Sometimes Babies Don't Sleep

Before my son was born, I was a typical first-time mom-to-be. I signed up for every weekly email update. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I researched car seats for weeks before settling on one, and the nursery was complete by the time I started my third trimester.

I'm going to have him sleeping in his own crib and through the night before I come back to work, I vowed to my co-workers during a conversation at my office baby shower. This was, of course, when I thought the books were right and good sleep habits were just a matter of structuring a consistent routine. The seasoned mothers wisely said nothing, knowing my baby would soon teach me what books could not.

Truthfully, my confident, assertive exterior masked a terrified, emotional mess lurking just below the surface. At one point, my husband found me sobbing on the floor of our yet-to-be-born son’s room after my last baby shower because we had five changing pad covers and no changing pad, and this was obviously the worst thing ever and how could we bring a baby home to a house without a changing pad and still call ourselves parents?

I thought I would be a good mom if I had all the knowledge and the gear and the clothes. Having the “right” everything mattered. I registered for the Diaper Champ, since it takes regular trash bags, instead of the Diaper Genie. So practical. So researched. I had my checklists and my hospital bag lists and my baby registries. I was a great mom, on paper.

The problem was I didn’t bring home a paper baby. I brought home a real one.

My son was born three weeks early and weighed only five pounds. He was a hearty eater and steadily gained weight, but he was still waking at least twice during the night when my maternity leave ended. He slept in the Pack ‘n Play (and on a bad night, the swing) inches from my side of the bed. Each work day, I felt like I was slogging through fog; I would grab a nap in my car during my lunch break and more than once I fell asleep at my desk while pumping.

I must have read the wrong books, I thought. There had to be a solution to my sleep-deprived woes. I started soliciting outside opinions and was quickly inundated with tips. Turns out, everyone has sleep training advice. Everyone.

Have you tried Babywise? Yes, but it seems babies can’t read schedules.
Did you try swaddling? Yep, he hates it.
Cry it out? Yes.
Ferberize? Also yes.
How many solids is he eating? Plenty, but I’ll try feeding him more. Ah, nope — if I overfeed him, he just throws it all back up again.
Maybe you should move his bedtime up? Tried that.
Or back? That too.
You’re too stressed out. Babies pick up on emotions. You just need to relax. Oh, of course. Relax. Yes, that’s very easy to make myself do. Thank you.

All the different suggestions only further confirmed my fears: something was wrong. I felt as though I was failing one of the first tests of motherhood. Even though Nathan was hitting every other milestone, the only thing I could focus on was the one place we were falling short.

My tunnel vision, combined with months and months of sleep deprivation and postpartum hormones, was ruining my view of motherhood.

At nine months, my son was measuring firmly in the middle of the growth chart, but he still wasn't sleeping through the night. I was out of ideas. I pleaded with his pediatrician at his well visit that month.

“What's wrong with him? Why won’t my baby sleep?” I asked.

She looked at the healthy, happy baby in my arms and saw past the question I asked to the one at the root of it all: what's wrong with me? She smiled, patted my hand and gently said, “Nothing’s wrong. You’re doing great. He’ll figure it out eventually, I promise.”

Wait, what’s that you say?
Nothing is wrong?
I’m not a bad mom?

“Of course not,” she assured me. “It’s just that sometimes, babies don’t sleep. This is a hard season, but you’ll get through it.”

None of the books said that. Every single one of them suggested that the hard could be trained or scheduled away. A wave of relief washed over me; it was as if she’d taken a heavy load from my shoulders. I couldn’t control this. I wasn’t supposed to control this. Nathan would sleep when he was ready. Until then, I just needed to be patient.

We put the books away and went off-script. I started savoring those 3 a.m. wakeups, buoyed by the assurance that they wouldn’t last forever. I discovered the quiet peace that comes when it feels like you’re the only two people awake in the world, as I held Nathan close while I fed him, then rocked him gently back to sleep. The irony is that the whole process only took about 15 minutes when I stopped fighting it. 

Three weeks later, Nathan started sleeping through the night. Just like that, the seasons changed.

Sometimes we forget that no season lasts forever. In the cold, dark, dampness of January, it can be hard to remember what spring feels like. It can also be difficult to believe that there will ever be a time when your baby doesn't wake up precisely every 74 minutes during the night. Rest, energy, and a clear mind feel as foreign as warmth, sunshine, and green trees.

Those first 10 months of Nathan’s life taught me something important, though. I can’t fast forward to an easier season. And sometimes, the best way to navigate a challenging one is to lean into the hard. Winter may never be my favorite, but I also can’t will it into spring. The seasons will change when it’s time, and no sooner.

So, if you're currently bouncing on an exercise ball, hoarsely singing "You are My Sunshine" while your arms burn from swaying your baby back and forth in a futile effort to force those eyes closed, take heart.

This is not your season, momma. And that's okay. I'm going to say that again, because well-meaning family, friends, strangers and Google are all going to try and convince you otherwise.

It is okay.

Everyone has a hard season. No one escapes unscathed. Sometimes, toddlers don’t eat. Seriously. For days. Sometimes, preschoolers throw tantrums in Target, school age kids forget to do their homework, and teenagers break curfew.

It’s not that we didn’t prepare for this. It’s that we can’t. Sometimes, there is no preparing. There’s just doing, inch by inch and day by day. Some days are light and effortless, but frequently, the seasons are heavy and the work is relentless. The trap of thinking if I could just do more/be more/know more, things would be easier is all too easy to fall into. There’s nothing we love more than a good life hack to make a tough job easier. I’ve yet to find a hack for parenting, though. There is only the slow, long, daily work of getting to know each child as an individual, and then tailoring your methods to meet them where they are.

Some kids are more challenging than others. Some seasons are harder than others. And sometimes, babies don’t sleep.