My Least Favourite Parenting Question

Okay, folks. Don’t take this as an accusation if you’ve ever asked this question of a parent – I may have asked it myself before becoming one… but please, don’t ask me if my baby is sleeping through the night.

I know why people ask: they want to inquire about how things are going, out of politeness and concern for your well-being… they know it’s a big hurdle in the scheme of parenting, and they’re probably hoping you’ll say, “Oh yes! Little Jimmy sleeps like an angel every night! We get LOTS of sleep in our house.”

However, the vast majority of moms I know who currently have babies or small children (and I know quite an impressive number) have encountered difficulties with respect to their baby’s sleep habits at some time or other. And if these difficulties include nighttime sleep, chances are… they hate that question too.

The parents I know who want to talk about it, the ones who will volunteer the information without even being asked, are the ones who have successfully used sleep-training – and when I say sleep-training, I mean a technique that involves baby crying a whole bunch. There are many variations, but even Tracy Hogg’s, in which you don’t have to leave your baby alone, involves crying. It’s hard to listen to your baby cry, and lots of parents wonder, in the process of sleep-training – as they fight their instincts to comfort their wailing child –  if they’re really doing the right thing. Therefore, if they get through it and their baby then sleeps through the night, the end has justified the means and of course they want to proclaim it.

Everybody else, though… not so much. Because, in North America, we have an obsession with babies “sleeping through the night”, those of us whose babies still wake at night often feel like we must be doing something wrong. The pressure to go to it, train your baby, and achieve that uninterrupted night – it’s insidious but immense. And it’s compounded by the fact that all of us want it on some level: even moms who enjoy night feedings, with their special dark tranquility, wouldn’t say no to a full eight hours of sleep in a row. The thing is, even if we have a system (with interruptions) that works for us, it seems invalidated by the question, “Is s/he sleeping through the night yet?” It’s the expectation, a norm we must all aspire to as promptly as possible.

For the record, I don’t mind the question, “How’s he sleeping for you these days?”, because it implies that there can be more than one way of having a decent night – if you’re satisfied as a family with the way things are going, that’s enough, and you can say, “He’s sleeping fine.”

Funnily enough, parents whose babies do sleep like angels and follow the textbook sleep patterns and can be gently shifted off their night feedings without angst, especially those who do so early – in my experience, those parents don’t want to talk about it either, because they feel sort of… guilty. They know other parents go through a lot to get their nights back, and they don’t want to seem smug. They know that they have a rare gem… and that there was a not insignificant amount of luck involved.

I’ve talked with moms who deal with all different sleep problems, from “baby doesn’t nap for more than 20 minutes” to “baby doesn’t fall asleep unless he’s on me/on the boob” to “baby wakes up to nurse even though she doesn’t need the calories” to “baby wakes up for no apparent reason”, etc. etc. The other day I was chatting with a friend of mine whose six-month-old was sleeping and napping great in her crib until just a week or two ago, when she suddenly ceased to be a good sleeper, just like that. Another example of the fact that you’re never “home free” when it comes to parenting.

This is why I always say that being a parent is one of the hardest things most of us will ever do: because we can never do it completely right. I’ve read baby books from several different perspectives, and they are often in direct conflict. Proponents of attachment parenting maintain that co-sleeping is the best way to teach your child that sleeping is natural and safe and pleasant; likewise, the natural interruptions in sleep for habitual nursing and other kinds of soothing are good for developing bonds and are nothing to fret over.

On the other hand, books that outline sleep-training techniques insist that it’s best for your child to learn not only to sleep alone, but to fall asleep alone – and that most babies naturally do this in a way that includes crying for the first few times.

Both these schools of thought make sense to me, but they can’t both be fully right at the same time. We have tried to take a little from Column A and a little from Column B… and our baby is a pretty good sleeper, overall. But it’s still hard sometimes. If you noticed my absence of blogging over the last few days, it was because I’d just sit down to write in the evening and then baby-sleep-related events would reconfigure themselves such that I did not end up having time after all.

Our son doesn’t yet sleep through the night. (There, I said it.) We’re working on it, gradually. Most nights, he sleeps ten to twelve hours, with some momentary wakeups and sleep-feeds. For now, interrupted sleep is a way of life. I suppose it makes my temper a little shorter than it was when I slept seven or eight hours a night… but I’m just trying to do right by my kid. And I hereby refuse to feel bad about it.

And now my rant is done – I promise.

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4 thoughts on “My Least Favourite Parenting Question

  1. Bev says:

    I don’t think I got asked that question very often. Maybe it helps to try to limit your conversational contact to mothers of small babies – they know better! But one of my daughters (who shall remain nameless, though actually we did give her quite a nice name) seemed to be waking in the night well past the age I had been led (by an array of authorities and rumour-mongers) to think was appropriate, and she would just take, like, three sips and go back to sleep. So we decided to try the “let her cry a bit” technique, which is supposed to get her over the wakey habit in a short (albeit not especially pleasant) while. We couldn’t stick it. We couldn’t listen to her cry more than a couple of minutes, and she didn’t seem inclined to stop at all quickly, so we went back to picking her up at the first fussing that broke through the sleep barrier. I got lots more sleep THAT way, and so did Papa, and so did baby. And a month or two or three (a tiny portion of our lives, actually) the nighttime waking stopped.

  2. Amanda says:

    It is true that you are never home free. I was blessed with two babies who slept through the night much earlier than ever expected. But then when Victoria was 10 (that is YEARS not months) she stopped sleeping in the night. She was up often every night and I was up too! This went on for at least six months! It was a long six months and there are virtually zero books on how to sleep train a ten year old :-)!

  3. Suze Corte says:

    OMG–it’s so true, all of it. When Q. was 6 months old, I went to the doctor and had a multitude of tests. After all was said and done, he concluded that I was suffering from “physical exhaustion.” She was waking me up in the night for whatever reason: to nurse, to play, to confer, and because she was practicing standing up and then had no idea how to sit down! In a final desperate act, we let her cry one night after much consideration and it worked.

    Until she went to Paris at age 22 and then, with the time difference, I was up at all hours and went through “physical exhaustion” once again. Hey, you’re never off the hook till they’re about…if you’re lucky…26 years old!!!

  4. diblog says:

    It’s so cute to imagine baby Q waking you up to “confer”… even though it can’t have been very fun for you.

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