We Don't Need To Change Babies' Sleep Habits, We Need To Change Our Expectations
For seven years, I ran a monthly in-person breastfeeding support group and a Facebook breastfeeding support group. In that time, I answered hundreds of phone calls and emails from new moms.
The questions many moms had definitely pertained to things related to breastfeeding, like whether their baby had a good latch or if they were making enough milk. But they were also concerned about things all new mommies are concerned about, whether they are breastfeeding or not.
They wanted to know whether it was normal for their newborn to only to nap well if they were sleeping directly on their mom or dad. They wanted to know why their three-month old was still waking up at all hours of the night. They wanted to know why their two-month-old only took cat naps. They wanted to know why their 12-month-old still woke up in the middle of the night.
These moms were upset. They were exhausted. They felt unsupported. They thought there was something wrong with their babies. They were taken by surprise by how freaking unpredictable, wakeful, and erratic their babies were acting.
Was it something they were eating? Did their baby have a sleep disorder? Did their baby need to be burped more frequently? Would this sleep training method work? How about this one? Change the bedtime? Change the nap schedule?
I listened to these moms’ concerns. I had them too, when my babies were young. I remember holding my two-month-old in my arms. I was exhausted and desperate. My son would only nap on my chest, and for about 20 minutes at a time. He would only fall asleep if we bounced him on an exercise ball.
All the books and websites and Facebook groups and grandmas said I was doing it wrong, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was failing my baby. The moms I helped heard the same message.
They’d read all the websites with sleep and feeding advice that told new parents that babies were supposed to have clear-cut napping and sleeping schedules by two months old. They’d read the books that predicted when babies were supposed to sleep through the night (by three months, some books said; by six months, said others).
They’d read the books that offered sleep and bedtime schedules. They’d heard the internet advice that warned moms not to set up bad sleep or nap habits and how soothing your baby to sleep would not teach independence. How all you needed to do was x, y, z and you would have a perfectly behaved, well-slept baby in no time.
They came to me during those monthly meetings with tears in their eyes because they felt they’d messed up. No matter what they did, no matter what they tried, their babies did not do what they were supposed to do. They did not sleep. They did not nap. They were not independent.
After I asked them a few basic questions like if their babies were growing well, whether their pediatricians had any concerns about development, etc., I told them the simple truth: Their baby was totally normal. Their baby was acting like a baby. Babies don’t sleep. Their schedules are all over the place. They want to be close to their parents, during the day and at night.
How did I know that? Because I had counseled hundreds and hundreds of moms and the majority of their babies—save for a few unicorn sleepers—acted exactly that way.
And the answer to “what to do” was to ride it out, get as much support as you possibly can, have a healthy sense of humor about it all, and accept that this is your new normal. For now.
For some moms, this was not what they wanted to hear. They wanted a fix. They wanted me to tell them that changing their diets, changing their schedule, using this method or that method was going to be the ticket to a more restful life. They were angry at me for telling them to just go with it, because that was not acceptable to them.
But you know what? The vast majority of mothers breathed a deep sigh of relief. Their babies were normal. There was nothing developmentally wrong with them. They didn’t have to try so hard to fix them. They just needed help and support.
They needed to live like a sleepy person would, to not expect so much of themselves or their babies. Accept more help from partners, friends, family. Stop expecting to live the same life they did before they had kids. Pare down their schedule. Advocate for themselves. Start saying no to the stuff they were too tired to do. Have faith that this all would pass soon, and that everything would be okay.
We would talk a lot about survival. The other moms who had been there before talked about when it got easier for them. Perspective is so important for moms who are exhausted and struggling. They need to know there is an end in sight and what that looks like.
They need support of other moms—not the kind with judgment or suggestions for how to fix things. They needed the kind of advice that goes something like this: “I get it. It’s fucking exhausting. Here’s how to make it through.”
I’m not saying any of this is easy. Maybe you think I’m an asshole for saying this. I also understand how much pressure moms are under these days. So many moms have to go back to work before their babies are sleeping well and it’s unfair that moms are expected to not only work but also hold down the fort at home as well.
There is still so much inequity in the world of work, motherhood, and marriage. There is not enough support out there for moms, families of young kids, and I’m as pissed as anyone about that.
But I also think that having unrealistic expectations about babies is harmful. Yes, sometimes you can “train” babies out of their cat-napping, night-waking, and general finicky-ness. But not all babies take to these methods, leaving moms thinking there is something “wrong” with them. And even the ones who are able to be trained usually need to be retrained periodically: every time they get sick, have a growth spurt, or just decide to change things up for you.
The truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, the period when babies are wakeful and needy is a blip in time. It doesn’t always feel that way at all, but it’s true.
Not only did I observe hundreds of babies who were wakeful and needy and normal, but I saw these babies naturally outgrow these needs. I saw them nap for longer stretches. I saw them sleep through the night. I saw the same babies, who once couldn’t be put down, leap and run out of their parents’ arms when they were ready to.
Imagine how much less stressed moms would be if they knew that their babies are normal, healthy, and fine. I’m not saying moms would magically be well-rested or full of energy. But they would be a whole lot less anxious about whether they had a “good baby,” whether they were a good mom, and whether they were setting up bad habits.
They could start to enjoy the sleepy, fuzzy, wild time of having a newborn. Because it truly does go so fast, and yes, you miss it when it’s gone.
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