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.