To sleep, perchance to wean

Heavens, it’s been a while. Sorry for the very long absence. Was feeling a little bit bleurgh and argh, on account of hormones and tiredness, and have generally been absorbed in the business of a life which can swerve from sheer frustration to utter elation in the space of an hour.

Now, I have something to say about sleep. And I will preface it by saying that we have recently  undergone a little bit of night weaning in this house, after I decided that Little Miss Stuffyerface no longer needed a night feed on top of the huge troughs of solids and regular milk feeds she piggles her way through daily.

It was a roaring success actually (she says, damning herself to 100 nights of sleep deprived torture with one foolish sentence), and did indeed take two nights as promised by many people whom I did not believe. She now has a cold and things have gone a bit haywire, but, illness notwithstanding, most nights she has slept through (though unfortunately is now quite sure that 5.30am is the perfect time to start one’s day). This is good. I am pleased.

But. BUT. I am pleased Leila has slept through (will not say “is sleeping through”, I do not play that fast and loose with fate) because it makes my life easier, I am less tired, and I do not have to sit in the dark with chilly feet feeding a large baby who does not need the calories at 3.30am.

I am not pleased she has slept through because it makes her a better baby, a good baby, an angel baby, a perfect baby, or any other kind of superior baby because of her sleeping habits.  It also does not make us better parents.

There’s a pernicious, spoken and unspoken, attitude that a baby who sleeps through the night is the pinnacle of parenting and a mark of an excellent baby.  And the earlier this happens the better the baby/parent is. How many times have I heard a smug parent inform me that “he’s such a good boy” because their son sleeps through, or that their daughter is “a little angel” because she does. And what they may as well add is that they, the parents, are also fabulous for either a) spawning a child who naturally sleeps through or b) parenting their child so very perfectly that they sleep through.

When your baby isn’t sleeping through, this sort of makes you feel like crap. If those babies are so great thanks to their snoozing habits, then what does that make your baby? A bad baby? A devil? I mean I’m taking it to extremes here, and I’m sure people don’t mean to imply that, but sleep deprivation can make a person a little sensitive, and, well, the implication is there, if not intentionally.

I got so hung up about this- not so much about the lack of sleep itself as about this obsession with mastering your baby’s sleep and thus producing a “perfect” sleeping “angel”, and the impression that, at 5 or 6 or 7 months old, Leila ought to be sleeping 12 hours a night and that I was some kind of a mug or a failure for not bringing about this glorious possibility- that I started to feel seriously down. I even went to see my GP, and though she started the conversation with talk of postnatal depression, she ended it by saying “you’re not depressed, you’ve been listening to people and books too much. You’re doing a good job. Sod them”.

If convenience is your measure of a good baby, then yes, babies that sleep through are extremely good. But if that’s not your prime measure of how much your baby rocks, I call nonsense. Imagine labelling an adult “good” for their ability to lie still with their eyes close for hours at a time.  Babies wake up in the night, they’re famous for it. And then some stop waking up, some carry on, and some need a little nudge in order to sleep for longer.  And yet for many parents it seems to be the prime focus from the minute their babies are born: for them to sleep and for mum and dad to boast about it loudly. I’ve even heard about some parents who sprinkle cold water on their newborn’s face to wake it up in order to follow the routine dictated by, ahem,  a certain book.

Some people replace the words “good” or “perfect” with the word “contented” when describing their baby-who-sleeps-through. Ie “he’s such a contented little soul, he has always slept through”. This is a code word for “good” or “perfect” that makes them sound less like braggarts. This also makes other parents feel like crap, because it implies that their baby who doesn’t sleep so well is not contented.  I call nonsense on this too. Leila is contented. She’s so contented, in fact, that sometimes I wonder what she’s been smoking, and whether she’s left any for me. That’s not a boast, it’s just who she is, and by gum are we grateful for this. But she’s contented with or without the fabled full night of uninterrupted slumber.

I’ve looked at sleep from both sides now (having it, and not having it), and while I know- believe me I know- how sleep or lack of it can effect your mood and life in general, let’s stop pretending that how a baby sleeps is a measure of how good, or not, they are. They don’t know how to be good or bad, in fact they have no concept of these things, or indeed of anything. They don’t know what their hand is, let alone what “good” is or how to be “good” by not waking up at night. And this, the fact that they are so delightfully in the dark about pretty much everything, is one of the many things that makes them lovely.


5 Responses to “To sleep, perchance to wean”

  1. 1 gillian October 18, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    mother of 8 month old. love this. thank you.

  2. 2 bokker October 19, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Thanks Gillian. Leila is 8 months old too.

  3. 3 gillian October 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    i started reading you when we were both pregnant, i believe our girls were born fairly close together – our daughter was born 2.2.10. we did some night weaning around 6.5 months to get her down to one nursing a night and in the last month she’s been making it through the whole night. my husband used to ask why i went to bed with so many clothes on and i would say ‘it is COLD at 3am!!!’ i got SO tired of the ‘is she sleeping through the night’ questions and the judgement that seemed to go with it. c’est la vie. i’m still defensive about it 🙂

  4. 4 Min October 21, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Please can I print this out and force the NHS to give it to all new mothers after they have given birth, to read in a couple of months time? If anyone else asks me whether my wonderful adorable funny and chilled out 7 month old sleeps through yet, I shall smack them. Bin the books I say! Glad the nightweaning has been a success, am still putting it off…

  5. 5 bokker October 22, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Min, the most important thing for me was to wait until me AND Leila were both completely ready (um, I was ready quite a long time before she was!) before night weaning. She was really well established on solids- this took a month at least- and wasn’t feeding properly in the night or her first-thing-in-the-morning feed. Then I knew the time was right, got G on board and we did it as a team. We couldn’t have seen it through if we hadn’t been sure she was ready.

    As you say, all of your son’s wonderful qualities are SO much more significant than whether he sleeps through the night or not.

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