Is he good? A question that I have been asked countless times- usually by well-meaning old biddies who stop me in the middle of Knowle high street so that they can coo over Jacob whilst I smile and nod, wondering how best to respond, because this question only ever means one thing: does he sleep through the night? Don’t get me wrong, as a new-ish mum, there is nothing that I love to talk about more than sleep, or the lack of it. I obsess over sleep in an almost masochistic way and revel in the opportunity to discuss it at great length with anyone who will listen. Fragmented sleep, for me, is the hardest thing about having a baby and, even though my son is now over thirteen months, I can count the number of times he has slept through the night on two hands. Is this frustrating? Yes. Do I sometimes feel like I am losing my mind because I’m so tired? Of course. Do I walk around in a zombie-like state, unsure of how I am able to muster up the energy to do even the most basic of things? All of the time- I dread to think what I would be like without the magical elixir of coffee. The effects of sleep deprivation are all-consuming and have the power turn you into the worst version of yourself; after particularly disturbed nights I find myself short-tempered, hypersensitive, teary and feeling physically ill.
But this is normal. Even if it is a bit shit.
When I was pregnant with Jacob, I did what all pregnant women do; scour the internet to find sleep aids that I could throw my money at in the hope that they would work wonders and give me that ‘good’ baby that society tells me I should have. I bought a co-sleeping crib, a musical sheep, swaddle blankets, a special mattress designed to mimic the feeling of being in the womb and comforters. Don’t get me wrong, some of these things have been brilliant, but none gave me the full nights sleep they promised. I coped for about six months, as we are told that it’s normal for babies to wake regularly for the first six months, but as soon as Jacob hit that six month mark it was as if a switch flicked. At our monthly check ups, health visitors went from being sympathetic and supportive to telling me that I needed to “solve the problem”; nip my baby’s poor sleep in the bud before creating more bad habits. Having previously been told, for example, that feeding my baby to sleep was perfectly natural, I was now instructed to put him down “sleepy but awake”. Anyone who has had a baby will understand the rage that comes with hearing those words. It is not that easy.
The expectation that babies should sleep through the night can have crippling repercussions on the emotional wellbeing of new parents, and the assumption that babies who do not sleep through the night are not ‘good’ babies feeds into the arbitrary belief that babies should be born programmed to know the difference between night and day. Suffice to say, they are not. It is something that they will learn over time and with our help, but new parents can expect several months, or even years, worth of disturbed nights. Of course the thought of this is horrific to even the most liberal of parents. But we have to remember that babies are completely and utterly dependent on us for survival; they are born the most premature of all mammals and rely on us for everything. We adults wake in the night for a number of reasons- thirst, hunger, anxiety, dying for a wee, too hot, too cold, bad dreams, illness. Throw teething, developmental leaps and separation anxiety into the mix and it’s no wonder babies wake so frequently.
Of course there are dozens of different sleep training methods out there to help encourage your child to sleep for twelve hours straight, but they come at a price. The physical efforts of the ‘pick up put down’ method requires you to have guns of steel. The dodgy success rates with the ‘no tears’ method means you may not even get close to the results you so desperately desire. The guilt that comes with controlled crying can make parents feel like failures. The worry that you’ll cause long term emotional damage to your child if you go down the ‘cry it out’ route can leave you doubting your identity as a loving parent. Unfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to parenting, and you just have to do what is right for you and your family. I have friends who are firm believers in attachment parenting and just get through the constant night wakings with caffeine and a good support network. I also have friends who felt that broken sleep was making their baby miserable during the day, so decided to take control of the situation in order to have a happier child. Is one parenting style better than the other? No. Is one baby ‘better’ than the other? No.
So is my baby ‘good’? Well, he rarely sleeps through the night, if that’s what you’re asking, but he’s pretty bloody wonderful in spite of that.