I am trying to write something about sleep, but holy crap am I tired.
The thing about baby sleep is that it’s a nightmare. And everybody experiences it differently, but also exactly the same, and almost everyone lies about it — as it is happening, in retrospect and even projecting into the future about how they will wrangle a yet-unborn child. They lie to you, they lie to everyone they know and they lie to themselves.
“We just put them down in the cribs awake and they went out without making a sound.”
“We hit the jackpot. She only ever cried when she was teething. She was sleeping through the night pretty much right away.”
“We did some gentle sleep training. He didn’t ever really cry, just fussed a little for a couple of nights.”
“We used the Ferber method. It really wasn’t that bad. Just a night of crying and then a few minutes and then nothing.”
We know that everyone lies about baby sleep because, for some reason, we have been incapable of lying about it. We suffered through 10 long months (give or take) of extreme torture from Serafina very publicly and we are now on month 8 (though honestly, only 4 of those have been brutal) with our twins and everyone that knows us knows this.
If you really start to scrutinize the stories other parents are telling you about their perfectly sleeping children, the holes will become more apparent. If you spend time with those families — time that corresponds with when their children are napping or going to bed — you will gather tangible evidence that what they mean when they say “she never cries” is a very different thing than how you interpret that statement.
For example, you will hear that “never crying” baby shriek for a solid 20 minutes like she’s being eaten alive when she is put down for a nap while her parent calmly makes a sandwich and settles in for a chat with you.
For our part, we start most of our days before 5am. Sometimes we start them, like I started this one, at 3am. We get out of bed a lot in the night, taking turns trying to rock a baby back down, removing a crying baby from the room where another one is sleeping or, back when we only had one child, escaping to the couch for a couple of “off” hours. We are often ripped out of sleep by the sound of crying or a sleep-talking (sleep-shouting) toddler. Sometimes that happens at the precise moment that we have finally, after a long day of caring for 3 children and working full-time, dropped off into our first stretch of “rest” for the night — and that there is the very worst of all. And we know we could have it so much worse.
We do some combination of bed-sharing and crib sleeping with the babies, just like we did with Serafina until she was about 15 months. We have no regrets, especially about the bedsharing. It is wonderful, sweet, cozy and heaven for reconnecting with your babies as a working parent.
We’ve also done our share of sleep training. We can make ourselves feel better about it by qualifying it was “light” or “gentle,” but the fact is, there has been crying. Cumulatively, among our three babies, there has been more crying than we would prefer — which, of course, is none at all. But we have come to understand that around four months, all babies will stop sleeping “like babies” and shit gets real. They have lost the involuntary sleep that defines the newborn period and, instead, have to be taught to fall asleep and then to stay asleep.
There are a million ways to go about this, as one broad Google search will reveal, and small fortunes have been made in preaching some of these methods, but what we believe is that you must go about it, one way or another.
You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, oh no, you gotta go through it. But this is one of the things people will lie about too.
These are not lies people tell with malice, I think. But maybe as an exercise in assuaging their guilt or fear that they’ve done something, or that there’s something wrong with their child. Or perhaps it truly is a reflection of how we are all functioning in our own unique interpretation of reality, with our individual tolerance level for the pain of sleep deprivation and the sound of our baby’s cries.
As survivors of Serafina’s reign of terror, we know these things will work themselves out. Sometimes that makes it easier to manage what happens during the long, hazy nights we’re having with the twins, but we have no illusions that this is going to be easy or a thing that passes without some work.
To the dangerously exhausted mother of a 5-month-old, sputtering miseries about the way her son won’t stay asleep for more than 30 minutes to the child-free friend she just bumped into in line at the coffee shop: we hear you, we recognize you and we salute you. Thank you for keeping it real even if no one seems to care or understand.