Parents, You Will Sleep Again -- But It'll Be A While, Says Science

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

Sleep when baby sleeps. This is the number one piece of advice we get as parents-to-be and new parents. But for those of us with experience, we are well-aware that babies are going to do whatever they want, whenever they want.

I’m sorry to tell you, the bad news doesn’t end there. Because a new study tells us there’s no magical snooze button you can hit during the first six—yes, six!—years of your child’s life. Parental sleep deprivation can last until the child is in elementary school.

I can’t say I’m shocked by this news. My husband and I have four kids ranging from a toddler to a tween. We haven’t had a full night’s sleep since 2008 when our oldest was born.

We are tired. Really, really tired. And I’m guessing you are, too.

You expect sleepless nights when you’re bundle of joy has their days and nights mixed up. Teething and growth spurts are also legitimate reasons to catch a few—or a lot–less z’s. But the reality is, many kids do not sleep through the night well past infant-hood.

Do the long nights suck? You bet. But I suppose it is what it is.

Instead of telling new parents to “sleep when baby sleeps,” I tell them the truth. You’re going to need a lot of java. If you can sneak in a power nap at work, go for it. I won’t tell your boss. And I certainly won’t judge the mom or dad who can’t keep their eyes open during their preschooler’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood binge session.

Daytime parenting is so damn exhausting that most of us walk around with a venti-caffeinated concoction of choice in one hand while pulling along our toddler with the other. But losing out on the re-charging that happens when we sleep? This is a whole new ballgame—sans the beer and nachos.

Our parental fatigue wouldn’t be quite so bad if our little ones woke us up and allowed us to cuddle them back to sleep under the gentle glow of the moonlight streaming through the spotless bedroom window. But let’s be real. We’re not in a diaper commercial. There are no gentle caresses and lullabies. Our pajamas are mismatched and stained with something sticky and brown.

Night-waking is more like the start of a 3 a.m. party—without the vodka or club music. Your toddler has a blow-out diaper. The kind where you contemplate setting the sheets on fire. Your preschooler has an epic nightmare, no thanks to your partner who adamantly claimed that watching Us wasn’t that scary. Your kindergartner picked up the stomach bug from the babysitter’s. Or perhaps, there’s no clear catalyst. Your kid just wants to be up.

Congrats, parents. You’re going to be awake for hours, burning the midnight oil.

A few of my friends have resorted to giving their kids melatonin to induce sleep. Like other parents, we’ve tried lavender lotion, a weighted blanket, nightlights in every outlet, Epsom salt baths before bed, and zen-like music playing softly in the background. Maybe some warm milk?

Some parents resort to putting junior in the car and driving him around until he falls asleep. But of course, when you park the minivan, his eyes fly open and he’s ready for round two. Party central.

You can try cutting back nap time, a gentle massage, or reading the world’s most boring bedtime story, but the likelihood of you falling asleep in your little angel’s toddler bed is 1000%. You will then awake at midnight with a stiff neck and back, and attempt to slink out of your child’s bedroom. You will fail, because your kiddo will immediately sense you are no longer there and begin to wail, threatening to wake up the other members of the household, the neighbors, and God.

I swear my kids have this invisible baton they pass between them. Whoever has the baton that night has vowed to wake us sometime between midnight and five. The reason may vary. Bad dream. Needs a drink of water. Has to poop. Heard a scary noise. Wants to know what’s for dinner–14 hours from now.


I don’t care what over-priced, promising essential oil you put in the diffuser. Your kid is probably not going to sleep.

So what can we do? You probably aren’t going to like this hard truth, but I’m going to say it anyway. Parents, we need to accept the reality. Some of our kids are going to struggle to sleep all night, for many years, and we need to roll with it rather than fight it.

If that means sleeping in your preschooler’s bed with her until she’s headed to first grade, do it. If it means you and your partner create a calendar of who gets up with the kids on certain nights, schedule away. If you have to keep buying pull-ups for your five-year-old to prevent middle-of-the-night bed-wetting and subsequent night-waking, stock up.

Do what you need to do to, ensuring the fam gets as much shut-eye as possible. And know that you aren’t alone. There are many of us wading through this long season of life. Don’t freak when your first-time-mom-friend boasts that her two-month-old is sleeping through the night already. Her baby is not the norm.

This too shall pass. And until it does, there’s always coffee and under-eye cream.

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