This is my fourth post in my evolving series on infant sleep.
I have at least 100 journal articles on sleep saved on my computer, and I’ve been dutifully slogging through them, trying to systematically summarize the effects of different sleep training methods or otherwise. But… yawn. I myself didn’t get enough sleep last night. And besides, I keep coming back to all of your many comments – your stories about how sleep works in your house and why you like it that way. They remind me that the best parenting philosophy is the one that makes sense to you, the one that gives you a framework within which to guide your interactions with your child, and the one that makes you love your job as a parent. I’ve come to realize that we can’t talk about sleep without first acknowledging our diverse philosophies on the subject. I’d like to discuss that a bit more in this post, and my next post will be chock-full of the science on cosleeping and sleep training.
Sleep is so personal, and yet, it can so often feel like someone is telling us that we’re doing it wrong. This topic triggers such strong emotions, from guilt and shame to defensiveness and judgment. If you haven’t experienced this, take a look at the conversation on blog posts like this one and this one. It is actually kind of embarrassing that we are so darn hard on each other when we talk about infant sleep. Why is that?
Me? I’ve been feeling paralyzed in my writing about sleep. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope, every step a word that could make another mother feel judged or feel angry, or worse, stop reading, ending the conversation. The thing is, I really don’t want to stir up more controversy around this issue. There is enough of that. When the conversation about sleep starts to feel confrontational, my heart literally starts to beat faster, and not in the way that feels good. I hate the thought that my writing might offend or alienate another parent. That parent is undoubtedly loving, responsive, and nurturing and feels strongly that she has found a way that is right for her. I know that if we sat down and had coffee together, we would find that we have a lot in common and learn something from each other.
A pediatrician recently told me that she always asks parents at their baby’s 2-month appointment what their goals were for their baby’s sleep and offers advice if needed from there. I thought that this was a wonderful way to approach the topic. She’s probably heard just about every possible answer to that question, and I have no doubt that she handles the discussion with sensitivity and support and without judgment. That’s something I think we all could learn from. It’s something I’ve been working on myself.
Really, it comes down to this question: What are your goals for your baby’s sleep? Do you want to have a snugly cosleeping relationship with your baby for the first few years of life? Do you want your baby to fall asleep in his own crib? Or something in between? If you and I have different goals, then it is really hard for us to discuss sleep without stepping into that territory that feels judgmental. Is it impossible? No, I don’t think so. But I think that we need to accept that there is no one “right” way and that not one of us is perfect. Most babies adapt readily to the sleep environment in their home, as long as it is consistent. I can tell you with certainty that we fret about it much more than they do.
Whether you want your baby to cosleep or sleep in a crib vastly changes the landscape of sleep in the first few years of your baby’s life. This choice – either way – may reflect a strong cultural or philosophical belief around what babies need and how parents should provide it, or it may simply reflect a respect for who this one little person is and what he needs. Ideally, mixed into that is a recognition of each parent’s needs and expectations and of how sleep choices may affect the rest of the family. That we choose different ways of sleeping in our families reflects all of these things, but it does not reflect a difference in the amount of love and care we each have for our children.
If you choose to cosleep, what kind of sleep can you expect for you and your baby? If you choose to have your baby sleep in a crib, what can you expect? What can you do if things aren’t going the way you had hoped?
The research on infant sleep can help us to answer these questions, but so can telling our own stories. After all, in our own homes, we each have little sleep experiments going. Of course, we have absurdly small sample sizes, a serious shortcoming given that babies are all so different. We also began our experiments already having significant biases about what would work for our families, and we are very emotionally invested in the results. Still, our stories are essential for understanding the range of solutions found to work in families, particularly because they include nuances that are never described in the scientific journals. But we need both – we need our anecdotes, rich in detail, emotion, and nuance. And we need science – which will tell us what happens with the average baby under a given set of sleep conditions.
I’ll get to the science in my next post, coming soon – I promise! I just wanted to take this moment to thank you for telling your stories here. They have helped me to lose the judgment of other ways and the defensiveness of my way. They have helped me to grow a much more inclusive view of infant sleep and to be thankful for all of the thoughtful ways in which we parent.
Check out other posts from my infant sleep series:
- The Cry-It-Out Controversy and My Family’s Sleep Story
- Why Sleep Matters to Babies and Parents
- The Importance of Self-Soothing to Infant Sleep (and how to support it!)
- Infant Sleep Research: Cosleeping, Self-Soothing, and Sleep Training
- Helping Babies Cope with Stress and Learn to Sleep
- 6 Little Secrets of a Sleeping Baby