“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 paediatrician.
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.