Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Open Letter to Everyone Who Knows a New Mom

I know you mean well. I know you're just trying to make conversation. But please, please, please stop asking new moms if their babies are "sleeping through the night" yet.

Yesterday morning at my local La Leche League meeting, we were having a discussion about sleep habits, and how anytime you mention sleep problems, well-meaning folks (from pediatricians to nosy neighbors) seem to jump at the chance to suggest formula (or formula mixed with rice cereal) to help them "sleep better". I said, "You know, if breastfed babies don't sleep through the night, and breastfeeding is the biological norm, then maybe 'not sleeping through the night' is also the biological norm."

And that got me thinking, and I have been thinking about this a lot since yesterday's meeting. Instead of accepting babies as they are, and adapting to that, we focus all of our time and energy on changing our babies into this unrealistic ideal. Formula companies spend millions of dollars developing (and marketing) milk substitutes that will sit in your baby's stomach and keep her asleep longer, and there are entire aisles in every bookstore devoted to teaching parents the magic cure to their babies' sleep woes.

But maybe we're trying to fix something that isn't broken. First of all, did you know that the medical definition of "sleeping through the night" is sleeping a five-hour stretch? So if your baby is going to sleep at 7 pm and waking up at midnight, just as you are finally winding down for the night, guess what? Your baby IS "sleeping through the night".

Expectations are everything. When Valerie was a baby, she would wake up to nurse every 60-90 minutes, day and night. (If I had known then what I know now about breastfeeding, I would have diagnosed my milk oversupply issue much sooner, and her sleep habits might not have been so bad, but that's another story.) When Dorothy was a baby, she had more "normal" sleep habits - she would sleep a 4-5 hour stretch at the beginning of the night, then a couple of shorter stretches before morning. I thought I had won the sleep lottery! It was amazing! People would ask me, "How is she sleeping?" and I would say, "Great! She sleeps until 2, then she nurses again at 5 and 7, then we're up for the day at 8!" And they would give me this horrified look as if I had just told them she sprouts horns at night and claws out my entrails, then they would bite their tongue and try to say something "nice" like, "Well, if you're okay with that..."

Now, before you jump in and say, "My baby sleeps for 12 hours every night, and I never had to do anything to make it happen, that's just the way she is," I will admit that some babies seem to be magically endowed with the ability to sleep for 12 hours every night, without waking up once. Consider yourself lucky. There are three-year-olds who have the ability to memorize the entire Quran, too, but we don't expect that of every three-year-old. If you have an amazing kid, great, enjoy it. But it's unrealistic to expect that kind of extraordinary behavior from every baby.

And I'm going to cut a bunch more of you off right here, too, before you jump in and say, "I trained my baby to sleep through the night using Dr. So-and-So's Amazing Method For Getting Babies To Sleep Better, and it totally works!" I'm not going to tell you how to parent your children, so if it worked for you, great. But something has always bugged me about all those "make my baby sleep" methods on the market, and it wasn't until today that I really realized why.

SIDS. Every parent's biggest fear. What if my baby dies in her sleep? We know the risk factors (formula-feeding, parents who smoke, sleeping on her front, etc.) but we still don't know exactly what causes it. Babies just die in their sleep and we don't know why. It's terrifying!

And as I have been mulling over my thoughts from yesterday, that maybe sleeping through the night is not the biological norm, I realized that the two could be connected. We invest all this time and energy into making our babies sleep for longer and longer stretches, and what do they do? They sleep for longer and longer stretches. And then one day, they just don't wake up.

Now, I'm not trying to point fingers or assign blame. I am NOT saying that if you sleep-trained your baby, and they died of SIDS, it's your fault. Let me repeat that: I don't think SIDS is your fault. And I'm not saying you're a bad person for sleep-training your child.

Here's what I am saying: It is normal for babies to wake up several times a night. Normal and healthy. There is nothing wrong with your baby if she is waking up several times a night. Your baby is normal. So please, can we stop placing unrealistic expectations on these perfect little people who are just doing what they are biologically designed to do? Can we stop trying to fix what ain't broke?

At the same time, I am also not saying that you should just suffer silently if your baby truly does have trouble sleeping. Sometimes there is an underlying problem than needs to be addressed (like my oversupply issue with Valerie), and as babies get older, there are things you can do to gently guide them towards age-appropriate sleep habits. Work with your baby to make things the best they can be. But check your expectations at the door. Assume that your baby will wake up several times in the night, and find a way to make that work for you. It's better to be pleasantly surprised by a baby that sleeps more than you expected than to be devastated by a perfectly normal sleep schedule that is less than you expected.

And, back to you, well-meaning friends/doctors/neighbors/strangers: Please, stop asking us how our babies are sleeping as if it was the only thing that mattered. Stop acting like a baby sleeping 12 hours every night is the norm. Stop acting like our perfectly normal babies are broken. If you want to make polite conversation, why don't you focus on the positive? "Oh, what a sweet baby, don't you just love cuddling her and watching her coo?" You can't go wrong with something like that.


nivchek said...

THANK YOU JULE ANN! This is one of those Posts-I-Wish-I'd-Written, but you did it for me. Thank you!!!! I hate that question and I usually just tell them I don't know. That raises eyebrows.

Rhian said...

i love this whole post and agree with so much of it