the one where I write about sleep

babies, sleep

Prepare yourself, please, for the least revelatory post in all of mommybloggingdom.


You may never sleep again. I may never sleep again. We, collectively, givers of life, wipers of noses, cutters of grapes, curators of cute stories and boogers on our sleeves – WE – may never sleep again.

The bummer of it is, this essential piece of information is conveniently left out of the brochures you get from your OB. The only thing you hear about sleep as an expecting first-time mom is that it’s rough for the first couple of months. All focus and discussion centers around when the little eight-pounder will begin sleeping six, seven, ten hours at a stretch. After that, you assume (and no one dares correct you), it’s smooth sailing. You’re home free. Is she Sleeping Through The Night yet? When did your baby Sleep Through The Night? Don’t worry – all babies Sleep Through The Night eventually. Sleeping Through The Night is sold by the collective conspiracy as a milestone as cut-and-dry as first teeth or first steps, when in fact it’s a far murkier tale.

Yes, all babies eventually sleep through the night. Whether you wait patiently for it to happen naturally or turn in bleary-eyed desperation to Dr. Soandso Snoozenhaugen and his 99.99% guaranteed method of Getting Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night (Without Sentencing Him to a Life Fraught with Abandonment Issues), it does happen. The first time is cause for many jubilatory texts and phone calls, tweets and status updates. He did it! He didn’t wake up once last night!, you shout from the internet’s varied rooftops. What you don’t tell people is that you woke up four times in engorged agony and an additional six times to make sure your baby hadn’t died or been kidnapped. Inconsequential, those details, because Hooray! You made it! You can get back to the sleep you enjoyed for the first thirty-ish years of your life. At last.

Or not. Babies sleep through the night…eventually…and then they don’t. Toddlers may sleep through the night…unless they won’t. Children are fully capable of sleeping through the night…and yet, inexplicably, they often do not. And you, Dear Reader/Mother, may in fact sleep through the night some nights, but if you do so more than fifty percent of the time while your children are young, you can count yourself as lucky.

Let’s set aside the fact that no one tells you this before you have children (because why, really, does it matter? would we have enjoyed our slumber more in our pre-kids years? said a little prayer of gratitude every morning we woke up after a full night’s sleep? probably not). Let’s instead review, for those who may not yet know them, the reasons behind this inconvenient truth. I’ll give you just a sampling of my own experience; of the many faces of REM, interrupted; of the causes, both mundane and spectacular, for under-eye concealer’s permanent promotion from optional to mandatory.

First, the four big ones: Basic Needs, Teeth, Sickness, and Just Because.

  • Popular with the under six-months set, you have your typical offenders: hungry, wet, gassy, and just generally lacking circadian rhythms. Add to these a talent for whopping oneself in the face with unswaddled limbs and you’ve got your average new baby and tired mama. No real shockers here.
  • Just as baby may or may not be ready to go all night without eating or needing a cuddle session, henceforth cometh The Teeth. Eight of them between five and nine months, if you’re Boy Powers. I have never actually been totally sold on teeth as a reason for night-waking. I feel like teeth are the El Niño effect of baby ailments … if nothing else seems to make sense, blame teeth. So there’s that.
  • A doctor once told me that babies and toddlers get 8-10 colds a year. That’s one upper-respiratory surprise about every six weeks. If you figure it starts with a fever (night-waking), progresses with cold symptoms (night-waking), and ends with a lingering cough (night-waking), that’s at least a week of no sleep – after which, naturally, they have forgotten entirely what it’s like to sleep through the night. By the time you’ve gotten back on track you have – at best in my experience – 2-3 weeks before the next tooth/cold/random sleep regression (see next).
  • At some point all babies* go through some kind of five-star sleep regression where they completely forget how to sleep through the night, and start waking up in shorter and shorter intervals until they’ve gone completely back to newborn sleep patterns – including, of course, the complete inability to self-soothe or fall asleep without parental aid (preferably in the form of singing).

*in my unscientific study of anecdotal information analyzed through a haze of confusion caused by (ding ding!) sleep deprivation

These reasons alone are enough to wreck your own sleep habits so thoroughly that when baby does make it all the way through the night, chances are you will lie awake for hours thinking about Important Stuff like whether Simon Cowell exaggerates his assholery on TV or if that’s his real personality. And since motherhood prompts nature to conveniently rewire our brains to wake at the faintest coo of a far-off dove, you’ll also enjoy night-waking that has altogether nothing to do with your children; noises through which you would have slumbered peacefully in a previous life will yank you from dreamland as unpleasantly as a cheap bedside alarm clock set for midnight.

(Also, your one-year-old may actually set your cheap bedside alarm clock to go off at midnight. More than once. Then mock you by sleeping through the night himself whilst you fumble in the dark, pulling cords from the wall and mumbling about irony.)

But it gets better. Oh, it gets better. And by better, I mean worse. If you can make it through the first couple of years, you move on to Intermediate Level night-waking – stuff like bad dreams, stomach viruses, the need to go potty, requests for water, a misplaced lovey, questions about vampires and, most recently for us, the declaration that “I just can’t figure out where to put my arms.”

I can only imagine what lies ahead: getting a phone call that a second grader needs to be picked up mid-sleepover, music blaring into the wee hours from the bedroom of a middle schooler, waiting up for curfew-pushing teenagers, and welcoming with each additional kid a whole host of potential sleep detailers.

I’ve made relative peace with the idea of not sleeping really well ever again. I’ve also gotten way better at functioning on less sleep. But I do think those of us who have seen the other side of Sleeping Through The Night – that is, NOT Sleeping Through The Night – owe it to our sisters who are new to the game to shoot straight. Sure, do what you need to do to earn that notch on your belt that tells the world you have a baby who sleeps through the night. And then rest up, mama. Because we’re in this for a long haul.


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9 Responses to the one where I write about sleep

  1. Beth December 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Ahhhh!! This terrifies me! THIS is the thing I worry about as a first-time mom more than anything (not labor, not breastfeeding, not will I ever wear normal pants again). Good that you’re telling the truth but utterly scary to those of us who are going to be starting this adventure soon. Any advice on how to get through it??

    • Joy December 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

      Beth- expect the worst, be thankful for each moment (crying or cooing) and remember they grow up too fast!! Oh and find a happy place… These little ones are so worth it

    • Sarah December 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

      Oh Beth, I thought of you when writing this. Honestly, the beginning is rough but you expect it to be and so you’re relatively prepared. With newborns they truly need you in the night so it’s a little easier to deal. Does a 3.5yo “need” to discuss at 3am when she can see a real live lizard? Less palatable. Having friends to commiserate with (preferably over coffee) is key, so tell LZN to hurry up and cook that Nelson baby. :)

  2. Joy December 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Sigh. Yes. Well said. A standing ovation for the sleep-deprived mother!! Of course, laughing as always

  3. Beth December 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    Thanks, ladies – those comments are the kind of encouragement I need to hear — going to try to just enjoy the ride, and perhaps start a coffee addiction? Sarah – keep these posts coming! What a wonderful look into motherhood! One more month on our baby countdown!!

  4. Laura December 24, 2011 at 7:27 am #

    Sarah, this is great! My first daughter was a great sleeper and my second daughter was ok, but yes, as a mom, I would wake up at every little cough, sigh, etc. And ironically, you wrote this around the time my 6 year old woke up because she threw up in the middle of the night. Anyway, I love this.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Sarah December 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

      Thanks, Laura! Happy New Year to you! Hope you’re sleeping well this weekend. :)

  5. Brandi June 4, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    I have no idea if you’ll read this comment posted 3 years after you wrote this post, but this is the best thing I’ve ever read about sleeping and babies, ever. My 9-month-old is growing teeth and my 3-year-old wakes up yelling, “Protect me!” And all sleep books and “experts” are lying liars. Thank you for the truth. It’s not pretty, but I feel better. I’m going to be really annoying and send this to everyone I know. You’re wonderful!

    • Sarah June 4, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      Brandi, not only did I read it, but it made my day! Thank you so much for commenting! (The saddest part of all this is, I wrote this before I had my third kid, who is by FAR the worst sleeper of all of them. So things have gotten WORSE, not better for me. Ha. :)) Hang in there, mama!

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