Up all night?

For the parents of a new baby, sleep—or lack thereof—is a serious issue. “Sleep now, while you still can!” wrote a coworker in my office baby shower card. “I haven’t had a full night of sleep since my daughter was born 18 months ago,” confided an acquaintance on Facebook in response to a question about sleep training. “Have you written about sleep yet?” asked an exhausted friend, mother of a sleep-resistant four-month-old, when I told her about writing this column. 

I’ve always loathed the “You just won’t understand until you’re a parent!” attitude that is frequently lobbed at the child-free among us, but it’s kind of true when it comes to the issue of sleep. While I’ve struggled off and on with insomnia since childhood and have long had a personal understanding of the suffering that comes with sleep deprivation, there is just something extra special about chronic sleeplessness when there’s a baby in the mix.  

Setting expectations

Many people have strong opinions about babies and sleep, and if you have a new baby, they will probably want to share them with you. From hard-core cry-it-out enthusiasts (“I let him scream all night, for eight hours…for two weeks…and it worked!”) to anti-cry-it-out evangelists (who argue that cry-it-out can lead to “health and coping problems in childhood and even adulthood…”) and everything in between, everyone has a different approach—and they will likely try to convert you to their way of thinking. 

From personal experience, I suggest that you largely tune out their advice and follow mine, which is to keep it simple and surround yourself with support and smart people. For me, one of those people was Sara Pearce, founder of Amma Parenting Center and the facilitator of my “new mama” class. “Parent the baby in your arms, not the baby in your head,” is one of her favorite mantras. Whenever I was up at 4:00 a.m., bouncing my wailing, colicky, not-sleeping infant and starting to think enviously of the other quiet, compliant babies from class, I would remind myself of this wise advice.   

Getting back to bed

Yet, there is no need to set aside your dreams of a full eight hours (or more) of sleep, although some parents will tell you horror stories (again, ignore them). In my case, young Lydia was sleeping through the night by about six months. (By “through the night” I mean at least 10 hours in a row.) How did this happen?

To be honest, the details are a little fuzzy (I was pretty tired). But I know for a fact that we didn’t follow any specific “sleep training” methodology. We basically just followed a few suggestions that I gathered from my classes. We focused on interpreting Lydia’s subtle “I’m tired” cues and then put her in her crib and crossed our fingers. FYI: when an infant is tired, she doesn’t just grab a novel and flop down into bed. Sleep cues for a baby can be tricky—she might stare off into space, avoid your gaze, or get some redness around the eyes. Once she’s yawning and rubbing her eyes, you’d better rush her off to the bassinet.

And for the most part, our non-method worked! We’d put her down in bed, maybe placing a hand on her for 30 seconds or so, and then creep out of her (pitch black, white noise-enhanced) room. Occasionally she would whimper a bit, but she’d usually calm down and fall asleep on her own after a few minutes. After three months of colicky madness, it was a revelation! 

Pamela Druckerman writes about a similar approach in her book about French parenting, Bringing up Bébé. She describes “the pause,” when French parents step back and wait a few moments before responding to their baby—giving the baby a chance to self-soothe. This also calls to mind the “intentional parenting” that Sara would talk about in class—that we need to be a student of our babies (observing and learning), while at the same time, realizing that we are our baby’s first teachers. “Sleep isn’t a battle,” she says, “but a partnership between you and your baby.”

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband, 
Nick, and daughter, Lydia. Send questions or comments