Neither of my two boys slept much for their first few years of life. I mean, they slept, but there was a ton of night waking, early wake-ups, and abysmally late nights. Neither kid really slept through the night, at least consistently, until they were four years old (yep, you read that right!).
I was pretty much the poster child of sleep deprivation for almost a decade. It was really rough, to say the least.
When my first was little, I remember doing a lot of desperate complaining about what was happening – with family, other moms on the playground, and online. Sometimes I’d do so hoping that someone would give me the magic ticket toward getting my son to sleep.
But I soon realized that there wasn’t really much I could do to improve the sleep situation. Any kind of gentle sleep training had horribly failed, and wasn’t really something I was interested in pursuing further.
And yet any time I mentioned the fact that my son didn’t sleep soundly for eight hours in a row, all I got was more advice.
Have you tried a white noise machine? Is the room too cold? Do you have a soothing bedtime routine? Cut out dairy! Lavender oil on the feet before bed will do the trick! Etc., etc., etc.
The truth was, I was already stressed the eff out about how tired I was, and offering more solutions – most of which I knew would do nothing – was depressing and frustrating.
I ended up getting super freaking annoyed and made it a rule not to talk about sleep with other parents. I realized there were very few friends who I could simply complain to — who would listen without judgment and who wouldn’t dish out more advice. These friends became my besties, and I still consider them some of my most cherished mom friends today.
Those sleep deprived years are past me now, but I remember how lost and confused I felt about the whole sleep advice thing – which is why I was super excited when I recently came across an Instagram post directed toward sleep deprived moms that offers the advice I wish I’d had all those years ago.
A doula and “birth planning expert” named Peta Tuck wrote the post and shared it on her Instagram. I swear, it’s one of the most refreshing takes on sleep ever.
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I saw today a Mum, an exhausted-clutching-at-straws Mum reaching out for help in a Facebook group. . “Help! My baby wakes frequently over night, I need help. I need him to sleep.” . It’s something I see over and over again. Gosh, it’s something I have felt in every inch of my sleep deprived self before and I felt so deeply for this Mum. . Everyone quickly commented with solutions from ‘sleep training’, swaddling, stopping breastfeeding, hotter room, colder room…the list really goes on. . Do you see what’s wrong with the picture here? . We -yes! Us, you, me, your sister, your friend and strangers – think our babies are broken and they need to be fixed because they wake frequently or feed often or just aren’t doing what we are ‘told’ they should be. . I get it, sleep deprivation is a killer. This is in no way throwing shade at a Mum who wants sleep either. . But, if you look deeper into this, we (as a messed up society!) put so much pressure on a fresh little human to fit in. We want the baby to change their instinctual behaviours because we have been told or think they ‘should’ be doing something. . But imagine this – instead of ‘fixing’ the poor sleeping, we left baby as they are and doing everything they NEED but we cared for the Mother and her needs to instead of focusing on what the baby is doing. YES, I said WE. You know, the village, the tribe, what communities should be. Not this secretive, often judgment filled world we live in today. . So on those days, weeks or months Mum isn’t sleeping well, people are rallying behind her supporting her. So there is no pressure or frustration on the sleepless nights to function and have your sh** together the next day because your village has your back. . Can you imagine the stress this would reduce from almost every mums life? . So next time someone asks for help, don’t try and fix the little human just wanting their needs met – HELP. THE. MOTHER. Support her. Be her village.
Tuck begins with an anecdote about an “an exhausted-clutching-at-straws” mom who posted on Facebook looking for help. “Help! My baby wakes frequently over night, I need help. I need him to sleep,” the mom wrote.
Pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a totally exhausted mom, right? “It’s something I see over and over again,” Tuck wrote. “Gosh, it’s something I have felt in every inch of my sleep deprived self before and I felt so deeply for this Mum.”
As expected, the mom received the cursory list of things to do to make her baby sleep better (sleep training, swaddling, change the temperature in the room, etc.).
And that’s where Tuck’s refreshing perspective came in.
“Do you see what’s wrong with the picture here?” she wrote. “We […] think our babies are broken and they need to be fixed because they wake frequently or feed often or just aren’t doing what we are ‘told’ they should be.”
Tucks blames society’s unrealistic expectations about baby sleep on this – the idea that babies are somehow “broken” when it comes to sleep, even though they are biologically and instinctually programed to wake and eat very frequently.
Tuck is totally right about this. Just as babies aren’t born knowing how to walk or talk, they aren’t developmentally ready to sleep deeply and soundly or all night for months or years. Babies have shorter sleep cycles, they don’t enter deep sleep as often as adults, and they don’t know how to put themselves back to sleep as easily as we do.
Need further evidence? A study published in Developmental Psychology found that night waking at six months and even 24 months old is very common and normal. And a Swiss study found that night waking was also common among 3- and 4-year-olds.
Tuck’s solution to sleep deprivation is just as refreshing as her critique of the unhelpful advice moms usually get.
Here’s her proposal: What if we shifted focus off of what is wrong with the baby and what needs to be fixed and instead focused on how we could nurture moms through those harried, desperate sleep-deprived days?
Tuck suggests that we – the village, so to speak – come together to support moms when they are dealing with babies who aren’t sleeping well. Although she doesn’t give concrete suggestions, mine would be to bring that mom a home-cooked meal, come over and straighten up her house, or even offer to hold her baby for a few hours while she lies down or takes an uninterrupted shower.
But if those things aren’t possible, just sharing compassion and empathy instead of more advice is just as vital for struggling moms. There should be “no pressure or frustration on the sleepless nights to function and have your sh** together the next day,” writes Tuck.
Yep: we need to expect that new moms look and act tired, and accept that their houses will not be immaculate for a few years. Perfection needs to get thrown out the window and we all need to give sleepy moms a whole lot of grace.
Obviously, if a mom is expressly asking for sleep advice and solutions, then by all means, share your secrets. But remember that most moms know what options are out there to try – they’ve heard them ad nauseum – and that often, moms are just looking for encouragement for how to get through each exhausting day, not necessarily how to fix things.
Again, it’s all about supporting that mom – mothering the mother – so that she can be the best parent she can be, and so that she can take care of herself, too.
“Next time someone asks for help,” writes Tuck. “Don’t try and fix the little human just wanting their needs met — HELP. THE. MOTHER. Support her. Be her village.”
And if you are a tired mom out there, knee-deep in the kind of sleep deprivation and walking around like a zombie, know that it’s only temporary. No matter what you do, all kids sleep eventually. I promise.