As I sit typing with my two year-old snuggled to my back in my trusty baby carrier, I ponder sleep. Specifically, a child’s sleep. My children can sleep so profoundly that at times, loud bang in the midst of their slumber elicits not even a flicker of response (not that I regularly bang things while they’re sleeping). Other times the scrubbing of a toothbrush stirs them awake. And so often, they fight sleep like heavyweight champs, succumbing only to sweet bliss after an intense knockout round of bedtime stories, songs, and back patting.
When I first became a mother, I felt insane with sleep deprivation. Reams of infant sleep solution literature in every library, book store, and baby boutique didn’t help. Because despite the obvious paradox of hundreds of diverse and contradicting “solutions,” parents can become quite wrapped up in what they profess to be the “right” sleep techniques that, if only other parents would get with the program, would grant us all nightly bliss. As I struggled with sleep, I learned to listen for the conversational cues that would indicate when I needed redirect these folks before they asked the inevitable “…but does she sleep though the night yet?”
The bottom line is that in working with a lot of new parents, I have noticed few “right” solutions that work for every parent/child relationship. For many people, different sleep solutions work for different families at different times in our children’s lives.
Many new parents are faced with exhaustion so great, they simply don’t know where to turn but books outlining strategies that initially seemed so outrageous they never imagined they’d try them. And sometimes the strategies work, the parents are blissfully energized, much happier parents. And sometimes the strategies don’t work, and I wonder if at times children might be more stressed about sleep, or even physically harmed in instances when the breastfeeding relationship is compromised.
I know it’s not this way for everyone, but nighttime has been a very important time to bond with and nurture my children. My girls are extremely outgoing and adventurous, and nighttime seems to be one of the only times that they settle into our arms and surrender. So despite having never “pulled an all-nighter” my entire pre-parenting life, my instincts have dictated that I stick with them through their struggles.
I have been humbled. I’ve tried to create good sleepers, but despite my best attempts to find effective strategies I can live with, one might say I’ve failed to create solid-sleeping kids. Failed. And yet, “failed” might be too permanent a word; my five year-old child sleeps most nights through. So maybe I’ve just failed to create solid-sleeping babies and toddlers, and maybe that’s not quite so bad. It just means I need coping techniques to ride through the storm until my younger gets there too. And even though some days I barely cope, I’ve felt like I couldn’t parent any other way.
One coping method is to refuse to be trapped by sleep. Although it’s against “expert” advice, I live full days and take a jog at naptime with my kids in the jogger. Maybe it makes nighttime sleep worse to allow them out-of-bed sleep-time, but I certainly haven’t been able to tell the difference. And at least I’m getting exercise and personal freedom out of the deal.
Another coping strategy that worked well until she could roll over was sleeping with my second baby right from the start. I never worried if she was breathing and could easily fall asleep after she awoke to nurse. But by the time she was moving around in bed, I began to feel seriously tired. I’d love to bedshare, but I simply cannot sleep well with an arm tossed over my back, let alone legs in my ribcage. So she moved next to the bed, and still wakes me up during the night. Just not every time she moves.
And recently, in order to make the bedtime routine a bit less of a fight, I’ve added a new, rather tribal step to the bedtime routine for my two year-old. If she cannot settle to sleep quickly, she gets a choice. She can sleep in her “backpack” on my back while I work (clean the kitchen, work on the computer, fold clothes…) or she can have tea in her bed. These days she opts for the backpack, and I feel happy not to fight her tears throughout the evening.
The bottom line is that a night’s sleep feels like a living riddle with answers that change by the day. It could very well be one of the most challenging parts of parenting for me, pushing me past limits I never thought I could achieve.
And as Chloe lays heavy against my back in deep slumber (Sleepytime tea crashed to the floor 10 minutes ago, only a slight twitch), I’m reminded that if I’m happy, if our sleep strategies are working for now, I can always go back to the drawing board and try again.
Have you had to cope with children and sleepless nights? What have you done to cope with the anxiety and exhaustion?