A guttural newborn cry jolted me awake. As I attempted to roll over toward the bassinet, I found myself barricaded by my son on the right and my daughter on the left. At six and eight years old, their tangled limbs and warm midnight snuggles had always brought me joy. The family bed was a lovely idea when there were four of us. But by the time my third child arrived this past July, I quickly realized our sleep habits needed a significant overhaul. Three kids felt like ten compared to having two; the pandemic was still seemingly going nowhere, and infant care in my mid-30s turned out to zap my energy a lot harder than in my early-to-mid 20s.
For years now, our two oldest children have drifted to sleep in their separate beds with two important caveats: we lie down with them until they fall asleep, and they are welcome into our bed if they wake during the night. Some nights, this was my husband’s only opportunity for one-on-one connection or even seeing them at all after a long day of work. Other nights, I rage-texted my friends while I watched the hours slip away.
Sleep choices can be highly personal, and parents tend to enter conversations about them with trepidation, careful not to cast judgment on different perspectives accidentally. I didn’t set out to parent with any specific rigid philosophy; co-sleeping and room sharing were just what made sense to us at the time. Nap times with my first two were equal parts extra bonding time and maddening exercises that demanded Herculean reservoirs of patience. I remember handing my toddler a tablet and pleading with her – to no avail – to be quiet so I could get her baby brother down, preparing yet again for an hour-long nursing session. But as my children grew and stopped napping, our sleep arrangements solidified, and we fell into a happy rhythm. I wasn’t prepared for how much adding a baby to the mix would be like pulling out the wrong Jenga block.
Welcoming a fifth member to our family presented two significant hurdles: there would be no more room in our king-sized bed for anyone to crawl in to finish out their sleep, and the unknowns of the pandemic likely meant I’d be at home with all three kids by myself often. I needed the ability to be present for my older ones. My kids have already lost so much in the pandemic; I can’t also take away all of my attention and time from them, I thought. As I sat upstairs each nap attempt, nursing and rocking the baby to sleep, I could feel my anxiety swell as the noise and bickering emanated from below. I yearned to run around outside with them, play games, engage in activities that left us short of breath from laughter. They longed to feel connected, to have a mom who could say “yes” again.
Nighttime was even more harrowing. Once the baby was finally asleep, I often only had time for one bedtime story before the cries down the hall meant she needed help again. And so it went around the clock, each waking meant hours spent nursing, rocking, and shushing. The older two were still attempting to sneak in, protesting the loss of their time in the big bed. No one in the house was getting the sleep they needed. The situation was untenable. With our pediatrician’s assurance that the baby was now old enough to go longer between feeds, I knew I needed to try something different.
That’s when I remembered sleep consultants. Previously, I had rejected the concept of sleep training entirely. But I wasn’t aware that consultants offered individualized plans or personalized coaching. During a nursing and Instagram-scrolling session, I stumbled across the account of an upbeat and encouraging woman named Chloe. “Wait, babies have different sleep cycles than the rest of us?” I asked myself, browsing her feed. Why wasn’t this something our pediatrician’s office had ever spoken to us about? In my experience, postpartum and newborn checkups tended to go as follows: “How many hours is the baby sleeping and eating? Are they sleeping on their back on a separate, firm surface with nothing in their crib?” I would lie and answer yes to the second question, too sleep-deprived and wracked with guilt that, no, actually, the baby won’t sleep unless they are on my chest, and it’s the only way I get any sleep either.
After some coaching, I was ready to try placing my baby down awake for the first time.
After some trial and error, I finally achieved something I never thought possible: one of my babies fell asleep on their own after a few minutes of light fussing. It turns out that I don’t align with the phrase “sleep training” too well. I much prefer what Chloe calls “sleep coaching,” or as I have come to see it, sleep learning: a collaborative, respectful process between baby and caregiver. In the process, I learned that I could do this, too. I don’t have to be afraid or let my anxiety run our household. I don’t have to neglect my other kids or my interests and responsibilities to focus on the baby’s sleep needs. Most importantly, I have found that a structured sleep schedule provides my children with something I thought the pandemic had stolen entirely: a routine, predictability, and a larger capacity for patience.
Molly Wadzeck Kraus is a freelance writer and mother of three. Born and raised in Waco, Texas, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked in animal rescue and welfare for many years. She writes essays and poems about feminism, mental health, parenting, pop culture, and politics. She is usually late because she stopped to pet a dog. She tweets at @mwadzeckkraus.
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