The Science of Sleep
Updated: Jun 25
I started writing this post when my first daughter - now 2.5 years old - was still an infant. I never got around to finishing it, partially because sleep is a big, complicated, controversial issue for babies and toddlers, and I had some guilt associated with the subject. Turns out both my daughters have been very similar in their sleep habits (or lack thereof), but the major difference this time around is how I've framed my perspective on it.
My baby(ies) was(were) anti-bassinet or crib from the get-go, and we subsequently had a few (many) really difficult months when it came to sleep. Inevitably whenever I read or talked to people about the issue, I'd find two main types of responses, neither of which was very encouraging or helpful: 1. My baby slept in the crib all night from day one. You're clearly the worst and doing everything wrong. 2. My 12 year old has slept in our bed every night of their life. Accept this reality forever and you'll be fine. Infant sleep specialists make a pretty penny selling their opinions to desperate parents. I follow the Instagram account of one such popular sleep guru with whom many parents appear to have found great success. You can spend anywhere from $40-$320 for an age-specific sleep course with the option to add on a $75 phone consult with her. Although she often posts about having flexibility to the routine, I found myself focusing too rigidly on wake windows and exact timing of naps and bedtime when I tried following advice from her content. Some parents spend thousands of dollars for sleep consultants to spend a few nights in their home helping them with their babies, which I did research during a few desperate nights. The main goal from most of these types of professionals that I was finding was creating a solid sleep foundation with a baby who's able to fall asleep and get back to sleep when they wake up with minimal to no intervention from a caregiver.
You can also hemorrhage cash on fancy sleep sacks, sound machines, blackout curtains, or smart bassinets. I couldn't bring myself to gamble on the $1700 Snoo (and my husband was absolutely against it) despite many, many parents swearing by it. I have a sound machine in each child's room, had two layers of blackout curtains in my toddler's room for a while and now do in the baby's room (because blackout curtains often don't truly blackout), and did experiment with various sleep sacks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has many recommendations for baby sleep that are primarily centered on SIDS prevention. Some of the evidence guiding those recommendations is old or questionable, but SIDS is a very real and very scary thing, and it's important to have official policies when it comes to preventing the worst of outcomes.
The tricky thing is, there are sleep consultants who have very opposing views, information from any one of them doesn't always line up with the AAP, evidence can show conflicting results (not all studies on co-sleeping/bed-sharing show an increased risk of SIDS/sleep-related deaths, and in fact there are some countries with high rates of bed-sharing that have especially low rates of SIDS), baby sleep products aren't "one size fits all", some products still leave you with just alternative sleep crutches, and - when it comes down to it - babies gonna baby. All of this makes it difficult to know what advice to believe or follow.
Every baby is a unique individual, and a tried and true method for one parent might not work for another. No matter which experts you're looking to, the practicality of rules and guidelines can become dubious when you're simply trying to do what you can for anyone to get any sleep, knowing sleep deprivation can itself be harmful to you and your baby.
I was glad when our pediatrician acknowledged that he himself broke one of the big sleep rules and that "anyone who says they don't is a liar". I'm glad to be following some other sleep specialists on Instagram now that have a more laid-back and baby-focused style that makes me feel better about the routines in our house. Instead of stressing out about sleep patterns and worrying about the amount of sleep anyone is or isn't getting and what's "supposed to" happen, I've been trying to be supportive and understanding to the needs of my girls and feel grateful to be their source of comfort and security.
If you're struggling with baby or toddler sleep, I'm here to tell you that you're not a horrible parent, and things are going to be okay. The exhaustion of parenthood is so real, and you're doing your very best.