Stress and Sleep Do Not Mix

I am tired. My dear baby is turning nine months and is waking up more than ever and sometimes won’t even go back to sleep with nursing (enter Daddy, who walks him around at 4am, gets back to bed for an hour and then goes to work). It’s not teething, not a Wonder Week, it’s just…being a baby. Probably has something to do with being on the brink of walking (a precocious fellow, this babe of mine). When my first son was a baby, I would analyze the nightwaking and try to figure out why and label it. But this time, I check to make sure a tooth isn’t coming through and no illnesses are brewing and just wait because I know that better sleep will come. And then worse, and then better, etc., until suddenly (it feels sudden and not at the same time), we are all sleeping and life goes on.

So much of having a baby this time is easier, but probably the thing that is easiest for me is the sleep. Don’t get me wrong — this baby sleeps just as fitfully as my older son. He loves to be pressed up against me, wakes frequently to nurse, sometimes wakes up too early, all that. But I am not stressed about it. I know for sure, for certain, most definitely, that he will absolutely, without a doubt sleep through the night when he is ready. I know this because I’ve done it before! I know it because my six year old didn’t sleep all the way through for several years and now he sleeps right through his little brother’s cries!

Most importantly, I know there is nothing I am doing wrong by responding to the baby’s cries. I am not setting up bad habits. I am not spoiling my baby. I am not making him too dependent. I am setting up good habits. I am teaching him that love and touch and sleep all go together, that sleep is lovely and safe and desirable.

Stress and sleep do not mix. The new issue of Clinical Lactation just came out and it is about the dangers of sleep training. Excessive crying in infants releases stress hormones, which can have long-term effects on their developing brains. You can read more about it here. All babies cry, and a little amount of stress will not harm them, but many sleep trainers are allowing their babies to cry for many hours, for many nights in a row. I worry about the long-term effects of all this. I wonder about its connection to many of the behavioral and mental health issues that are cropping up these days and I can’t help but wonder about how the connection between sleep training and the high rates of adult insomnia.

Sleep and stress do not mix!

The same is true for adults. Feeling stressed about your baby’s sleep will only make your own sleep worse. Of course sleep deprivation isn’t fun, but if you use your brain space worrying about whether there is something wrong with your baby for waking, or something wrong with you for allowing it, you will not be able to rest for that 15 minute break when your toddler is watching TV and your baby is napping. You will lie awake beating yourself up when the baby wakes up for the fifth time to nurse, when you would just latch on and go back to sleep.

I always ask myself how things were 200 years ago, when almost everyone nursed and shared sleep with their babies. I’m sure they were tired, and I’m sure they complained, but I don’t believe they were stressed about it to the extent that we are in this culture. New mothers were nurtured through the sleep deprivation, with both wise words and help. The expression, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is no joke. We all need help, we all need breaks, and back then a mother got the care she needed to get through a baby’s first few months or years of waking. Nowadays the answer is to hand a new mother a book about sleep training. I wish that baby-waking was acceptable and normal and the answer to a mother who complains about sleep deprivation is offer a few hours of childcare so the mother can rest.

I know this can’t be for many moms. We live in a world of spread out extended families, expensive child care options, and working, busy moms. But I do wish we could all relax a little about baby sleep. I wish we could accept baby nightwaking as normal and as an opportunity for mothers (and their partners) to form lifelong bonds of trust and care. I know parents are all just trying their best, and no matter how they handle the wakings, they find ways to foster connection and love with their babies. But I still worry. I still want new mothers to know that their babies will sleep and all they have to do is respond and wait.

My baby, in a moment of wonderful, blissful sleep.

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