Sleeping Through the Night, Self Soothing and ‘Good’ Babies: Why We Need to Stop Setting Mothers up to Fail

Night

“Is he sleeping through the night?” asks a stranger.

“She’s too clingy. You really need to stop picking her up.” says a friend.

“Is she a good baby?” asks a woman at the park.

“He should be self-soothing by now. Consolidated sleep is critical for healthy brain development.” proclaims a sleep trainer.

“You’re creating a rod for your own back.” exclaims a grandmother.

“I hope you’re putting her down drowsy but awake.” advises a mother at a meetup.

“Feed, play sleep! Feed, play, sleep!” chants a daycare worker.

“You’re not nursing him to sleep are you? That’s a bad sleep association. How do you expect him to learn to fall asleep on his own?” questions a health nurse.

“Oh, he’s just manipulating you, dear. He’s got you wrapped around his tiny eight-week-old little finger.” says a mother-in-law.

“If you don’t put your three-day-old baby down to sleep in a crib on his own you’re risking suffocation and death. It is the only way babies are safe from SIDS.” states a pediatrician.

These are the loud lies of infant sleep that our culture repeats from one generation of new mothers to the next, as if on autopilot.

Without questioning the roots or validity of these statements.

Without an understanding of the biological needs of babies.

Without knowledge of what normal infant sleep looks like.

Without an appreciation for how most cultures around the world care for their babies (and why).

These mistruths are dangerous, not only because they’re false, but because they’re full of unrealistic expectations that set a new mother up to feel like she’s failing. To doubt her own abilities. To worry that there may be something wrong with her or her baby.

These mistruths when repeated often enough lead to fear, paranoia, worry, anxiety and guilt. This is the opposite of what new mothers need.

Because the truth is that no matter how many times we repeat these mantras, they’re still bullshit.

They’re still rooted in 19th-century ideals, created primarily by poorly informed, upper-class male physicians.

They’re still superstitious, unfounded and fear-based.

And while I appreciate that they may be said out of love for mothers, out of a deep desire to help or out of a concern for a family’s well-being, that doesn’t change the damaging impact these words can have on a new mother and infant dyad.

We need to recognise that to be invited into the presence of new parents and their baby is a great privilege, not a right. And with that privilege comes great responsibility. When the stakes are this high, it is simply not okay to repeat any of the mistruths above…even and especially if you heard these as a new mother yourself.

It is not okay to compromise the foundation of attachment a new mother is creating with her baby.

It is not okay to elevate society’s compulsion to conform above the needs of a new mother and baby.

It is not okay to pretend that cultural ideologies are fact.

The truth is that our western parenting culture got a little off track in the last hundred and fifty years. We no longer recognise the normal and healthy biological needs of children, day and night. We no longer recognise the importance of the fourth trimester and its ability to protect a new mother’s mental health. We no longer recognise how to help, in the way that mothers truly need.

And that’s okay. We can’t undo the past, but we can learn from it. And we can rewrite the future. We can be curious. We can learn. We can question.

We can find strategies to weave natural practices that allow both mothers and babies to thrive in our modern world. But, we can only do that if we silence the loud lies and allow the quiet truths of infant and toddler sleep to rumble.

So, what are the quiet truths of infant (and toddler) sleep?

That it is normal for babies to wake through the night, as often as every two hours for many, many months… and need their parents to help them fall back to sleep.

That it is normal for a child’s sleep to take five steps forward and three steps back and one step sideways and then turn inside out….sleep progress is anything but linear.

That it is normal for babies and toddlers to breastfeed to sleep (and through the night).

That it is normal for a baby to crave constant contact, to nap on her mother and to cry when she leaves the room to bring her back into proximity. This is not a sign that she is “spoilt”, this is a sign that she knows how to ensure her own survival.

That it is normal for toddlers to wake through the night and need mum or dad’s reassurance…to make them feel safe enough to surrender to sleep again.

That it is normal for babies to sleep like babies, and not like adults.

That it is normal for families to cosleep in the way they choose – bedsharing, room sharing, sidecar cot, musical beds – and it is normal for families to enjoy it…and not want to change a thing.

That it is normal for mothers to cry and to need help – that is NOT a sign she is failing or in need of a “solution”.

Because the truth is that human infants are the most immature, contact-dependent social mammal on the planet, which, by definition means that human mothers are among the most needed, hardworking and exhausted mothers on the planet.

So, she doesn’t need to be questioned or judged or to meet false standards of “success”. She’s doing her best just to get out of her pajamas by 3 pm. To have a shower every second day. Or to make and successfully drink a warm cup of tea.

She needs help, not judgment.

She doesn’t need you to have the answers or to ask for them, she needs you to BE her answer.

So, before you ask a new mother, “Is your baby sleeping through the night?” STOP.

Stop and ask yourself, what could you ask instead?

Perhaps…how are you coping?

Or…how can I help? Or even better…let me help you…I’ll make you a cup of tea. I’ll fold the washing. I’ll run you a bath. I’ll order takeout.

Resist using normal, interrupted infant and toddler sleep as a scapegoat. Instead, use it as a point of connection.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Because, in the years to come, a new mother won’t remember exactly what you said, but she will remember how you made her feel. So, make her feel cared for. Make her feel emotionally safe in your presence.

Make her feel like she is the best mother on the planet…because, to her child, she is.

COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    May 01, 2019
    Brittany

    You said it perfect, “she needs help, not judgment”. Understanding this distinction is so important in today’s society, where just about anything and everything is subject to debate. If mothers (or humans in general) stopped tearing each other down, and instead built each other up and supported one another, the effects would be unstoppable!

  • Avatar
    May 02, 2019
    Rocio Gonzalez

    Tears comes out when I was reading it. Thanks for the support and reassurance.
    Mother of two.

  • Avatar
    May 02, 2019
    Jill

    Excellent article! As a typical grandmother, raised in the ‘50’s, the aforementioned questions were always the first to innocently flow from my mouth as well. Now I have a wonderful daughter in law who has shown us the difference. Our grandchildren are the most loving, caring and confident children around.
    I’ve also learned how important that “4th” trimester can be when you are raising 5 children and homeschooling them as well. We love our “daughter” and are so proud of the mom she is to our 5 grands and has not slept a full night for over 11 years!! God Bless her. Thank you for enlightening so many.

  • Avatar
    May 02, 2019
    Meredith

    Thank you for putting into lovingly written and well researched words the things I have been feeling for some time now. With my first, we tried lots of “sleep training” (drowsy-yet-awake, pick-up, put down, leaving the room, coming back, leaving again) and honestly, nothing “worked” — we would have ended up in the exact same sleep place years later if we had done none of those things (and with much less gut-wrenching crying and screaming). So with my second, I let it all go. I started with him sleeping next to me in a bassinet, which lasted for about five days; he’s been next to me in bed ever since. He’s a toddler now and I still nurse him several times a night. I haven’t done any “sleep training,” which feels right, but it’s so interesting to see the small sideways looks/comments I’m getting when I say I am still co-sleeping, even from close friends and fellow parents. I’m more confident now as a second-time momma, but these words really make me feel more confident in following my instincts and staying true to what they tell me to do. Thank you so much for that.

  • Avatar
    May 02, 2019
    Clair

    Thank you for this ❤️

  • Avatar
    May 02, 2019
    Matt

    Great article. We are following this and are happy with out decision not to sleep train as we do not agree with the concept. We are taking some flak regarding it, and coming from a scientific background, it would be great if you had some recent research to back this up? Or research that counters the sleep training argument.
    I think there are many different ways of parenting and no answer is wrong, but society do push for sleep training and it’s frowned upon if you don’t. Parents need to do what works best for them and their child whatever it may be.

    • Avatar
      May 02, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Matt and so happy to hear that you are following what’s right for you. I have spent the last 5 months delving into the research and have put together a series of mini-guides on topics surrounding sleep, like sleep training, breastfeeding, night waking, responsiveness etc. I’ll be launching them in the next couple of weeks. The best way to find out when is by joining my email list. Thanks again!

  • Avatar
    May 02, 2019

    Love this! What every parent needs to hear and understand.

  • Avatar
    May 03, 2019
    Barbara Chrisman

    I am a new grandma who shared my bed with my three babies and breastfed on demand. My daughter has read and been told, and is convinced, that bedsharing is dangerous to the baby; she has a cosleeper by the bed but after nursing when she tries to lay Ben on his back in the sleeper he fussed and wakes up. He doesn’t like lying on his back and misses his mom! Any ideas on making the co sleeper idea work. I don’t want to try to convince my daughter of something she is uncomfortable with. Thanks.

  • Avatar
    May 03, 2019
    Liv

    Thank you. Spot on! It is really hard when you feel like you are alone in advocating for your baby. I hope your blog becomes really really really REALLY famous and helps bring on a much needed culture change.

  • Avatar
    May 06, 2019
    Kristy

    This was an encouraging article to read.
    My baby is perfect – according to the ‘book’. I put her in bed at 7pm, and she sleeps 12 hours straight. She then talks to herself happily, until someone comes to get her. BUT, she is my 6th Baby ♡ They weren’t all like this!
    I’ve had babies who would only cuddle to sleep. I’ve had babies who would ONLY sleep in their cot (That’s a spoiler to any social life parents need!) I’ve had babies who would only breastfeed to sleep. I’ve had babies who would sleep anywhere, whenever they were tired.
    Each baby is precious & perfect & their way was the right way – it was their way!
    My eldest is now 14. I had to feed or cuddle him to sleep every time; but guess what???!!!? He loves to cuddle the younger kids when they’re upset. He will now pick up my 6 month old, and help her out when she wakes & any time really.
    What A Beautiful Gift That Is ♡

  • Avatar
    May 06, 2019
    Ingrid

    The pediatrician unfortunately isn’t spouting lies. I perform CPR on lifeless infants way too often than you could ever imagine. Stop “normalizing” bed-sharing when Research has shown time and time again that it is dangerous. Keeping your infant safe is way more important than participating in the whole “do what works for you mama” attitude. I saw above where someone commented asking for research and you claim to have some but will introduce it later. I would love to see it, and share it with the thousands of parents/caregivers in our evidence based practice infant/baby care site.
    Signed,
    A pediatric ICU nurse who is tired of coding dead babies from unsafe sleep practices

    • Avatar
      May 07, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      I completely empathize Ingrid and can only imagine the absolute horror. The issue that I see is that either side of the argument isn’t willing to have an open-minded, rational and informed discussion with the other. That’s why it is SO great to be able to open the discussion on an individual level. Nobody wants babies to die – everyone wants to do the safest thing for their family. I don’t do the “each to their own” sort of thing as an excuse to practice dangerous habits.

      There are many opposing forces that need to be discussed. Cosleeping is used as a catch-all phrase to include sofa sleeping, falling asleep in a nursing chair etc. Bedsharing is normal and healthy and it is the way babies and mothers are designed to sleep BUT babies are not evolved to sleep with fluffy duvets, soft beds etc. ALSO there are multiple reasons a baby can die in the nights – SIDS, ASSB etc. The medical community issues a blanket statement that it is UNSAFE and tells parents NOT to do it but they are failing parents and babies because parents will do it anyway – why? Because they’re exhausted. Because babies need to sleep next to their parents and make their needs known. Because they’re trying to breastfeed (as every medical authority recommends exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months yet fails to recognize that 50% of that happens at night) and its almost impossible to do that without bedsharing at night.

      What would be wonderful is if the medical community took responsibility to inform, rather than selectively inform and result in parents going it alone. To explain to parents how to bedshare safely. To explain what the issues are – to tell parents that if they smoke, drink etc they should NEVER bedshare and provide them with an alternative. Breastfeeding non-smoking mothers should be taught how to make a sleep space safe – no heavy fluffy bedding, no cracks next to beds, no headboards, no pets in the bed.

      If the medical community truly wants no more babies to die in the night needlessly then they need to change what they’re doing. Continuing to do the same thing (scare tactics) and expect a different result is pointless. I am launching a series of guides on the science of sleep and will be including on on SIDS that has all the up to date research outlined in it.

  • Avatar
    May 07, 2019
    Mike

    No love for fathers in this article, maybe next time write this with both in mind… this isn’t 1960.

    Source: A father who cuddles his kid just as much as mommy does.

    • Avatar
      May 07, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      I know and appreciate the comment Mike and my husband is the same! 99% of my readers are mothers so that is mostly who I write to. Its not to alienate fathers at all. Will take this into account in the future though and if I can write to both I will.

  • Avatar
    May 07, 2019
    Pappy

    Everyone is different (mother and child )….all the ones giving advice on how to handle this situation, what one should or not do….i don’t usually see (MD…PHD or other degree after their name….just let your instinct and what you think is best…..for you and your child…

  • Avatar
    May 17, 2019
    Jana

    Tracy,
    Thank you so much for your blog! I am sitting here with my 3 month old daughter peacefully sleeping in my arms, tears running down my face, because I can finally feel like a good mom. I have been struggling with the question of sleep and how to approach it, early sleep training/coaching screaming at you from all sides. I kept worrying if I don’t do something I’m depriving her of the opportunity to learn an important skill, all along feeling it was not right. Your blog moved me to tears as I finally realized my instincts were right and there’s nothing wrong with either of us. Now I can shower her with all the love and attention we both crave, guilt free.
    Thanks again!

  • Avatar
    May 18, 2019
    julia

    As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and previous pediatric trauma nurse – this post is incorrect. Co-Sleeping is not safe. Why are you going to encourage something that you know can cause infant death.

    Also as a mama who breastfed her baby you very much can breastfeed your baby at night without ever sleeping in the same bed as them.

    This post is unsafe to new moms.

    • Avatar
      May 18, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Julia, thank you for your comment but this post is absolutely correct. Please define what you mean by cosleeping.

      Bedsharing and breastfeeding (breastsleeping) with a non-smoking, sober, non-drug using mother, on a safe sleep surface is categorically different to sofa sleeping with a parent who has been drinking – yet, the medical community is failing parents because they call both “cosleeping” and fail to give parents safe nighttime parenting options.

      The fact is that mothers, especially breastfeeding mothers, WILL cosleep at some point. The way the medical community scares parents, generalises and fails to give individual parents approriate advice means that many mothers will be so fearful of bedsharing that they do not know how to do it safely and therefore accidentally end up falling asleep on a sofa or nursing chair – extremely unsafe version of “cosleeping”.

      So, we agree that cosleeping CAN be unsafe. But I do not agree that bedsharing can NEVER be safe. People can die choking – that doesn’t mean we suggest that people stop eating. People can break their leg walking, that doesn’t mean we put people in wheelchairs to prevent it. We inform, we teach. The medical community advised mothers years ago to put babies to sleep prone – countless babies died as a result. I fear the same thing is happening now when the same community fails to take responsibility for teaching parents how to do something that is biologically normal, puts their fingers in their ears, closes their eyes and pretends it isn’t happening.

      Scare tactics aren’t working anymore and more and more parents are doing it. What I think needs to happen is to teach parents who CAN bedshare safely how to do it and identify those parents who CANNOT bedshare safely (smoking parents, parents who drink alcohol, obese parents etc) and advise them how to parent at night without risking getting into dangerous situations like sofa sharing. Until parents are informed and empowered babies will continue to be put at unnecessary risk.

  • Avatar
    May 19, 2019

    Hi again Tracy 🙂

    I just love all of your articles so much. This one is so true-baby sleep is not and cannot be a singular kind of thing. Babies are as different as adults are different, and each one requires personalized parenting. Gosh, it’s sucks that this has to eve be said-but it’s like you say, our cultural narrative is completely the opposite.

    You say that our expectations around mother-baby sleeping is rooted in 19th century ideals. Do you know exactly when and why things shifted? It’s so weird for a mother to be worried about sleeping with her own baby-I just am so surprised that we think like this in such a modern world.

    Something I often think about is the difference between adaptation and evolution-that we humans can adapt to our environment (it’s a superpower of ours), long before we evolve into it. But the thing is that a lot of the times our adaptation is pretty poor, as you can see in how we have adapted to our sedentary environment (not well).

    The same applies to babies. They have evolved sleeping with their mothers, and now are having to adapt to a different way of being parented. The detrimental effects of an adaptation aren’t always immediately seen, and by the time they are, it can be too late to reverse the damage. In the case of the mother-baby attachment, it’s too important of a bond to mess with. Women should continue to nurture their young the ways that have been carried out through history, without establishments imposing rules and fears on them.

    It breaks my heart that so many mothers are too scared to sleep with their babies, but it is changing, thanks to articles like this one. Thanks once again for your words 🙂

  • Avatar
    May 21, 2019
    Jamie

    As a NICU/peds nurse, it’s my job to tell parents not to sleep with their baby. I have two horror stories to back it up. &before I became a mom, I was the woman who just couldn’t believe that all these mom bloggers (some of them nurses) were promoting bedsharing!

    As a MOM I can’t say that I’ve followed my own nurse advice.

    I never set out to bedshare. But when I put my son in his bassinet right next to me and found that I couldn’t see him breathing, I panicked. That was the first time he slept with me, and I set the alarm on my phone every 15 minutes just to make sure I hadn’t suffocated him. It led to me buying a cosleeping bed.

    That worked until we hit the 3 week growth spurt and he wanted to nurse every hour all night long. I got him out of his sleeper over and over and eventually I just fell asleep. I wasn’t prepared for that and I remember feeling like such a terrible mom for falling asleep with him. I cried for a long time.

    & that’s when my research began. It was like this whole new world opened up to me. I’d never questioned that bedsharing was 100% dangerous. But now I do and I know it can be done safely – if the right conditions are met.

    I also felt like a failure for the longest time because he wouldn’t stay asleep. I convinced myself I had PPD but in reality I just believed what everyone said about baby sleep and self soothing.

    We didn’t exclusively bedshare until 4 months when he stopped sleeping for more than 2 hours. At least now I can do it and not be worried all night about him dying.

    Looking back now, both those horror stories involved cosleeping on couches. Go figure.

    Thanks for sharing!

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