Warning: this post is longer than the longest thing in the world. I should have split it up, but I didn’t want to. You’ve been forewarned.
Hey Pretty Mama, in your yoga pants and ponytail, slamming back the coffee like it’s magic (which it totally is). I’m terrified to write this letter, if I’m being honest. I have been wanting to share my story with you for so long, but have been much too scared to speak, for many reasons.
There are so many wars fought in the name of The Best Way in baby-rearing.
When you become a parent for the first time you generally catch on pretty quickly that you’re supposed to stake your flag into one side or the other. Pick a side, join a camp, wear team colours proudly. Follow your instincts, they say at first! And also… our Ten Convincing Reasons We’re Right! handout, these biased pamphlets, and this expert… and that one, too.
I arrived at this fork in the road while pregnant with my first child, reading everything I could get my hands on. Mostly on the internet, because hello: 21st century, right? Message boards, blog posts, websites of psychologists and child development theorists, friends and family, and around and around again like a never-ending merry-go-round of opinions and information, until I fell off in a dizzy heap. Instincts? I thought to myself. You mean this glassy-eyed feeling of confusion and panic is not normal? Huh.
So, I read stuff. I collected information and shoved it into my over-crowded brain like a clown car at a circus. I talked it out with my husband regularly. Of course, it was all still theory at this point. Our only child was still relatively easy, being still in the womb and stuff. One day while driving somewhere I gave him the introduction, 3 point argument, and conclusion for why I had decided to shack up with Camp A. Then, the next day I’d read something else equally convincing for the other side and become my own devil’s advocate, convinced that Camp B was, in fact, the way to go.
I flip-flopped back and forth like that for weeks. Months, actually. Struggling back and forth constantly with this decision is one of the biggest defining memories from my first pregnancy, and in the end I never felt completely settled one way or another.
The decision that plagued me most and caused me the most anguish was sleep-training. The idea of crying it out versus, well… not crying-it-out. It seemed to be all parents talked about: the fact that they were so freaking exhausted, and how to deal.
I had several great friends at the time who offered advice and recommendations for books and resources. So I nabbed one of the books and started reading. It explained the scientific basis of the importance of sleep. Basically, your child must get enough sleep or he will morph into a tiny evil frankenstein at night, murder your every hope of happiness, and then probably end up in prison or dead.
Ok, it may not have outlined it exactly like that, but I do recall becoming quite terrified about the number of hours in which my kid was snoozing, and thus quite willing to do whatever the book told me to do in order for him to sleep the appropriate amount of time. The book advocated the cry-it-out method if establishing a strict schedule did not “work” first.
Then, one sunny September afternoon, I gave birth. I am sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the earth hung in limbo for a tiny second as he came into it. There was before, and then there was after. I was profoundly and irrevocably changed in a cosmic and mysterious way.
We were exhausted, of course. We had missed a night of sleep while labouring, then, you know, I did the whole giving birth thing, and here was this shiny and plump little red-faced creature with teeny whisps of dark hair all over his head. I held his bare body on my bare chest and wrapped my hospital gown around us both, unsure of what to do now that I could no longer shield him from the world with just my body.
We spent a night at the hospital, then came home, thrilled and terrified. That first night was hell. We spent every minute of the whole night getting him to sleep – nursing, rocking, diapering… and laying him in his cradle a foot from my head. He took a solid fifteen-second nap each time, then woke up and wanted to snuggle again. I bet you missed me, didn’t you, mama? Here I am!
My mom had said to call in the morning if we needed anything, so at 6:01am, I phoned her, choking back sniffling sobs of sheer wall-slammed exhaustion as I mumbled something not-really coherent. She came over that day, and I remember falling into her arms as she hugged me, and I choked back weeping tears as despair flooded over me. I had never been so exhausted in my entire life, and little did I know it was going to get worse before it got better.
It continued like that for months as the little brown-eyed treasure – with whom we were hopelessly in love – proved himself to be a spirited child right from the start. He would not sleep in his crib, in a carseat, in a cradle, in a swing, or on anything other than a warm and snuggly body, for more than an hour, maybe? I question that because it’s mostly a horrific blur of panicked survival.
I don’t recall specifics, but I do recall the terror. Wondering if I was going to actually survive. Wondering if you could die of sleep deprivation, or if I’d be the mom that went off the deep end and actually ended up harming her child. I was probably dealing with some undiagnosed postpartum depression as well: I remember an evening when he was 9 months and I was more or less just as exhausted as ever, and as I sat there in that yellow room bathed in the glow of a nightlight, rocking him to sleep yet again. I thought about what it would be like to toss him out the bedroom window. I pictured it happening in my mind, and pictured the scenario in a somewhat detached mindset.
I somehow knew that there was no real danger at hand, but I do recall vividly the feeling of despair and hopelessness. One night at small group Bible study (where we were the only ones with a baby) someone asked me a basic question (nothing hard – it was something inane and simple) and I struggled to make the words come out of my mouth beyond nonsensical syllables. The sentence was formed in my head, but the gears in my brain were so exhausted that they were not even able to get my mouth to form a coherent sentence. I remember feeling humiliated and stupid after muddling through the answer, before clamming up the rest of the evening. There was a constant haze that surrounded my brain, making me feel stupid and out of it, for most of that first year.
By the time he was 3.5 months, we were desperate. In fact, I think that’s putting it lightly. I was ill-equipped to deal with the level of exhaustion that we experienced. In fact, I recall many a time using that as the basis of a light joke when people would ask the awful question, “So, is he sleeping through the night yet?”. I’d respond with “No, not really. We’re pretty tired these days. Now we know why they use sleep deprivation as a torture tactic in terrorism!” Ha ha, how cute – so hyperbolic and witty! Except that I was so serious…
Slowly but surely, the flag that my instincts had led me to plant in Camp A became uprooted as we began the trek over to the other side. The instincts that told me that my baby’s desire to be with me was completely natural and healthy were told to shut up the eff up, and sit down. The instinct for survival was greater, and I thought that the only way to do that was to change camps. So we did.
To this day, as he is 5.5 years old, my heart is utterly broken and grieved by what we did next. At 3.5 months old, we let him “cry it out”. According to the cry-it-out experts, most babies will need to cry for just a short while – 10 minutes or so – before falling asleep and sleeping for the longest stretch of their lives thus far. The SUPER important issue, however, is to never, ever, EVER give in and go to him. Because then he’ll think he’s won, he can manipulate you, and you’re sunk.
The books I read encouraged parents to let the baby cry for as long as it needed to, and one of the books even said that if the baby vomited, to leave it, and change the sheets the next morning.
This is the number one biggest regret of my entire life, for which I am sick and ashamed: In desperation, we let that sweet baby boy scream and wail and cry for for three hours. He screamed hysterically for three hours as we played board games in the basement to get away from the sound, with the baby monitor turned down. I’m not sure which ached more: my full breasts or my heart weeping with sorrow. This went for several nights and then the length began to shorten ever so slightly. I thought I had no choice. I thought it was our last resort.
Eventually, something happened and we stopped, because it so clearly was not working the way it was “supposed to”. We tried so hard to obey the advice, to do it “right”, to find relief from our desperate exhaustion and become better parents in the process. That didn’t happen. I don’t recall the specifics of how and when and where from then on, with regard to his sleeping habits. It has mostly been blocked from my memory. I just know that no benefit whatsoever came from that decision, and I will regret it to the very core of my being, until the day I die.
As I type this, sitting in bed late at night, he’s asleep beside me, between his Daddy and I. He has his own bed, but always ends up in ours in the middle of the night. We don’t mind a single bit, and we cherish the moments that he sleeps beside us as we get to kiss his soft head and cheeks, while the last bits of his babyhood rapidly fade away for good.
He struggles with falling asleep on his own now. He prefers to have us close by in the same room. If you ask me, I’ll tell you straight up that yes, I do think that’s a residual effect of what he went through as a baby. The high levels of stress and panic that flooded his infant brain were not healthy, and have likely affected him in ways we’ll never fully understand. I sit in his darkened room as he falls asleep, sometimes right on my lap, and I cradle his gangly limbs as they hang off my lap in all directions, and I kiss his head and face, and whisper lovey-doveys in his ears. I will do it every night of my life until he says he doesn’t need it anymore – when he decides he’s ready to take that next step of independence.
I want you to know, dear sweet sleep-deprived mama, that I get it. I so get the exhaustion, the desperation, the feeling like the fog will never, ever lift, and the despair. I also want you to know that it will get better. One day, down the road, that sweet baby will sleep a little longer, then a little longer, and then on and on it goes, until you wake up one day and marvel that a new stage is at hand, and look – you survived after all.
And here: I’ll tell you some facts I wish someone had told me back then:
— Babies are biologically designed to be near their caregivers for survival, and as such aren’t usually super fond of sleeping all alone in the dark.
— Sleeping through the night is defined as a 5-hour stretch, and the whole sleeping 12 hours thing doesn’t happen until toddlerhood or later, for the majority of healthy and normal children.
— Co-sleeping can be done safely and effectively, and has been shown to decrease the rate of SIDS as well as getting better sleep for both mother and baby.
— Letting a baby CIO can have long-lasting negative effects on a child’s brain chemistry.
— The CIO method will also likely not “work” at all for a certain subset of children who are defined as “spirited children” (such as our sweet boy.) Their brains are just wired differently, and CIO will probably not work at all.
So why was this such a terrifying story to tell? I guess for fear of being condemned (God knows I’ve done that enough for myself). I also don’t want you to read this as a judgment or pronouncement on an entire camp or way of thinking. I have my opinions, of course, but that’s not the story I wanted to tell.
I simply share because I want the mama who feels that pressure to sleep-train to know that’s it’s ok to choose not to do it. It’s ok to listen to your instincts to go to your baby when he cries. It’s ok to cry from exhaustion and not know how you’re going to survive the day ahead. It’s ok to try new things and read books and think and pray and agonize and muddle through it all like a couple of total dummies. At the end of the day you have a tiny creature who depends on you for their very life. Your bond is unstoppable and your love is all-consuming. Let that be your guide.
Trust that mama-heart that God gave you, and snuggle your sweet little baby. Rock him to sleep and kiss his soft head. Drink an extra cup of coffee and call a friend. Make it through another day, one single hour at a time. You can and you will survive.
So much love to you, dear one.