The hardest and best thing I ever did when it comes to little ones and sleep? Adjust my expectations.
It's when I'm most stuck in my ideas that I should have a set number of uninterrupted hours of sleep in a particular environment at a particular time that I lose the most sleep! And the sleep that I do get isn't as refreshing or appreciated.
When I can let go of my need for "perfect" sleep, I can enjoy and optimize the sleep opportunities I have as an attachment mother of young children.
When I was first preparing to parent, I read a lot (books like Our Babies, Ourselves) and found out that newborn babies simply are not wired for adult sleep habits. They need to wake often during the night — likely for protective benefits. They get anxious (and loud!) if they feel dangerously far from safe contact with familiar caregivers. They digest their food very quickly and have teensy stomachs so need to eat frequently, all night long. All those facts helped prepare me for the nighttime parenting I could expect.
But, just knowing what my babies needed wasn't enough — I also needed an attitude adjustment on my own sleep expectations and needs. I found out that "sleeping through the night" is not only a recently developed fantasy for babies — it's also a modern invention for grown-ups! Many traditional societies did and still do observe a style of segmented sleep that's broken into at least two phases, and in societies that don't have an invested interest in rising at a specific time to go to an outside job or school, going to bed and getting up were much more related to the rhythms of the sun and season, and to individual or group whim.
Now, don't get me wrong: We live where we live, and when, and within our particular cultures. But just knowing that other cultures have made different choices regarding sleep has given me the psychological ability not to feel quite so stressed about the sleep peculiarities of my kids (and they certainly have plenty, particularly my firstborn!).
Here are a few tips as you transition to a new way of thinking about sleep.
- Sleep whenever you can. They say to "sleep when the baby sleeps," and this is golden. I know it's not always possible, particularly if you have non-sleeping kids to care for at the same time, but what I more often hear is that people don't want to sleep when the baby does. If you're not tired, awesome. But if you're sleep deprived, let the chores and other tasks go while you take care of this basic, basic, basic need. (Did I mention sleep is a basic need? Go to sleep!)
- Don't categorize your sleep as "good" or "bad" based on external, culturally based cues. If you got 5 hours of sleep at night in a dark room but then another three on the couch in the afternoon while kids played nearby, both are fine if you feel refreshed! And you'll likely feel more refreshed if you're willing to consider the latter type of sleep just as valuable as the former.
- Prioritize sleep. I've said this one already, but it bears repeating. Give yourself a stern talking to — close the laptop, put down the phone, drop the sponge, leave the laundry. Sleep! If you're sleep deprived, nothing else will work as well and everything seems bleak. Trust me on this one: Sleep will make it so much better! Ask or strong arm a partner, relative, friend, or babysitter into helping out while you nap. They can bring the baby to you to nurse and then spirit the contented little one back away so you can continue your precious shut-eye, or you can try side-lying nursing if that works well for you. If you need sleep, don't use your babysitting time for anything BUT SLEEP. Don't make me come over there.
- Acknowledge your role in facilitating sleep. As your children grow and potentially continue to frustrate you with their lack of ability to sleep at night for many hours in a row, remind yourself that your job is to present an appropriate nighttime environment and structure; it's your children's job to actually sleep. Try not to stress about what a poor job they might seem to be doing, and just keep doing your thing. They're growing into adult sleepers at their own snail's pace.
- Choose the sleeping arrangements that work for your family, and then don't sweat it. We still, all four of us, cosleep in a family bed. Sometimes when we're talking to non-crunchy types, I'm made aware of how odd this is to the culture at large. But I know my boys will soon move out and move on, and I don't mind the snuggles (or elbows to the teeth) at this point. If a different setup works for you and your kiddos, then go for it. Do what gets you all the best sleep!
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