A friend of mine, an experienced mother who had her children before I had mine, told me once that every parent would find one of the basic biological functions of her child a nearly impossible challenge.
For some, it’s feeding, an area rife with conflict (breast or bottle, rice cereal or baby-led weaning) and crowded with what the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiburg called “ghosts in the nursery”—those powerful, often unconscious, voices from our past that can affect our parenting, whether we know it or not. Other parents wig out over elimination, getting locked into potty-training power struggles, endlessly strategizing over their little one’s constipation.
But one issue looms above the others: sleep. It’s why so many parents of babies and toddlers find themselves dreading nighttime, even though they themselves are exhausted. They know that each bedtime can become a battle, whether with a six-month-old doing her best to scuttle your dreams of an easy sleep-training regimen, or a 3-year-old whose requirements for falling asleep have grown to include six books, three songs, and half an hour of back-rubbing (with an option to repeat the whole thing if he isn’t quite feeling sleepy yet).
Whether we follow one of the many, many, many sleep-training programs available today or eschew them entirely for the family bed, many of us feel guilty about our choice. And in the first year of parenting, we are often simply too tired to think too deeply about anything at all.
Just how exhausted are the parents of young children? “The other day I stood trying to lock my cubicle at work with my car remote key,” said one mother on a Facebook parenting group. Another drove to the wrong house and tried to get inside with her groceries. More dangerously, one recalls falling asleep at the wheel at every streetlight: “People had to honk at me every time to get me going.”
The lack of sleep can make things surreal. Mothers report hallucinating while sleep-deprived, panicking in the middle of the night that they can’t find the baby who is sleeping in their arms. “I also have a friend who once tried to nurse her cat in the middle of the night,” another mother writes.
Bronwyn Becker Charlton, a developmental psychologist and co-founder of the Seedlings Group, sees a lot of parental exhaustion. “I think that a lot of times, we have very low expectations of what a child is capable of,” she says, adding that parents “take for granted that they signed up for having sleepless nights.”
But, she argues, this doesn’t have to be the case. “A lot of parents feel guilty because they feel like it’s selfish that they want to get good sleep,” Charlton says. “And yet to learn to sleep well, to be a good sleeper, is an incredible gift to give to your child. Sleep is up there with breathing and eating in terms of its relevance for health.”
Charlton, who often works with families over years, touching base as their children grow, says she sees parents change their minds about how they feel about sleep. Many parents start out letting their children sleep with them, she says, only to come to her years later saying, “we loved the idea of the family bed, but now our four-year-old is such a fitful sleeper, he kicks and rolls, and I cannot sleep.”
A preschooler can be taught new habits—Charlton points out that kids are resilient—but her strong message is that it’s smartest to begin as you mean to proceed. If you don’t want a kid in your bed, don’t take the baby into your bed. But many of us do, even if we don’t particularly want to, because it’s the only way anyone gets any sleep at all—this despite the long-running public health debate about baby sleep safety. Despite a growing chorus of support for bed-sharing (and more evidence-based guidelines for doing it safely), the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to advise against it.
When the experts disagree so vehemently, and they all sound so convincing, and we are just so damn tired, is it any wonder we mostly feel we’re getting it wrong?
The runaway success of Adam Mansbach’s 2011 parody of children’s book, Go the Fuck to Sleep, is proof of how ubiquitous parental stress over children’s sleep has become. Ben Reiss, a literature professor at work on a cultural history of sleep, notes that the book’s Amazon page is filled with “readers’ cathartic responses” to a book that somehow captures “contemporary American parents’ heroic attempts to suppress their frustration with the strange system we’ve been led to believe is normal or even natural.”
Perhaps, Reiss suggests, getting our kids to sleep all alone every night is so difficult because it’s not particularly natural. “One of the really big issues is that, for the last century and a half we’ve been living under an orthodoxy that says that children have to sleep in their own rooms and sleep all through the night,” Reiss says. “We expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to make this thing happen, which before that time never happened anywhere else in the world.” And, he points out, “it certainly doesn’t seem to be anything that children want. They fight it every step of the way. And then, what’s the first thing they want to do when they’re old enough to form independent friendships? They want sleepovers, they want to sleep together.”
How much do our children want to sleep with us? I’ve heard that some kids are genuinely happiest in their own beds—probably those kids who were expertly sleep-trained by very competent and determined parents—but both of mine were more like Twitter persona Honest Toddler, whose tweets and blog posts about claiming "the big bed" perfectly capture what many of us go through at night. “I know that my nighttime requests, occasional flatulence, REM screaming, and kicks to the face can be disconcerting,” Honest Toddler admits, arguing that it’s a toddler’s prerogative to share the big bed, rather than face the dark of night alone.
Between these two strong messages—society saying that babies need to learn to sleep independently, babies saying that they would really love to sleep with parents, thanks—most parents, Reiss says, “are caught. There’s no middle ground.”
And then there are the ghosts in our own nurseries about what it means to be left alone at night. I remember lying in my bed as a small child, afraid of the dark and aware that it was against the rules to climb into my parents’ bed unless I was deathly ill. I envied my brothers, who shared the bedroom next to mine. When I had my own kids I overcorrected. My nighttime parenting style was all about maximum nurturing: nursing to sleep, reading to sleep, singing to sleep, snuggling to sleep. My kids never used pacifiers or loveys. I became their pacifier and lovey.
It was a total parenting fail—and yet, somehow, it got me and my children through the nights. These days, the big one is in college and the little one almost always stays in his bed. And none of us is afraid of the dark.