I believe that kids are born with a certain temperament, or essence.
As soon as each of my boys were born, I saw it. My first son was a feisty, bright, strong-willed baby, and he still is all those things — which makes him totally brilliant and equally infuriating. My second son came out practically smiling, with a twinkle in his eye (that is, the eye that wasn’t sealed shut with newborn goop). He’s still a sparkling, creative, empathetic, rebellious little tyke.
Besides personality, I think babies are born with a certain “sleep temperament.” Yes, there are probably additional factors at play, like how they are fed (breastfed babies do tend to wake more frequently because breastmilk is digested more quickly than formula) and what their sleep associations are. But I also think some babies can figure out how to soothe themselves to sleep more easily than others.
Case in point: I was hanging around some newborns recently (yes, I had to restrain myself from gobbling them up). One baby was lounging on the couch next to her mom. She had just been nursed, was sort of drowsy, but wasn’t quite asleep yet. She lay there, looking at me from across the room, kvetching a little bit, but only slightly. And then — while smiling happily at me — her little eyes started to drop closed, and she fell asleep.
I gasped. I had never seen anything like that before.
I’ve heard the whole, “Put your baby down drowsy, but awake” advice before. That sort of thing was shoved down my throat when I had a newborn. But it never ever worked for my babies. I tried, believe me. I’d nurse them into a stupor, then put them down as slowly and carefully as I could, rubbing their little backs as I went along. But as soon as I put them down, their eyes jolted wide open, and they looked at me as though I’d sprouted three heads.
I asked the mom with the unicorn baby what on earth she had done to make her baby so docile and easily soothed. “Oh, she’s always been like that,” she said. I asked her if she’d sleep-trained her baby. “Nope,” she answered.
This baby had no pacifier, wasn’t sucking her thumb, and was in a room full of chatting grown-ups and babies. Totally astonishing.
On the other extreme, I just recently got to the point when I could put one of my children to bed, tuck him in, and leave the room. He’s 9 (though I’m pretty sure it started happening when he was 7 or 8, I was too exhausted to remember exactly).
I know that some parents choose to sleep train their children. This was a choice that my family never decided to make (it seems to me that it’s a very personal choice). Besides the fact that I can’t tolerate letting a baby cry for any amount of time, I also felt pretty certain that it wouldn’t have worked on my boys, given their sleep temperaments.
And in fact, I have met many babies for whom it didn’t work at all — or it worked for a few months, and then something happened like illness or vacation, and the whole thing went to pits.
So if you are like me, with a baby who never learned to self-soothe on their own, or if you tried to train your baby to do so, but it simply did not work, I want you to know that you are not a failure. It’s hard and it can really suck to have a difficult sleeper, but there is nothing wrong with you or your baby.
Self-soothing is not a requirement for baby sleep. Yes, it can make nighttime easier in many ways. But as exhausting as it can be to lie there in the dark waiting for your kid to unwind — or having to tend to your child in the middle of the night for many months or even years — there are ways to cope.
Take turns doing the bedtime routine with a partner. Co-sleep to make things easier. Take turns sleeping in on weekends. Use the iPad as a babysitter so you can take a nap (there is no shame in this, I assure you). What works for me may not work for you, but if you make self-care a priority, there is a way to catch up on sleep and sanity.
And here’s the most important thing: Even if you never, ever teach your child to self-soothe, it will happen on its own. I can’t tell you when. Hopefully your kid will figure it out a little sooner than mine did. But I guarantee that it will happen. Kids have a natural inclination to be independent.
No one ever goes to college needing their mom to put them to sleep. I guarantee it.