Fight club rules.
This is what I tell parents who begin to talk to me about how their babies are sleeping through the night. I know you don’t mean anything by it. I know you are just proud of your little guy or gal. You are proud of the systems you put in place to make it happen. You are proud of how much you can get done because you have your evenings to yourself. Maybe you even want to share with me how I can make my life better by helping my kids to do the same. Thank you for that.
But seriously, fight club rules. We do not talk about baby sleep. It is rule No. 1, and if you want to be in this little club of ours, you need to shut that well-rested mouth of yours.
Sleep, particularly baby sleep, is one of those topics on which everyone has an opinion, and one on which too many want to share that opinion. I believe my child was still covered in birth goo, in fact, when the first stranger asked me, “So…how is he sleeping?”
And because he was so new and I, too, was probably still covered in goo and wanting to escape any human interaction as quickly as possible, I answered honestly, “Oh, he wakes every hour.”
Rookie move, Mom. Because this brand of truth opens the door to all of the opinions.
“You need to nip that in the bud.”
“You’re not co-sleeping, are you?”
“Get him in his own room.”
“Put his crib in your room.”
“Put him on his belly.”
“Make sure you’re not putting him on his belly!”
“You need to let him cry.”
“You need to let him cry.”
“You need to let him cry.”
As an experienced mom of three kids with three very different sleep preferences and three very different sleep experiences, it is easy now for me to filter through the content or even just completely ignore it. But as a new mom, well, each and every bit of advice offered was the possible hidden holy grail suggestion that was going to make my little guy sleep.
I was tired. No, I was exhausted. Nursing issues demanded I feed on both sides and then pump on both sides every two hours around the clock. And little man just didn’t sleep unless he was cradled in Mommy’s arms while being bounced on the giant exercise ball that my burning thighs and I would have liked to throw from the balcony of our apartment building.
I was already co-sleeping. I was wearing him throughout the day to fill his “love tank” (Thank you, Dr. Sears). I was feeding him on demand and infant massaging and practicing a nighttime routine and room-sharing and then bed-sharing, and then putting him in his own room and being patient through this “phase” of sleeplessness. I read the books on gentle sleep training and attachment and soothing. But my baby did not sleep.
The only advice I had yet to try was the piece of advice that kept coming at me: Let him cry. It is what had to be done.
I have friends who looked forward to the day they would start sleep training. They are not mean people. In fact, they are amazing parents. They are loving and organized and thoughtful. I wanted to be those people. I told my husband we were going to do it. I told my family I was going to do it. I discussed it with my friends and moms at the playground and possibly the UPS guy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and talking about it, and at night when I was alone with my baby and nursing him in my bed, I cried about it — a lot. And I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And I felt like a complete and total failure.
One day, a few months after my son was born, I headed out solo for lunch with my girlfriends. My husband and my son were going to spend a few hours together, and while I was nervous because my son and I were never apart for more time than it took for me to take the world’s fastest shower every few days (you know how it goes), I knew I needed some time with grown-ups and my husband needed to bond with his boy.
I imagined his afternoon looking much like mine did five days a week: Put baby in stroller to go for a walk. Take three steps outside of elevator before baby starts screaming to be held. Bring baby and stroller back upstairs to ditch stroller. Realize baby has stinky diaper. Change baby. Consider going back downstairs to carry baby on a walk. Realize how much time has passed and that it’s time to for baby to eat again. Feed baby. Accept that you are too exhausted to go outside now and watch a rerun of Real Housewives while walking baby in circles around the couch instead.
Thus, one can imagine the shock I felt when my husband responded to my 16th “How’s it going?” text of the afternoon with, “Good. The baby is asleep in his crib.”
Elation. Joy. Immense love and pride in my husband and son ensued. Together, they cracked the code. The baby was napping in his crib, and it would provide much-needed rest time for both of them and for me when I was able to replicate the very same actions and get my child to nap.
“And he only cried for like 20 minutes.”
Sadness. Guilt. Immense and possibly murderous anger ensued. He had let him cry it out. Sure, I told him that I was going to do it, but I had changed my mind! And we hadn’t done it the right way — the way the books said to do it! And I hadn’t been there, and I wasn’t emotionally ready and the baby had cried for 20 minutes! We may as well have dropped him on a cold and empty island with no one to care for him for a week. Cruel! My husband was cruel!
Here’s the thing: My kid survived it. (My husband survived it as well.) And I would love to say that I springboarded from this successful nap to train my baby to sleep soundly through the night and take normal naps in his crib while I actually had an hour to clean or cook or shower, but I didn’t. We didn’t. My baby slept for less than the time it took for him to cry himself to sleep. My husband saw in my intensity and desperation that crying it out was not for me, not for us. And I realized I had no intention of sleep training my baby.
Parenting is as emotionally charged as it is exhausting and wonderful. It is the task we take most seriously and that which we throw our whole selves into. To assume there is only one way to do it is ludicrous. I do not assume you will feed your baby in any certain way. I do not assume you must diaper your baby in any certain way. I do not think there is one way to hold your baby or soothe your baby or teach your baby or love your baby. So please stop assuming that there is only way to handle my child’s sleep.
My baby, the one who made me a mom, will be 5 in a few months. And there have been two more babies since then. One of those babies was a sleeper who loved his crib. One of those babies catches a nap when and where she can and spends her nights curled up in bed with her parents. They sleep through the night a lot of times. They wake up for water, or an accident, or a bad dream many times.
I am right now sitting in a master bedroom with three mattresses in it because my kids have been begging for a family sleepover party and so that’s what we did. I am still tired. I still sometimes wish I had been able to let my kids cry it out so they would have slept through the night sooner. But mostly, I have finally accepted that there is nothing wrong with how I handled my babies’ sleep.
This is how we sleep. This is how we parent. This is how we are growing together as a family. And I love it. And you may not, but the thing is, I will never know because we do not talk about sleep.