Family Nature

Lowering Expectations about Babies and Sleep

Yawn by DanielJames

There’s been some talk recently about CIO or cry-it-out on some blogs that I read; Phd in Parenting and Metropolitan Mama are just two of many.  I’ve been sitting here biting my tongue.  I never meant for this blog to be provocative or controversial.  I’m not writing to start some great debate.  But there is something nagging me about this issue.

As much as I love comments on my blog, I don’t really want to read comment about why people choose CIO.  Seriously.  I don’t.  I don’t use CIO and I never will.  No amount of “well, I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but it worked!” comments are going to change the way I feel about it.  Of course it worked.  Beating my kids to make them sleep through the night would probably work too but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Now people, don’t get your knickers in a knot, I’m NOT saying that CIO is the same as beating your kids.  I’m not.  I’m simply making the point that there are probably tonnes of ways to get someone to do something they don’t want to do; but just because it works doesn’t mean that we should do it and it certainly doesn’t make it right.

I’ve been tired.  I am tired.  I have four kids that are pretty close in age; when the youngest was born my oldest wasn’t quite 6 yet.  I’ve dealt with sick kids, sleepless nights and marathon nursers.  There have been many, many times when I was home alone putting four young kids to bed.  I get it.  I know people are tired.  I know what sleep deprivation is.  I’ve been frustrated about sleep.  I’d still never use CIO.

But the thing nagging me the most is this: why do we (as in, our society) think that babies should sleep through the night?  That sleeping through the night is the norm?  It’s really, really great if you have a baby that sleeps through the night on their own without CIO but babies like this are the exception, not the rule.  Our standards are way too high.

With four young kids people ask me all the time, “How do you do it?”  I often answer, “I’ve lowered my standards.”  People usually laugh but it’s true!  My expectations are much lower than they used to be.  I know that my kids are going to do things even after I’ve told them a hundred times not to.  I know that my kids haven’t quite mastered impulse control.  I know that my kids – all of them, even my seven year old – are still going to need me at night sometimes.  As they get older, they need less and less attention at night but they all need it sometimes.  I know this and I expect it.  Somehow knowing that it is normal makes it easier to manage, even from the groggy depths of sleep deprivation.

There are lots of resources out there that explain why babies don’t sleep through the night and why they need us at night.  Dr. James McKenna, Dr Sears and Kelly Mom are just a few.  These links will lead you to more.

Instead of fretting, arguing and debating night waking – something that is normal and should be expected – I choose to focus on coping.  All parents probably need more sleep and at some point or another will have to cope with sleep deprivation.  I’ll leave you with some of the things that have helped me get through:

  • Eat right and take vitamins (if you think you need them). When I’m giving my body what it needs it just makes it easier to cope with anything!
  • Fresh air and sunshine. We all need this, but it’s often overlooked.  Even on the coldest of days, bundle up and get out, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
  • Caffeine. I know, I know, probably not the best way to deal with it but it helps me.  Even a nice hot cup of herbal tea can do the trick.
  • Talk to like-minded parents. Commiserating and knowing that it’s normal for babies to wake in the night can be comforting.
  • Exercise. For you and for the kids!  It helps all of us sleep better and gives us more energy.
  • A catnap or quiet time. On days when I’m feeling totally desperate, when the babies are sleeping I’ll put on a movie for the older kids and cuddle up with them on the couch.  Even if I don’t actually get to sleep, putting my feet up and relaxing for even ten minutes has saved the day for me many times.
  • Ask for help. Something most of us don’t do often enough.  Ask family or friends to help.  Swap kids with another mum: they take your kids one afternoon and you take theirs another.  Ask Grandpa to come over and take the kids to the park.  Hire a mother’s helper or babysitter to come over for a couple of hours in the afternoon.  Tap into your resources – whatever they are.
  • Go to bed early. Go to bed with the kids.

What are your secrets for coping with sleep deprivation?  Comment below and share them!

Photo from DanielJames via flickr.

26 thoughts on “Lowering Expectations about Babies and Sleep

  1. SoloParentProfessional

    I think it’s so cute you site herbal tea as a source of caffeine! In Bean’s heyday of waking 4-5 times through the night between 6-8 months (not to nurse. Just to hang out), and then when we were getting used to being on our own she’d wake up for HOURS in the night. Herbal tea would have stood no chance. I was up to four large Timmies a day. (Judge if you want). I’m not saying it was *right*, but I will say it got me through more than one day. 🙂

    Great post!

  2. emily

    very nice handling of a very touchy subject.
    oh, and i totally agree with coping avec une petite cafe!

  3. BarbaraH


    THANK YOU familynature. I’m so tired of biting my tongue and saying “whatever works for YOUR family”. I wouldn’t let my sister cry alone or my husband then why would I let the youngest and most vulnerable member of my family cry alone. Sure they’ll learn to sleep through the night but what else do they learn? That their voice doesn’t matter? That I can’t be counted on when they really need me?

    When I signed up for this gig I knew that there would be plenty of sacrifices and sleep was one of them.

    My favourite coping mechanism is playdates! Inviting myself over to a close friend’s house for an afternoon of play helps me get through what could be some very bad mommy moments. Thanks friends who understand!!

  4. Tanya

    Oddly enough, I go for public parenting when I am most tired. Why? Because I get grumpy and short tempered when I am over tired. (Which is not pretty. Especially when the kids are tired and grumpy too!) If I am in public, surrounded by other parents at the park or other fun zone, I am more likely to remain in control of my inner mama bear. Laugh if you want, but peer pressure works for me. When I can’t take a nap.

  5. Julie R

    Very nicely put!
    I have a confession to make, which may help a sleep deprived mama out there…My (almost) 15 month old daughter has always slept for long stretches (I’m not going to say she’s a good sleeper, because I don’t believe in “good” and “bad” when it comes to sleep, it just IS what it IS). She’s in bed with me, and my four year old son is right next to us in bed with dad. He, on the other hand did not sleep through the night until he was 2, and it wasn’t really consistent until he was 3. He nursed around the clock. My confession is this; I MISS the night-time sessions. I lay awake looking at my daughter, and the clock, wondering when she’ll wake up. I don’t sleep through the night! She wakes once or twice, and I ease her back to sleep, feeling satisfied and needed. She’s our last baby, and she is growing up so fast. Enjoy these moments, mamas, they are so fleeting!
    I was much more worried about sleep with my son (and getting less of it as well!), but he taught me how resilient I could be, and what my priorities were. I am so thankful to have been in the trenches with him, and to have come out whole and wanting more. CIO just seems so foreign, unbelievable, and unnecessary. My advice is to slow down, go day by day, and develop a taste for espresso.

  6. MissCommuniKate

    Nice post FN! I would say our expectations around sleep and children are not so much high as completely unrealistic. For all the reasons the “experts” tell us, babies (as a rule) do not sleep for long stretches at night. They get hungry, wet, they grow, they have bad dreams, the list goes on… Thus to expect (hope?) that our babies will sleep “through the night” and to expect that we should be getting lots of sleep in the early years is simply ridiculous.

    *Why* I wonder in frustration do we expect children to self-soothe? They have no skills, no context… they know *nothing* about this world into which they were thrust. They only know they are worried, fearful, uncomfortable, lonely. As adults, we confront and cope with these feelings, not without difficulty. How on earth can our babies be expected to deal?

    I never could do the CIO “method.” A baby’s cry is her only form of communication for the first year and longer. Imagine if you were communicating with someone who consistently ignored you; who abandoned you in your time of need? As was already pointed out, we do not ignore our adult loved ones when they need us. Would never think of walking out on someone as they told us of their bad day, or other concerns. It is the treatment of children as non-human, as possessions and as creatures to be managed that sets us up for all this strife around sleep.

    Let’s face it mamas and papas: we’re not going to get much sleep when the kids are young. Like FN, I have accepted this, and it *does* make it a whole lot easier. Stressing about how much sleep I’m *not* going to get or how tired I’ll be the next day just doesn’t help. Letting go and staying in the moment, focusing on the little person who needs you *right now* can help.

    One tip that helped me from day three with my firstborn was learning to nurse side-lying. Co-sleeping and side-lying nursing helps mamas *and* babies settle back into much needed sleep more quickly. This was a lifesaver for me. Soon, both of us became pros, so nursing on demand throughout the night was not disruptive for either of us. Baby never got worked up in his hunger or distress and I was never fully wakened. Keeping a small basket of diapers beside the bed enabled a quick, foggy 3 am diaper change when needed. Again, very little sleep disruption.

    A regular bedtime routine also worked very well for us. Kids were soothed by their bath/book/bed routine, and knew the drill. Bedtimes were never a crisis. Of course, we always lay down (or nursed) with them till they fell asleep, which can be a drag at times (and lovely at others), but ultimately, it creates kids who feel safe and comfortable going to bed on their own. After 7 years, our bedtime/co-sleeping routines have paid off. There’s never a fuss about going to bed, never a fuss about staying in bed, and all three (7, 5, 4) sleep through the night with barely a bad dream. (And the odd time the do awake, we are right there to soothe them quickly back to sleep.) I’d say it all was well worth it.

  7. Rhondda

    GREAT post Amanda. I think that we have the most frustrating time at being parents when we have expectations that set us up for failure. This happens soooo often at nighttime, and it seems to me is part of why nighttime parenting is probably the biggest hurdle any parent faces. And our culture sets us up for unrealistic expectations too.

    How much easier things get when I am able to surrender to what my child needs, instead of trying to fit her into my own needs. To wit – the days when she was a champion napper. These were my golden hours. Except fo the days when she *didn’t* go down easily. Minutes ticking buy, turning into half hours, full hours and more, as I saw all MY plans for the afternoon go out the window. Once I could finally just let them go, and surrender, commit to being with her, it became a relaxing time out for me too.

    Perhaps my favourite quote from Peggy O’Mara: “Don’t stand unmoving outside the door of a crying baby whose only desire is to touch you. Go to your baby. Go to your baby a million times. ” Here’s the whole article from her, as close as I’ve ever gotten to a parenting manifesto, but what I share when people ask me:

    Barb, your comment reminded me of a great quote from a pre-KM mama, Alison Kramer: “I have never felt more like a mother than at 3am”. Sure, the hardest moments are at 3am, when we might be alone, or with our fewest resources, but also the absolutely blissful moments also come at 3am. Just you and your baby awake in the house, gazing into each others eyes, no one else needing anything else from you, the ability to be fully present for your baby.

    My munchin is 7, and I still go to bed when she does. 🙂


  8. Susana

    Fantastic that you have shared your secrets, and invited others to do the same!
    I did much of what you did, but with our 2nd, I drank less caffeine and upped my intake of Bach Remedies – ‘impatiens’ in particular.

  9. familynature

    “It is the treatment of children as non-human, as possessions and as creatures to be managed that sets us up for all this strife around sleep.”

    Awesome. I *love* this.

    Side-lying is also great tip. I didn’t figure out side-lying until #1 was 4 MONTHS OLD! Then when we finally figured it out it was life-changing. If I’d only known I would have made an effort to figure side-lying out sooner.

  10. incalculable

    My whole world changed when I gave up on my mom’s advice to let my 6 month old cry it out (based on 70s child rearing “wisdom”) and brought him into bed with me to nurse and sleep in comfort. I only had two little ones, but the only time I was sleep deprived was when I was trying to get my oldest to sleep apart from me (before asking myself, “why the hell am I doing this??”). When we had our second baby, my partner built us a co-sleeping bed — a loft above for the 2 year old, and a king-sized bed below big enough for all of us. We never had sleeping problems after that — ever!

  11. Melissa H

    As babies #1 and #2 were both great at sleeping. I never did the CIO untill the oldest was 2 and had to deal with the new baby. Not my fav thing to do. But in that case i have to say it worked. But have found myself not letting go of my youngest. Being as iam pregnant again daddy has been co-sleeping with #2. Which works out… Since being in the same bed got me pregnant again for the third time. LOL…So everyone but sometimes hubby sleeps great. LOL..Great blog Amanda.

  12. circa1921

    Wonderful post. I too never used CIO. I simply could not bring myself to – it just felt unnatural.

    I agree with you about moms having to take care of themselves. I think that moms of little babies need help and support to be able to take a yoga or dance class, go for a walk, go have a coffee, take a nap etc…Sadly, many moms I met in my baby group when my daughter was very little were not getting this kind of support at home. Their partners did not help them at all with the babies at home, never mind giving them time to themselves so that they could be the best mums they could be. I was quite shocked to discover that in this day and age, gender roles around child rearing are still quite old fashioned, even among otherwise progressive, open-minded people.

    So…in my humble opinion I am going to suggest that maybe if our attitudes towards who does all the child care in families changed then maybe we’d have a few more (relatively) rested mums and a few less mums engaging in CIO practices. Maybe they are not all bad people, just desperate for some help. Maybe it’s just really screwed up that we live in these isolated nuclear families with grandparents and cousins and siblings living miles away and unable to help. It takes a village. I really appreciate that old saying now that I have a child of my own.

  13. Alexandra

    whoa. I am *right* there with you. I just can’t say anything on this topic, *because* I cannot say “whatever works for you.”

    Totally randomly (or not), I follow David Allen on Twitter (he’s the “getting things done” productivity and time management guru). One of his tweets this afternoon was “The more sensitive & responsive the environment, the less need for noise to get things done.”

    I don’t think he was talking about not CIO-ing, right? Except that’s what I immediately thought of, even before reading your post. He isn’t even talking about “noise” in the normal sense. Except it fits.

    I don’t understand, like really do not understand, why this is a minority point of view. I worry about this part of how the Western world parents.

  14. Mellissa

    Great post! Couple tips from someone who attempted CIO – lasted 1 night, 5 minutes. I couldn’t anymore. We were all nuts (toddler, me and DH).

    1. Don’t talk at night – with anyone, about anything. Ever. Bite your tongue.

    2. Everything is better in the light of day. Luckily, the sun will rise soon enough. (a good hum from “Here Comes the Sun” would be enough to get me going.)

    3. Don’t make any real decisions between the hours of 9PM and 7AM.

    I really enjoy reading your blog mama! xo

  15. meredith

    I liked this article. I think its difficult to realize that some babies just don’t sleep all night. I get so tired (ha!) Of people telling me my almost 11 mos old should sleep thru the night and not nurse and on days when I am really really really tired, I will rock him in my lap and doze. Its a sure fire way for him to doze too and give me the time my brain needs to rest.

  16. Rhondda

    Mellissa – So agree with you on #3.

    I also found a big weight off my mind when I told myself that I didn’t have to make a decision about a particular parenting situation NOW. Nothing much about the situation – nighttime, weaning, solids, toilet training, whatever I was frustrated about at the moment – was going to change much if I gave myself another 24 hours to think things through.

    I just remembered something that made bedtimes easier for me when India was little. She would nurse to sleep fairly easily, but then wanted me to stay forever, she would wake if I got out of bed. I invested all of about $15 in one of those little clip-on book lamps, so that once she had drifted off, I could at least read for a bit til she was deeply asleep. I sooo miss reading as a parent – there is never enough time for reading – my idea of total luxury and indulgence is to READ for hours on end, so this really worked for me.

  17. Haddas

    My best discovery on dealing with sleeplessness was to focus on the fact that I was spending time with my child, rather than the fact that I was trying to get him to sleep. Once I just let go of the “waiting” aspect of the process, it allowed me to really enjoy it, and both of us were more at ease,. which was itself more conducive to falling asleep.

    Now that we have a new baby and my husband usually puts our older son to sleep while I nurse the baby, I miss the time spent just lying beside my older son, watching him babble to himself (sometimes endlessly) about his day’s activities, then toss and turn and eventually peacefully drift off, breathing slowing down, snoring beginning. I especially miss how sometimes, I thought he was asleep, and I’d start to sit up to leave, and even with his eyes closed, he’d reach out his arm and grab my hand to keep me there for just a few more minutes. Even in a lesser state of conscioussness, he was still very aware of my presence, and I knew how important it was to him.

    They’re only little for a very short time in their lives, and in your life, and their littleness disappears so quickly. Treasure it. Savour it. Focus on the “doing” rather than the “getting it done” (I can’t take credit for that line – I read it somewhere – can’t remember where). You will never look back and wish you had spent less time with your child.

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