Who Needs Sleep?

In my family of origin, I’m kiddo number four – with two older brothers, one older sister, and two younger sisters. My younger sister and I are only eighteen months apart. So, that means Mom got pregnant with her when I was only nine months old! This fact blows me away if I think about it too much.

My own kids are 2.5 years, 3.3 years, and 3.9 years apart – all by design. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a mother of a newborn, and to also have a nine month old at the same time… But what I can tell you, is that this fact probably contributed quite a bit to me being fiercely independent from a very early age.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no issues with this. No angst or regrets about my birth order, at all. In fact, I’ve always maintained that as the fourth kiddo, I had the best placement in birth order: I wasn’t the oldest, I wasn’t the oldest girl, and I wasn’t the baby – perfect.

But despite having an independent streak that may or may not have begun with my sister’s birth, there was an interesting thing I did throughout my childhood which might question my reputation as someone who didn’t really need others that much. 

Most nights, after heading to bed on my own without issue, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and climb into my parent’s bed. At least three mornings a week, my parents would wake to find me nestled asleep in between them. And I did this until I was about 10 years old! I needed them – but on my own terms. And being able to snuggle up with them, even as they slept, made me feel safe, secure and able to explore my world with fierce abandon.

I’m interested in writing about this topic for a couple of reasons… To explore how children intuitively know what they need and how creative they can be in finding ways to meet those needs. And to reassure any parents out there struggling with kids and sleep (or, lack thereof) that eventually the vast majority of them figure out the whole sleeping through the night thing, and those precious hours of sleep you’ve lost will be yours again. I promise.

I’ve just finished a couple of classes where we discuss postpartum issues and then brainstorm solutions. Sleep is always a hot topic for these soon-to-be parents as they’ve heard how challenging this particular issue is and just how little sleep they’ll be getting once the baby arrives.

But I’m always amazed at how panicked they are at the prospect of having a baby who doesn’t sleep through the night from Day One. They seem terrified that this will translate to having a clingy, dependent child who will never sleep through the night – let alone graduate, leave the house, or get a job.

Now, I do tell all of my families that getting more sleep has to be priority number one – because everything else in the postpartum period will be much harder than it has to be if they’re seriously sleep deprived. (Need I remind you, sleep deprivation is an actual method of torture during times of war?) And while some temporary changes in sleep patterns are to be expected in the short-term, coming up with creative ways to get the necessary sleep that allows you to be a functioning human being is extremely important.

But some of their anticipatory frustration can be curbed with a simple suggestion. I encourage my families to take note of the size of their newborn’s closed fist – because it’s about the same size as their belly. This sometimes helps parents realize why their baby is waking through the night. They need to eat. And they need to eat often, as their belly fills and empties pretty quickly when it’s so tiny!

Thriving babies are those who wake throughout the night to get the nutrition they need to grow. As they grow bigger, their bellies grow and these babies will be able to sleep for longer and longer periods of time. But sleeping for an eight hour stretch might not happen consistently until the baby is at least six months old. (Some will be able to do this earlier, some won’t be able to do this until much later.)

This is NOT what expectant parents want to hear. And sometimes it’s not fun to be “the realistic expectations police.”

But I’d rather they enter into this new parenting gig with an understanding: the days of sleeping eight hours straight are over! At least temporarily. But eventually, your baby will figure it out. And that same baby, toddler, or child who insisted upon climbing into your bed in the middle of the night three times a week, might be the same adult who ends up living a very independent life thousands of miles away someday!

And this might explain why I’m so mellow about my little guy’s tendency to still climb into bed with us at the ripe, old age of eight. I’d say his record is pretty close to my own. Most mornings we wake up and… there he is! This morning was no exception. In fact, I took a look at the clock and saw that he was actually earlier than usual. He usually climbs in with us about 5 or 6 am. But this morning, it was just before 4 am, and I couldn’t get back to sleep.

So I had time to consider the issue of sleep and children… With each of our babies we did a little something different when it came to bedtime routines. We tailored the routine to each one of them because they’re unique individuals and seemed to need different things from us when it came time to go to sleep.

Let me be clear, I’m no sleep expert! And most of what we eventually adopted as our own routines would never be touted as great ideas in the books that seem to fly off the shelves when it comes to this issue. But what we did worked for us, for our family, and I can now claim to have three children ages 12, 15 and almost 18 who are really great sleepers (and they have been for years and years!)

But this last one? He’s our “fourth and final” we like to say. His birth order matches mine. And maybe, just maybe, that means he’ll continue his nightly visits several times a week – for the next couple of years.

(This last sentence just shot dread and fear into the hearts of all new parents who are still in the middle of having to wake and feed and diaper a newborn every couple of hours. So sorry, that was not my intention. But honestly, if this ends up being the case for us, I’m okay with it.)

This morning, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, instead of being frustrated and angry with my boy, I found myself looking at him in the early morning light… His eyes were doing that flickering thing that happens when you’re dreaming. I could smell the garlic on his breath from the pizza he’d had for dinner the night before and wondered how well he’d brushed his teeth before bed. I curled his little hand inside my own and kissed his sweet cheek – knowing all too well that his need to be this close to me could end at any moment.

The result? I’ll have yet another great sleeper, another wonderfully independent person exploring his own world with fierce abandon (and one who will go on to graduate, leave the house and get a job someday, I promise!)  

And, believe it or not – this will be so bittersweet.

How is the sleep/no sleep situation working for you? Is it straight up frustration or is it mixed with a little bit of wistfulness? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if you need a little musical interlude to capture these nights of little to no sleep? Check out this song


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