I know I have moaned about sleep quite a lot in the last five years. That’s something of an understatement, isn’t it? Sleep has been something of an issue since early in pregnancy, and actually, before that too. I can remember having difficulty sleeping as far back as university, and problems just getting to sleep even at Bernard’s age.

But the fact is that once a baby appeared on the scene, it was so much worse, because my nights were perpetually broken into unhelpfully small chunks. Now, at five years old, Bernard sleeps through most nights. He sometimes wakes once, and usually comes through to wake me up when he does; he hasn’t yet figured out that he just needs to go to the toilet and back to bed, and he’ll soon drop off again. I take him back to bed and tuck him up, and he drifts back to sleep. I return to my own bed and lie awake. Some nights this happens two or three times, some nights not at all.

In low moments I blame myself for his inability to get asleep. I hear so often in antenatal classes the concern that if one comforts one’s child to sleep, they will never learn to go to sleep by themselves, and on the surface it looks like that is exactly what has happened here. I helped him to get to sleep by breastfeeding him for such a long time, and then by staying with him until he fell asleep, that he cannot do it by himself.

And yet, in not-so-low moments, I wonder if that’s the true picture. My mum says I was a great sleeper as a baby. And then she adds that she did leave me to cry sometimes. And she seemed to have forgotten the difficulty I had getting to sleep as a child, until she came to stay and saw Bernard doing exactly the same thing: appearing on the stairs ten minutes after lights out, whining that he can’t get to sleep. So he and I were parented to sleep in completely different ways, but have very similar sleep patterns. My dad has chronic insomnia too, and that makes me feel absolved[1].

Leaving Bernard to cry himself to sleep clashed with every maternal instinct I have. The ensuing comments, which I hope do not appear, telling me that some babies ‘need’ to cry themselves to sleep, will make me reflect on how society undermines maternal instincts. Babies in non-western societies don’t appear to ‘need’ to cry themselves to sleep; how is that possible? Not only does it clash with my instincts as a mother, it also clashes with my knowledge as a breastfeeding counsellor, that leaving a baby to cry is not emotionally or neurologically healthy. Here is a well-referenced article that can give you more detail on that.

I am satisfied that I didn’t cause Bernard’s sleeping issues by parenting him to sleep. If I take a long term view, I can see that his sleep has improved gradually over the years, and the way Pete and I parent him has changed in response to that, not the other way round. We have met his needs, and his needs have changed. In the last few days we have seen another step forward at bedtime, as well as consistent night-time dryness: both things that happened when he was ready.

  1. thanks Pete []
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