started sharing my thoughts on the matter is simply because it was a big part of my life, as I wore Joan in a sling/carrier for practically all her naps until she was 14 months old. And it turns out that by sharing our reality, Joan and I have helped normalise the fact that some babies require a lot of assistance and patience when it comes to sleep. I think bubba will be chuffed to learn the number of mothers who have been in contact with me to say, thanks. I know I’m chuffed, because goodness me, I was not prepared for this. I thought babies just slept in a cot when they were tired. Right? Isn’t that what babies do? I know that some bubbas do actually sleep this way, however I now also know that some need a little more help, and some need a lot more help, and that is totally normal. And so I share, because I remember how it felt to see pictures of babies sleeping blissfully in cots and feel like a failure. I share to help shine light at the end of the tunnel, because as lovely as baby-wearing and non-stop sleep snuggling is, you don’t want to have to do it forever, nor do you want to waste those precious moments worrying that you’re doing something wrong. I share so that others will feel reassured that by responding to your child’s needs, you are not creating bad habits, you’re actually helping them thrive.
This post is a long one. Too long, probably. And while I did edit it down, in the end I decided to stop cutting the content. As I said, sleep is a big deal, and to share only part of our story is misleading. So, this will be a two parter. To those with babies who happily sleep independently, don’t worry about reading this post, read something else. And to those with wakeful babies who are requiring a lot of patience, please don’t hope for bundles of helpful tips. I’m not an expert, I have only one experience and you and I (and our babies) will be different. But I’m sharing our story all the same, in the hope that it feels like a giant hug of recognition and reassurance to those who may need it.