My struggle with sleep (training)
Updated: Apr 2
I want to start off by saying that this post is about ME, and MY personal experience. I am sharing my story because I wish I saw more of this specific perspective after my daughter was born. None of this is, in any way, a judgement or condemnation of mothers who choose to sleep train. I strongly believe that only YOU know what's best for YOUR child.
When I was still pregnant, I read a book by the Popcaks called Parenting with Grace: Catholic Parent's Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids. In the chapters about babies, they discuss why they are against sleep training. They argue that, contrary to what the majority of sleep books and consultants tell you, you cannot teach a baby to "self soothe." In the same way that you cannot teach an infant to walk, crawl or speak before they are developmentally ready, you can't teach a baby sleep to sleep through the night. It's true that if you leave a baby to cry for periods of time, he will eventually stop crying and be quiet at night. But this isn't "self soothing," the Popcaks write. It is learned helplessness. He learns that when he cries, no one will come. He lies in silence instead of voicing his distress.
This made a lot of sense to me. Even before my baby was born, it broke my heart to think of my child lying alone, crying with no one to comfort him or her. I decided I would not implement any kind of sleep training.
Fast forward to October 2019. I got hit with a nasty flu that lasted over two weeks. I slogged through fatigue, pounding headaches, congestion and a sore throat that wouldn't go away. During all of this, Matthew was working long hours, leaving the apartment at 5:30 AM and coming home any time between 6-7PM. I got mastitis twice. My milk supply dropped and my letdown didn't come for a whole day. Then, the cherry on top...Genevieve hit the 4 month sleep regression at 3.5 months.
I cried all day, every day. I went to bed feeling almost paralyzed with fear of what the next day would bring, and woke up feeling exhausted and hopeless. Genevieve would only sleep if I spent over 20 minutes rocking her, and then she only napped for another 30 if I was lucky. I was getting no rest, so I was staying sick. I didn't know what to do. I asked several moms for help, and they were all so kind, giving words of encouragement, advice and tips on what they did and what worked for them. I read books and articles online. Everything seemed to agree; I needed to let my baby cry. I felt helpless and like there was something wrong with me. Where were those maternal instincts I was supposed to have, that feeling of "I know what's best for my baby"?
A friend recommended a sleep program, and I looked into it. It seemed gentle enough, so we bought it. Its main focus was on giving the baby a proper amount of awake time, so that she would be tired enough to sleep. It also gave tips on how to gently wean babies off of sleep crutches like rocking, so that we could just lay her in her crib and she'd sleep by herself.
It worked reasonably well. Genevieve started napping semi consistently, and I felt a little more sane. She still woke up several times at night, but since I wasn't ready to wean her off of her pacifier, I lived with it.
There was a trade off, though. I felt like I was chained to her sleep program. I woke her up at the exact same time every morning, and if she woke up early, I'd spend an hour, sometimes two, desperately trying to get her back to sleep. Her naps were at the exact same time, on the dot. If I let her oversleep or missed the nap time by a few minutes, I would start to panic. If she didn't nap as long as she was supposed to or needed to be rocked or cuddled to sleep, I worry that I'd done something horribly wrong. I missed sleeping with and cuddling my baby, but was terrified that if I did, she'd never be able to sleep without me.
And then she started waking every 2 hours again. I didn't understand why, I never ever rocked her or nursed her to sleep, she always went down awake. I couldn't figure out why she needed to nurse back to sleep at night and it made me feel like a failure.
In January, Genevieve got her first fever. She was restless at night and slept a lot during the day. Strangely, I didn't mind at all. It was tiring, of course, trying to console a sad, sick baby. But I enjoyed the freedom of throwing her sleep schedule out the window. My baby needed all the sleep she could get, so I stopped waking her up from naps or worrying if she didn't sleep longer than 45 minutes.
Her fever broke after three days, then I got sick. Luckily, my brother was already in town to pick me up and take the baby and I to spend a week with my family. But I was exhausted again. Genevieve started waking up in the middle of the night...and staying awake. I didn't (and still don't) know if it was a cold, teething, growing pains, but nothing I did seemed to help. Some time between 9:30PM to 2AM, she'd wake up crying. Before, I'd nurse her and she'd go right back to sleep. Now, she'd lie awake, either fussing and squirming or just happily talking to herself. Usually a mix of both. There was always a point where she'd start crying inconsolably and wouldn't even nurse. That was when my mom would come in and ask if she could do anything. I told her no, what could she do?
I was miserable again, feeling like I was constantly holding back tears. My mom got worried. She took me aside and said I needed to get some rest. She suggested that I sleep on the guest bed in the basement, while she stayed with Genevieve during the night.
I started to cry. I told her I couldn't possibly leave my baby, it would feel like I'd abandoned her. My mom assured me that she would be right there, comforting her. Genevieve wouldn't be left alone. But I needed to sleep.
I asked if we could give it one more night, and see how things went. My mom agreed.
That night was possibly the worst one yet. Genevieve cried and cried, and no amount of rocking or tylenol or attempts at nursing would settle her. The next evening, after a lot of crying, I went to sleep in the basement with a huge pit in my stomach. I couldn't sleep, all I could think about was my baby. Was she okay? Was my mom okay? Did they need me? I kept checking my phone for a text from my mom. We had agreed that I would go up once that night to feed the baby, and I did go around 3AM. I asked mom how it was going, she said just fine. I went downstairs and slept a little.
The next morning, I went up at 8 and Genevieve was, by some miracle, still asleep. I asked mom how the night was, she said the baby woke up several times, but never cried more than 20 minutes. We repeated this process for the next couple of days, and she got a little better every night.
When I went home, we had Genevieve on a mattress next to the bed, with Matthew closest to her so he could settle her when she woke up. For whatever reason, she started waking up more and more as time went on. We tried to see if she'd go back to sleep, but usually I ended up having to nurse her after an hour or two of listening to her cry.
It all seemed pointless, listening to her wail for hours, neither of us sleeping, until I ended up giving in anyway. Once again, I felt like a failure; either too ignorant to fix my baby, or too weak to let her cry it out.
Around this time, I came across the website Raised Good. It was full of articles about baby sleep, but not the stuff I was used to reading. This blog, like the Popcak's book, argues that there is nothing inherently "wrong" with a baby waking at night; in fact, it's completely normal! And it's normal that I, her mother, want to comfort her. I wasn't weak, I wasn't lazy...I was a good mom. I had allowed the cultural norm of needing to "fix" my baby's sleep dictate my entire mindset. I let it consume me.
It took some time, but once I broke out of my sleep obsession, it was like a switch was flipped. I accepted that my daughter wakes up at night, and that's just how it is right now. I stopped checking the time every time she started to fuss, or count how many times I nursed her before morning. Our daily nap routine became more relaxed; it varies now, depending on when she wakes up in the morning, how tired she is, or how long she napped. I never wake her up during the day.
She sleeps with us again. It just makes more sense to me; instead of letting her cry for hours at a time, I nurse her when she wakes up and we both go right back to sleep. She's right next to me all night, so there's almost no effort on my part. Sometimes she wakes up a lot and I'm tired in the morning, other nights she wakes once or twice. Overall, I'm happy. I just wish I'd gotten to this point sooner, instead of wasting months and months doubting myself.
I love sleeping with my baby. There's just something about curling up next to my little girl, listening to her quiet breathing, that melts away the anxiety and doubt that's pressing on my chest. I snuggle in next to her and feel completely content.
Sometimes I start to worry, "Should she be sleeping on her own? When should I move her to her own bed or room?"
Here's the thing though; there is no should.
There is only what works, for you and for your baby. Right now, co-sleeping is what's best for us. That could change at any point, and that's okay! The only consistency in babies is that there isn't any. In the end, I know she'll sleep independently at some point. She will be a big girl and she won't need me next to her at night. I don't know when, and I'm fine with that. All I know is it will be when she and I are ready.