When did sleep become such an obsession? Obviously for me and every other new parent it more or less coincides with the birth of your first child (come to think of it, for the first few months even your conversational repertoire is reduced to just three things: sleep, milk and poo) but when did society start becoming so desperate to get infants to sleep through the night?
I can’t imagine prehistoric parents were swapping parenting tips- ‘Oooh breastfeeding him to sleep? You’re creating a rod for your own back, you know, you should give him a twig to suck on. Try putting him in the next cave and let him cry it out, he’ll soon stop crying when he realises you’re not going to pick him up. My sister-in-law used PUPD, what you should do is leave him in the next cave, go to him when he cries and pick him up, as soon as he stops crying put him down, when he cries again, pick him up, then put him down again. My mum used to fill us up with some pre-chewed wild boar meat, as a dreamfeed, never did us any harm’ -and yet nor do I imagine that human infants have changed in any way over the intervening millenia. So why do we now expect babies to sleep through the night and why do we believe in the existence of some magic formula (of the spell kind not the artificial milk kind) to get them to do so??
Of course, it would be fabulous if every baby slept from 7pm to 7am without making a peep. Mummies and daddies across the land could spend the evening having a civilized meal together, perhaps watch on film on TV (remember those days, fellow new mums, when you actually saw a film from beginning to end?), before a relaxing soak in the bath and then climbing into (the same) bed together. They’d all wake up refreshed and rested the next morning. The sun would shine, the birds would sing in the trees, mothers would have the energy and desire to do a spot of exercise and self grooming, they’d feel marginally better about their post-pregnancy bodies especially as they would no longer have to combat the tiredness by mainlining high fat, high-sugar snacks and because they felt better about themselves they would also (possibly) feel a bit more inclined to actually have sex with their partner because they wanted to and not because they felt they should. And they could spend the day engaging their offspring in age-appropriate, stimulating games, while merrily trilling songs and making up wonderfully inventive fairy tales (rather than sticking said child in the Jumperoo while simultaneously having the world’s quickest shower and shovelling in chocolate biscuits and cold coffee). They’d never get frustrated with their child and nor would they cry with guilt and shame because they just got frustrated with their child.
At times, and despite our best intentions, it feels like tiredness robs us of our ability to be a good parent and worse than that is the fact that we’ve somehow ended up in a situation where we feel that if our baby doesn’t sleep more than 4 hours at a time, we are to blame. We are doing something wrong. It’s all our fault. This was one of the conclusions reached in a 2008 study: “perhaps infant sleep has become, not only a developmental milestone for infants, but a measure of parental competence as well. The question arises about whether infant sleep is truly problematic or has the pressure increased on parents so that even normative sleep is increasingly perceived as problematic?” (from ‘What to do about sleep? A survey of parents’ experiences with sleep interventions and popular advice.’ Gordon, M. D., & Hill, S. L.)
It does seem that we’ve collectively somehow forgotten how babies are supposed to sleep. The ISIS website -bet they wish they had a different name at the moment- is great for clearly explained infant sleep theory but look at any forum for new parents and it is full of people asking what they are doing wrong. Parents now don’t understand why their baby keeps waking up (or in some cases why their baby has just started waking up more often) and what they get in return are suggestions for various forms of sleep training, or various reasons why it’s happening -these range from the reasonable (cold, hunger, wind) to the rather more debatable (teething, growth spurt, ‘wonder weeks’)- or recommendations for professional sleep consultants, ‘experts’ who will purportedly get your child to sleep through the night (for a not indifferent sum of money). Personally, I recommend this brilliant post for some no nonsense advice http://stolensleep.com/2014/09/27/how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep-through-the-night-in-just-two-years/
Rather than us all just taking a moment to stop and say ‘Ermmm….hang on a minute…if we’re all experiencing ongoing nights of broken sleep, maybe this is actually perfectly normal’, we refuse to accept that we don’t have one of those ‘good’ (bloody awful word) babies who sleep 12 hours a night.
If you read any literature about sleep, then it soon becomes clear that we all stir various times through the night. Some people slip seamlessly from one sleep cycle into the next and some people (me) wake numerous times and get up to pee, read to get back to sleep, put the dishwasher on, let the dog out, worry endlessly about the past and the future etc. And, of course, it’s the same for infants. Some are brilliant at ‘self-settling’ and some, like T, do the baby equivalent of checking Twitter, their email, Facebook account at 3am (oh, and at 11pm, 1am, 4.30am and 6am).