Sleep Training 101

There are a ton of baby milestones to get excited about – the first smile, first “ma-ma,” first steps. But for sleep-deprived parents, there is perhaps no milestone more longed for, more hoped for, more greeted with prayers of thanksgiving and shouts of praise than the hallowed Sleeping Through the Night. When your baby is eating every three hours (meaning you’re sleeping two hours at a time, max), you long for this milestone with every fiber of your being. It’s reinforced by almost everyone around you, too – “Just wait until she starts sleeping through the night,” they say. “It’ll get so much easier.”

Well, maybe all those other people have magical milestone children, who, upon sleeping through the night, continue sleeping through the night, every night, forever. Or maybe they just don’t have the heart to deliver the knockout blow when you’re already reeling. But here’s the deal. I’m four years and two kids into this whole parenting thing, so I’m going to give it to you straight: it doesn’t matter when your child starts sleeping through the night. Your sleep is irrevocably ruined, my dear friend.

And before you stammer, “but, but SLEEP TRAINING, RIGHT?” understand that it’s all a lie to get you to buy parenting books. It matters not what method you choose. You can cry it out, ferberize, co-sleep, rock to sleep, nurse to sleep … pick your poison. The bottom line is, unless your sleep training plan is to outsource the P.M. hours and let someone else deal with the nighttime shenanigans, you are destined for nights of terrible sleep.

Not every night, mind you. There are nights when your little angel will sleep for 10, 11, 12 hours straight even. You won’t, of course. You’ll wake up every two hours to check her breathing, and you may even poke her (yes, you will actually POKE a sleeping baby) to make sure she’s still alive. Why will you do this? Because you’ve been broken. You’ll never sleep the same because you’ve been conditioned, through a series of terrible nights of sleep, to expect the worst.

Case in point, here’s how an actual recent night unfolded at our house. Let me set the scene: We had been out to dinner that night, so we were later getting the kids in bed than usual. Normally both are asleep by 8 or so, but on this night it was 9. Ellie was coming off being sick for two weeks with croup – she didn’t eat well while sick, so she’d been an insatiable hunger monster the past couple of days. I had some work to do, so it was about midnight when I crawled into bed. It’s a night during the week, which means I’m in charge of nighttime wakeups (the scourge of being the non-breadwinner), since Jon needs to be functional at work. Here’s how the rest of the night unfolded, no exaggeration:

12:02 a.m.: I crawl in bed, pull up the covers and immediately fall asleep.
12:24 a.m.: Ellie wakes up crying. I go in her room, give her a pacifier, she rolls over and goes back to sleep. I get back in bed.
12:44 a.m.: More Ellie crying. More pacifying. More sleeping.
1:02 a.m.: More Ellie crying. Pacifier isn’t cutting it; she wants to eat. Feed her the bottle I pumped at midnight. She passes out as soon as she’s done, and I am back in bed by 1:15.
2:01 a.m.: More Ellie crying. In an effort to actually get some sleep. I just put her in bed with me. Yes, I swore I would never co-sleep. Stuff happens with second kids. She grins in victory, curls up against me and we both fall asleep immediately.
2:47 a.m.: Nathan comes in and needs to go potty. Jon tries to take him, but Nathan wants mama. I can see we’re on the verge of a fit being pitched – and the baby is asleep so we avoid fit pitching at all costs – so I get up and take him, and then go back to bed.
4:33 a.m.: Ellie wakes up, hungry again. I try to nurse her, but she’s not having it. Nothing like a pre-dawn nursing strike to keep the fun rolling. I wake up Jon, give him the screaming baby and go to pump.
5:37 a.m.: Ellie is fed and back asleep in her crib and I’m back in bed.
6:32 a.m.: Nathan is up for the day, which means I’m up for the day.

Now, this is not every night. That example is actually the exception, rather than the rule. But dang it if it doesn’t happen just often enough to ensure that I cannot ever enjoy a full night’s sleep again. Sometimes it’s teething or sickness. Sometimes it’s a growth spurt or a loud thunderstorm. Or it’s the second Thursday after the first Tuesday, or you dared to utter the phrase “I’m so tired!” within earshot of your child(ren). My little blessings have conditioned me to anticipate being woken up at regular intervals throughout the night, and to actually panic a little when I realize I’ve slept for more than four consecutive hours.

Turns out, sleep training actually is quite effective … for mamas.

Which is Harder?

I was making idle chitchat with another mom the other day. I mentioned my recent switch from working full time to staying at home. Before I knew it, she asked the question that has launched a thousand mommy wars: “Which is harder?”

She tossed it out casually, but it landed with a thud and rattled around in my brain. Which one is harder? Why not just ask me the solution to world peace or why good things happen to bad people? Both of those are less fraught conversations than this one.

Since we were at the park and conversing while keeping one eye on our children darting about, I kept it light – I shrugged and mumbled something about how it depends on the day and then laughed. She nodded and laughed too, and that was that.

But it got me thinking. Not so much about which one is harder, but about why she asked the question in the first place and why I didn’t want to buy into that contest. So, I asked some friends to describe motherhood in one word. I heard from working moms and stay at home moms. I heard from moms of one kid and moms of several.

They gave me words like Paranoia. Exhausting. Marathon. Challenging. Sleepless. Amazing. Blessing. Gift. Love. Busy. Humorous. Humbling.

But you know what word I didn’t hear, from anyone? Easy.

Motherhood is freaking hard, and you feel the weight of it every single day. That’s okay. No one gets into motherhood because it seems easy. It is physically taxing, mentally draining, emotionally destabilizing. It’s sleepless nights and endless days. And poop. Lots of poop.

Is it fulfilling? Without a doubt. Parenting is the most profound, magical, soul-stirring thing I’ve ever been a part of. I love my children more than I ever thought I could love anything, and my drive to protect them is so fierce it almost scares me sometimes. But parenting also absolutely kicks my tail, wears me down and keeps me humble.

I think we maintain this myth of “working moms/stay at home moms have it harder,” because it’s easier than admitting the truth: it’s all hard. Leaving my son at daycare for the first time? One of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Balancing taking care of a baby who eats every two hours (still!) with keeping her big brother engaged and entertained, while also keeping up with the cooking, cleaning and laundry? Also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Every mama is struggling and fighting and trying her hardest every day not to be swallowed alive by this monumental privilege we’ve been given. Knowing that, let’s do everything we can to make each other’s lives easier.

What does that look like? Here’s an example from my life. Last weekend Jon went on an overnight trip to Memphis to catch the Grizzlies game. It was the first time I would be on my own with the kids for 24+hours straight, and I was nervous. I said as much to my friend Michal.

Now, Michal’s husband is a pharmacist, so she regularly has 12-, 13-, 14-hour stints wrangling her two boys on her own. She knows hard. But she didn’t play the comparison card; she played the kindness card instead. She didn’t brush me off and tell me it was no big deal/just one night/I’d be fine. She said, “let’s meet for dinner at Chik-fil-a Friday night, and the boys can wear themselves out playing together.” (Her sons are buddies of Nathan’s.) Then, she turned around and invited me to a preschool open house on Saturday morning, complete with bounce houses and giant slides, for more boyish fun. And when Nathan was in full on meltdown mode when it was time to leave and I was trying to wrestle him into his shoes, she took Ellie and got her buckled into the stroller and helped me out the door.

That’s what we need to do for each other, y’all. You don’t get to tell someone else what hard looks like. She tells you what it looks like in her world, that day, that hour. And you find a way to help make it less so. You do this over and over, and you allow your friends to do this for you, too.

And then, when our daughters are grown, they’ll know they can do anything. Not just because they’re awesome and fierce (and they will be). But because they’ll have learned, by our example, that they don’t have to do it alone. They have each other to help make it easier.