For Moms Who Are Panicking Because Their Babies Aren’t Sleeping as Much as the Books Say They Should

I might strike people as a very confident mother.

I have very strong convictions about my parenting style and talk about them openly and extensively. I have done mountains of research which has led me to embrace attachment parenting. And most of the time, I do feel very confident about my parenting choices. They feel natural and have lots of scientific backing, and they have made our family very happy.

But sometimes I still panic. Every once in a while, I’m overwhelmed with doubt and worry. Have I got this all wrong? Have I screwed up?

This happened to me recently when Lydia went through a stretch where she wasn’t napping much, at around 10 months. For several days in a row, she would go hours and hours (and hours) without napping, and when she did sleep, it was for less than an hour at a time. It was a lot less than what the books said were the right amount, anyway.

I mentioned this fact in a blog post as an aside. Several commenters surprised me by suggesting that this was a problem. One even hinted that I was doing her harm by enabling it.

I also happened to be reading Montessori from the Start during Lydia’s napping strike, which really pushes the overwhelming need for routine in an infant’s life. (In many ways, the book’s philosophy is directly opposed to what I believe about child development, if you’re curious). This book, combined with people’s comments, made me double over in self-doubt: was I screwing up my kid?

 

We moms – especially we first-time moms – are such a vulnerable bunch. We want the best for our kids so desperately, we go kind of nuts if we get even the faintest indication that we’re not doing the best thing for them.

The following few days were plagued with anxiety. I tried everything to get Lydia to sleep, and felt guilty about all of them because none were allowing her to “learn how to self-soothe.” I refused to let her cry alone, so I tried lying down with her in a dark room; I tried nursing and rocking her; I tried walking her in a stroller. She didn’t seem one bit interested in sleeping. I was losing my mind.

Lydia seemed perfectly fine all the while. She was her normal, content, inquisitive self, even though she was sleeping a lot less than what the books said she should be doing. And yet all the while, I was beleaguered with worry: was I stunting her in the long run by getting her used to nursing to sleep whenever she felt like it? Was I preventing her from becoming all that she could be?

The only one who was suffering in all of this was me, and only because I had been told I was doing something wrong.

I had believed strongly from Lydia’s birth that babies are fully capable of self-regulating their sleep, and we only needed to facilitate that by creating an environment that enables them to sleep whenever their bodies are ready. I had believed from the start that babies sleep best in the warm embrace of their mothers, that breast milk was perfectly formulated to induce sleep, and that this was the way humans and other primates had been doing it for millennia. I also knew that you simply can’t force another human being to sleep, so it was a waste of energy to try.

And yet I had doubts.

I was all over the internet, trying to find answers to my questions: Can I screw up my baby by not forcing her to sleep? Is it even possible to not get enough sleep when you live in a quiet, low-stress environment? (In fact, that’s why I’m posting this: in case there are other mothers out there searching the internet, asking the same questions).

Finally, in an act of desperation, I called my go-to child-care expert: my mom. She managed to raise five robustly healthy children who all went on to be successful academics and obnoxious know-it-alls. (*Ahem* . . . well maybe that last one only applies to her eldest).

I asked her what she had done when her babies refused to sleep. She thought about it and replied, “Nothing. I would lay down with them in a quiet place and try to help them relax; and if they weren’t interested in sleep, I knew they obviously weren’t sleepy. So . . . that was it.”

If they weren’t interested in sleep, they obviously weren’t sleepy. It made so much sense when my mom said it.

So I stopped worrying about it. I let Lydia sleep whenever she wanted to and for as long as she wanted to. And by the next day she was back to two good naps a day.

Since then, there have been days when she slept SO MUCH that I worried I was doing something wrong. Maybe I was making her environment so boring that she couldn’t keep herself awake?

And then I had to laugh at myself and tell myself what I already knew: babies are experts and regulating their own sleep if you just let them.

Babies know when they need to sleep and when they don’t. At least, this has been my experience. If they’re not sleeping, even though it’s quiet and dark, and you’ve given them plenty of opportunity to wind down, it’s probably because they don’t need to. If they are sleeping a lot it’s because they probably need to. Some days will be more than others. Babies are going through so many changes, it makes sense that their needs would vary from day to day. They don’t need grown-ups – who have no idea what they’re feeling – to tell them how much sleep they need.

(I personally believe that the same applies to food, provided they only have nutritious options. They’ll eat what they need and leave the rest).

I don’t know why humans believe they’re the only animals in the world that need to be told when, where, and how long to sleep. Llamas, lions and goats all seem to do just fine without clocks and schedules.

I have no idea how much Lydia sleeps on a daily basis. (Or eats, for that matter. She breastfeeds on demand and feeds herself solids. I have no clue how much is going into her stomach). I don’t keep track.

I’ve decided that what the books say is the right amount of sleep is a lot less important than whether she seems healthy, happy, and energetic.

I know my baby is getting enough sleep and food because she’s growing like crazy; she’s developing new skills on a weekly (if not daily) basis; she’s curious, content, and enthusiastic about life; she exudes health; and her general demeanour is happy and relaxed, with occasional grumpy periods. These all seem like more adequate indicators than what the clock says.

There are surely many benefits to having a schedule. I don’t know what they are, since we’re perfectly happy without one, but others seem to benefit from them. But it’s not the case that a schedule is the only way to ensure your kids get enough sleep.

I’m not writing any of this to tell you what you should or should not do; I just want you to know (if you’re in a similar place that I was in) that as long as your baby seems happy and healthy, you’re probably doing fine, regardless of how many hours of sleep she’s clocking. Your baby will probably take a longer nap tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of MattDM.
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Comments

  1. I’ve usually found that about the time I start to freak out about something Henry is or is not doing is when it all comes around. Talking, sleeping, eating, walking, etc. I’m starting to learn that about two days after I feel the urge to “research” is when it’ll happen.

    There’s also so much change that goes on monthly with littles, you never know when a growth spurt is about to happen, more teeth or if they’re just responding to a change of seasons like a regular human animal.

    I’ve also found your mentality is good to have about food – provide healthy food and let them eat and drink when they need to (within reason as they get older so they don’t “snack” all the time I would amend). They’re just like you and me, sometimes we’re ravenous and sometimes we can go days on very little and it all depends on a complex mixture of things.
    Molly W. recently posted..GratitudeMy Profile

  2. …but what can I do with my little one who is on a similar nap strike, but clearly needs to nap? She is exhausted, but putting up a valiant fight (and winning!). I’m thinking she will just crash eventually, but I don’t want that to be a pattern for her (for her sake, not mine).

    • I know what you mean, Grace! I’ve often had the same problem. I don’t know if I have any good advice, though, except to really watch for the first sleep cues and get that babe sleeping right away.
      Laura recently posted..MotherdayMy Profile

    • Hi Grace,

      I’m not an expert by a long shot, and I don’t know anything about your situation (except for the craniosynostosis. I looked at your blog). The only suggestion I would make would be to do whatever it takes to help her relax and sleep, even if it involves some of the things some “experts” warn against (like laying down with her, breastfeeding, rocking, holding, walking, going for a stroller or car ride, etc). I truly do not believe that you can ruin a child’s sleep patterns for life by helping her go to sleep as an infant. Do what works.

      What do you think is causing her to fight sleep? Not wanting to be alone? Not wanting to miss out on things? I would probably try to figure that out and see what you can do to help her with that. (Like if she’s lonely, stay with her). Ultimately, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice! You can’t really screw it up, babies are very resilient and I can tell you’re a deeply loving mother!

  3. Oh the anxiety! Thanks for the reminder to chill out. :) I think I find things trickiest when I’m working with a blend of attachment parenting and routine… And the routine is mostly for my sanity, I’ll admit it. I was missing my daughter’s sleep cues every night in the dinnertime chaos that usually happens around here from, say, 4:30pm to nearly 8pm. These are not my brightest hours. So when we set her usual sleeptime and wake time a little more firmly in our minds, that has helped everyone involved.
    Laura recently posted..MotherdayMy Profile

  4. Hi – virgin blog commenter here :) thank you so much for this post, was just what I needed to read. It’s so easy to doubt myself as a first time parent. I have been stressing about my 11 week old not sleeping enough, but really she is doing just fine as she is such a happy wee babe. Just because she doesn’t sleep as much as my friends’ babies does not mean there is anything wrong with her!

  5. I think I was one of the commenters who said that not napping was a problem (in fact, I may also have been the one who hinted it was harmful: in any case I do think this). It’s hard having “conversations” on the Internet because you communicate in short snippets without any other contextual information, so it’s easy to misunderstand one another. This may have been the case here.

    From your post, it sounded to me as if your baby never or hardly napped, and that this wasn’t just a passing phase (which you’re right, is completely normal and non-worrisome), but her general habit. Obviously I misread, and I’m sorry I freaked you out with my wrong advice. Lydia sounds like she is thriving in every way! Certainly the best test is ALWAYS how your child is doing.

    I don’t agree with you about sleep though. As you probably know already, not getting enough sleep has HUGE negative implications, especially for children. It seems to stunt growth, lower IQ (temporarily, the effect goes away with more sleep), and result in lower grades. It also causes behavioral changes similar to those from ADD/ADHD (so that some children diagnosed with that disorder may in fact just be sleep deprived). And in adults lack of sleep reduces immune function, causes depression and contributes to obesity.

    Oddly, even though sleep is so important humans are quite bad at self-regulating it. Adults are very good at continually postponing sleep in favor of other activities (one reason why average hours slept have plummeted since electricity was invented). Why else are so many people chronically sleep-deprived? And while the effects of sleep deprivation are quite dramatic, those experiencing them rarely realize the level to which their function has been affected; in fact they think they are totally fine (there are several studies on this, you can google it).

    I agree that very small infants do not yet have the skills to willfully postpone sleep (one reason why newborns happily sleep through any and all noises). But by the time children become social (say around 4 months), they begin to learn how to do this. My daughter can definitely stop herself from sleeping, even when exhausted, if she so chooses, and has been able to do so for months (she is 16 months now). It’s like an adult staying up to 3 am every night for a week: she will have gotten some sleep, but not enough. If she does this multiple days in a row, she gradually becomes very sleep deprived (since sleep debt is cumulative).

    So I have to help her avoid this by regularly enforcing rest periods (if not sleep, since you are totally right that forcing sleep is impossible) in a calm, familiar environment. To be honest it sounds like you do this too (lying down with her in a dark room for a while, for instance). While this isn’t the same as being a strict scheduler (you must be in your crib 12-2 every day, no exceptions), it also isn’t true self-regulating, because you are giving cues as to what behavior is appropriate/suitable (“It’s time to wind down now”).

    I don’t think making the argument that you should just let your child decide when to sleep, without any interference whatsoever, is helpful (particularly to people with relatively more intense, strong-willed children who therefore have a harder time listening to their sleep cues). It also doesn’t really reflect the truth of sleep habits, which like everything else is taught to children, either through subtle encouragement, the force of example, or more blatant methods.

    • Thanks so much for your thorough and thoughtful comment, Grace!

      Don’t worry — it’s good for me to get my ideas challenged. I need to stay up thinking all night every once in a while — keeps my brain ticking!

      My blog post probably did seem to suggest that Lydia almost never slept, so you were right to be concerned.

      In regards to sleep in general:

      You’re right, I am familiar with the harms of not getting enough sleep. [Have you read Nurture Shock, by any chance? We seem to be reading many of the same books!). I'm fascinated by the topic of sleep and have been reading and meditating about it a lot in the last two years.

      However, I tend to approach topics like this from a primitivist perspective, asking the question, "Well, how did humans deal do it before [whatever technology] was invented?” — in this case, clocks, alarms, and parenting books. And in regards to sleep, I imagine humans were guided by their natural and bodily rhythms. They slept when they were sleepy and ate when they were hungry (or had access to food).

      I believe that people today have lost the ability to read and respond to their internal cues, in part due to inventions like artificial lighting and industrialized food, leading to lives rules by clocks and schedules. I believe that if we return to a more natural lifestyle, being in tune with nature and our bodies, we can regain that intuition.

      While we humans have to capacity to keep ourselves awake longer than we should, I believe we also have the capacity to self-regulate — in other words, our bodies know to compensate by sleeping longer or more the next day. This doesn’t work, of course, if we’ve got a rigid schedule, which is part of the reason I’m considering unschooling my family. (So if Lydia chooses to stay up late, she can sleep late the next morning).

      In my parenting, I’m also guided by a strong conviction that I never want to impose my will on my child (which I get the feeling you share). I want Lydia to feel in charge of her own body.So while I intend to make suggestions and invitations to care for herself (“Are you sleepy? DO you need to rest? Do you need a snack?”) and helping her to meet those needs (bringing her into a dark, quiet room, offering a selection of healthy foods), I want her to feel in control of her body.

      So I agree that letting a child decide when to sleep is unwise if our lives are structured in the typical Western manner (with 9-5 workdays and schooling); however, if we live more in tune with the daily and seasonal rhythms of nature, I think children should be able to get enough sleep on their own terms.

  6. yeah, learning about how not getting enough sleep is bad for brain development was one of the scarier things i learned about parenting…so much pressure! and it has changed the way mike thinks about things…so now whenever he hears about a friend’s kid not sleeping he says “oohh, that’s so bad for brain development” as if its the parent’s fault :/ i must say, sam is a good sleeper (thus far). but reading your description of how to ‘create an environment’ for sleep really helped me think about what i can do to help him sleep in the future (and now!). sometimes it involves putting in those extra minutes holding him to get him to fall asleep easier but i’m not complaining about that!
    alison recently posted..Take 7…Summer Edition: Earthquakes, filming, and more MSL!My Profile

  7. I’m just reading this post and the replies now, but I was hoping for a little advice. I’m a first time mom of a now 4 month of little girl. She’s super stimulated by the world and needs a lot of help falling asleep– water sounds, shushing, rocking. When I’m rocking her she’ll even let her head bob 3-4 times before really accepting sleep. When I finally get her down (She’s been better about not waking when I lay her down), she’ll only sleep for a total of 40 minutes (so just 30 because I rock her for 5-10 min until she’s deeper).
    Sometimes she’ll wake up perky, which I take means she’s done (I’ve tried rocking her and she just gets upset and frustrated or just takes the time to view the room). Sometimes she’ll wake up cranky, in which case I need to either nurse her back to sleep or re-rock her.
    At night, she’s fine (we have a family bed), but it’s those pesky naps that seem to be a problem. I want her to be able to get past that first sleep cycle on her own, but I don’t want to make her cry to do it.
    Also, it seems that her inability to fall asleep on her own has caused her to not enjoy the car because she has a hard time accepting sleep.

    Any suggestions for how to help her? Does she need help, or will she grow out of it and begin to sleep through the first cycle on her own?

    • Hi Kristen! Thanks for stopping by! Parenting is so hard sometimes, isn’t it?

      Before I say anything, I want to repeat that I’m not, by any means, an expert; I’ve only been doing this for 14 months now myself.

      That being said, from one mom to another: my advice would be, do whatever it takes. Go ahead and help her get through that first cycle if that helps; I think she’ll grow out of it. Lydia had a period of time when she only slept for 30 minutes at a time, too; but now she (typically) naps for 2-3 hour stretches. I’d say, experiment. You won’t permanently screw her up, whatever you do. If nursing her back to sleep helps extend those naps where she wakes up cranky, by all means, go for it. I don’t think she’ll be dependent on it forever (though maybe for a while).

      I still do that with my 14-month old when she wakes up too soon and cranky. When she wakes up perky, like you, I take that as a sign that she’s done, even if the nap wasn’t as long as I thought it should be. (And she’s usually fine).

      I should probably mention that my daughter still doesn’t sleep as many hours, total, as my friends’ babies do, and she still doesn’t sleep through the night without waking. It gets annoying at times. But she’s a very happy baby, growing and developing like mad, so I’m not too worried. She also still nurses quite a bit, for comfort and nourishment, and I’m OK with that, too. Other moms might feel differently.

      (My daughter also hates the carseat; I haven’t found any solutions for that yet).

      Good luck! I hope you both get more rest soon! I’m sure it’s just a phase.

  8. Thanks Kathleen! It’s great to have some encouragement from another mom with a similar parenting style/views. Most of my friends and family have quite a different view then me, and while I know they have good intentions, their advice just doesn’t resonate with how I feel about how I want to raise my daughter. I appreciate your thoughts, it gives me confidence to know there are other parents out there who perhaps stray from convention. Sometimes it’s just good to hear that I’m perhaps on the right track. I agree with you, that if my daughter is growing happily and healthily (which she is!) then I must be doing something right.

    Thanks for blogging, I’m enjoying your posts!

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