When my first son was a baby and a toddler, I think I spent approximately 7 million minutes of my life trying to get him to fall the eff to sleep. I nursed him, shushed him, walked him, left the room to let him work it out on his own, told him long elaborate stories, sang to him … you get the picture.
Thankfully, I had help. My husband and I would switch off during bedtime. He’d bounce our son on an exercise ball, then I’d nurse him for a bit. He’d walk him in the baby carrier, then I’d cuddle him and pat his back.
It was a two-person job and it sometimes lasted hours.
No matter what we did — tired him out during the day, set regular nap and bedtime routines, limited sugar — he fought sleep. Mightily. Passionately. The kid hated to fall asleep. His body seemed to flat out reject it. His eyes were permanently on the “wide open” setting, his brain was always buzzing.
Though it was always “a thing,” it wasn’t awful every single night, thank GAWD. And once he fell asleep, he slept pretty well. It was the unwinding that was hard for him.
The thing was, when he was a little, it was easy to blame myself for his struggles. I thought maybe I wasn’t properly unwinding him somehow. Maybe I was stressing him out. Maybe I wasn’t disciplining him enough.
He was a healthy, happy kid, but I worried there was something wrong that I hadn’t figured out. And of course, I blamed myself for whatever it was, because that’s what mothers do, huh? Especially when it comes to things like shitty sleepers.
Flash forward five years and I had a second son. To be honest, one of the reasons I waited five years between my kids was because of how intense my first son was, and how little sleep and rest I’d gotten since he was born.
I sort of assumed my second son would be exactly the same as my first son when it came to sleep — because, clearly, however your kids turn out when it comes to sleep, it’s mama’s doing.
Imagine my surprise when this second son of mine had almost no issues falling asleep. Sure, he liked a cuddle or nursing session to get him drowsy, but once we were in the zone, he’d fall asleep quickly and easy.
And he’s been the same way to this day.
Now let me tell you: we did the same exact things with our two kids when it came to sleep. We err on the side of crunchy. So I nursed them each for a few years, let them sleep in my bed for as long as they wanted (and I could stand it!), and lay with them until they fell asleep.
But my first son still takes forever to unwind, and my second son is out like a light as soon as his head hits the pillow.
Now, I’m not a sleep scientist or anything, but I’m officially going to let myself off the hook about “causing” my first kid to be a difficult sleeper. And I’m going to go ahead and theorize that just like personality traits and general temperaments, our kids are born with certain “sleep temperaments.”
I’ve seen it beyond my own kids too — friends of mine who also parent their kids similarly when it comes to sleep, and have a mishmash of easy sleepers and more difficult ones. Like me, they feel like their kids were just born this way, and nothing they really did could alter things that much.
It’s kind of like how there are night owls and morning people. There are kids who you wish came with an “off” switch at bedtime, and kids who are like, “Sleep? Sign me up!” And there’s everything in between, too.
Once you realize this, you can stop blaming yourself for how crappy your kid sleeps. It’s glorious when that happens, because we moms walk around with too much damn guilt as it is.
Not only that, but once you realize that your up-all-night kid was just born with a more challenging sleep temperament, you can stop blaming them too — and start helping them sleep better.
My first son is older now, and getting to sleep is still sometimes a major challenge for him. My goal lately has been to help him accept that about himself, not beat himself up too much when it takes a long time to unwind, and utilize whatever tools that are out there to help him.
Every kid is different, but “helping” might involve meditation, soothing music, white noise, a parent lying down with you. I’m not going to judge anyone who resorts to melatonin now and then … that stuff is the bomb.
I really feel for anyone who has a shitty sleeper, and I know that it’s not just self-critique that can bring you down. Everyone and their mother has advice to offer you when you complain about your crap sleeper. And don’t forget about the Judgy McJudgersons out there who think all your kid needs is a consistent bedtime or some lavender essential oil (if only if were that easy, Karen).
You can totally try all the sleep advice out there — and hey, some of it might work! But accepting the fact that you were just blessed with a less-than-stellar sleeper is what saved me, and might just save you too.