I’ve been absorbing sleep “facts” from a wide range of sources, listening to conversations, participating in conversations, and generally trying to make sense of the sleep question: Should you try to get your baby to sleep? If so, how? Here’s where I’m at with it now.
1. Biology: babies have more light sleep and faster sleep cycles than adults. When they enter light sleep, if something isn’t right – hungry, cold, wet, breathing problems, warm, lonely, scared – they wake up and let their parents know. This is the only way to get those needs met, and kind of vital for survival. If my baby wakes up, I assume it’s because of a need and I think it’s my job to meet those needs.
2. Evolution: though I wasn’t a big believer in turning to evolutionary explanations for behaviour & parenting choices, now I am, at least for the first couple of years. For survival, babies needed to wake up to get parents’ attention, and sleep with their parents – not to mention spend the days with them too (i.e., babywearing). And I believe those needs, etched into the biological expectations of babies, still exist.
3. Attachment: From what I’ve learned about attachment parenting & psychological development, children develop the most secure sense of self when they are continuously in the presence of caring adults and when their requests for help or for needs are responded to. For me this means being near my sleeping baby, and trying to figure out what she needs when she wakes up at night. It is “nighttime parenting” as the Sears’ call it, not just putting baby down and walking away. And I believe that this closeness builds my own closeness with her, our mutual bond, through simple association, hormones and everything else that works on new parents, and I believe this is vital to my happiness, sense of well-being and confidence as a parent, and to her emerging sense of security and self.
4. Development and time perspective: Right now, baby is less than a year old. She’s barely been on this earth. Of course she wakes up; of course she wants to be near me; of course she wants to nurse at night. It is appropriate for her stage of development. And I know that the day will come when she will want her own room, will not wake up at night (and not need us if she does wake) and will walk down to the kitchen to get her own glass of water. We may help move this process along as parents – lovingly, if appropriate – but regardless, I know that we will get there. So I don’t worry that she will “always” be in our bed, that she’ll “never” sleep well. She will. I’ve adjusted my temporal expectations to a scale of years rather than months, and I’m comfortable with this.
5. Respect and kindness. Though babies have different needs and expectations than adults, our baby is still a little human, just with different communication abilities. Accordingly, I want to treat her with the kindness and respect I would give another adult. If an adult who doesn’t speak my language asks me for something, I would like to provide that. I don’t want another adult to be lonely, scared, cold, hungry, thirsty or uncomfortable, and have those needs ignored or minimized. I would try to understand what that person wanted and fill the need. So if my daughter, who also can’t speak my language yet, asks me for something – by waking up, making crying sounds, or any of the other ways she asks for help – I want to show her the respect and kindness I would give an adult by listening to her and trying to fill those needs.
Even with all the above, which is deeply true for me and my beliefs about the world, I still wish my daughter would sleep for a longer stretch at night. She has been waking up about every 2 hours lately. Yes. I just realized this over the last few days. And by her last couple of nighttime wake-ups each night, it is true too that I am not exactly glad that she wants attention yet again, and that putting my hands on her and shushing her just don’t work. I am, in fact, quite frustrated and slightly angry. I would welcome solutions that would enable her to sleep for longer stretches, waking up just 2 or maybe 3 times per night. That would be really great. Nonetheless, I am so glad that she sleeps beside me; that I can respond to her when she has needs; that she is not left to cry by herself; that someone is with her when she wakes. And while I search for solutions that resonate with my beliefs, I also know that she will sleep through the night one day soon as my little girl grows up.