Dear Jenny: Is "Sleep When The Baby Sleeps" A Lie?

Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column What The Actual. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email

Dear Jenny,

Why does everyone say "sleep when the baby sleeps"? Has no one realized yet that it's f*cking impossible?

Sleep No More

Dear Sleep No More,

Ah. Sleep. That thing you used to do, if not well, then at least daily.

I'm only nine months in, and I can tell you that sleep is a fond memory, as is sitting in a café drinking a latte and working on a novel I'll never publish because WHY NOT WHILE I'M AT IT WHY NOT SIT IN A PARK WITH A HULA-HOOP AND SOME BUBBLES THINKING MAYBE ONE DAY I'LL HAVE KIDS NOT REALIZING THIS MEANS I WILL NEVER DO THESE THINGS AGAIN YOU WITH THE MOUSTACHE AND RAY-BANS WHY ARE YOU SMILING I ONCE DRANK ROSÉ OUT OF A PLASTIC CUP TOO.

And I didn't used to sleep well. I've had insomnia for over 20 years, but my pre-baby insomnia was sort of nice, because after an hour or two of lying in bed replaying every stupid thing I'd ever said and done (HOW WAS I TO KNOW AT 23 THAT THE WORST THINGS I'D SAY AND DO WERE YET TO COME AND NOT AS INNOCENT AS PEEING IN MY NEIGHBOR'S DRIVEWAY ON HALLOWEEN BECAUSE, AS I TOLD MY FRIENDS, "HE KNOWS ME! HE WON'T MIND!"), I would throw off the covers, make a mug of hot chocolate, and crawl back in bed with a book. Those silent predawn hours, when it was just me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the occasional sound of gunfire (WHAT'S UP OAKLAND CALIFORNIA) were, ironically, some of the most calm and happy of my life.

These days, as I recently told my husband, I often think about a documentary we watched when I was pregnant about four women who rowed across the Pacific Ocean by, among other things, sleeping in two-hour shifts. At the time, I thought, How can anyone function on two hours of sleep? Now I'm like, EVERY TWENTY-FOUR HOURS THOSE BITCHES GOT TWELVE HOURS OF SLEEP SOMEBODY GIVE ME SOME OARS.

Your question, Sleep No More, is specific to moms, but it's very specific to new moms, whose babies have the shortest sleep cycles of all.

According to most of my peers, my current sleepless situation is my fault, because we're not sleep-training and I co-sleep. My son wakes up six to 18 times a night, smells milk like a shark smells blood, and cries out for boob. After a few wake-ups, instead of falling back asleep, I stare at the ceiling, replaying every bad parenting decision I've made so far, and then I think about plane crashes.

Your question, Sleep No More, is specific to moms, but it's very specific to new moms, whose babies have the shortest sleep cycles of all and who, if they're lucky or if they so choose, at least for a little while, are at home with their babies (INSERT RANT ABOUT HOW THE FEDERAL FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT STILL ONLY APPLIES TO "CERTAIN" EMPLOYEES AND EVEN IF YOU'RE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES IT'S STILL UNPAID TIME OFF MAKING YOU CHOOSE BETWEEN A PAYCHECK AND BONDING WITH YOUR NEWBORN IF YOU THINK AMERICA IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION).

New babies sleep A LOT, and every baby book tells you this is when you should sleep. However, the same books are full of "useful" advice on how to get everything done when you have a new baby -- implying, if not stating explicitly, that things like, say, cleaning the house are 1) important, 2) your job. Here's the rub: Sleeping when the baby sleeps only works IF YOU HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO DO, such as tending to a second (or a third, or a fourth) child, feeding yourself, or sitting in a sitz bath to ease your stitched and bleeding labia. Also it only works if you don't have postpartum anxiety, which, it's becoming clear, I did (apparently it's not "normal" to have "panic attacks" about all the ways the "baby" could "die" so you can have contingency plans ready to go).

EASY FOR YOU. Fotolia.

And getting enough sleep is especially difficult for moms who don't have help: single moms, moms whose partners are not particularly helpful or available, and moms whose families live far, far away or who are otherwise isolated. And the means to hire help (baby sitter, night nanny, postpartum doula) are not available to most.

But here's the thing: You have to sleep. And if you're in charge of the baby, it's only possible to sleep when the baby's asleep (or I should say it's only advisable) -- or someone else has to be in charge of the baby. That's why people say sleep when the baby sleeps: It's not some secret wisdom. It's one of only two options you have.

I will share one story: My friend Cristal -- A SINGLE MOM -- told me that, after she had her baby, she got the best sleep of her life.


She kept Kind bars and coconut water on her bedside table. She used Amazon and GrubHub to order what she needed. She lived with three roommates and split a housecleaning fee. She wheeled her laundry (and carried her baby) to the local wash-and-fold and negotiated a lower rate by asking them to skip the folding.

"I didn't listen to any of the judgment," Cristal says. "I wanted to enjoy it. I went to bed at 11 p.m. and stayed in bed until 11 a.m. I wore her for six months. It wasn't like we didn't struggle. Our room was a mess. I had problems with my breasts. But it was the most glorious time. I just gave myself over to it. My advice if you want to get sleep? Drink water, and stay in bed."

And I'll share this:

One recent night, I fell asleep with my son at 7:30 p.m. I woke up every time he woke up and nursed him back to sleep. But somehow, the rest of the time, I managed not to think about the Apocalypse and stayed asleep until 7 a.m. And in the morning I felt… rested.

The next night I was up with him every hour and woke up feeling like I'd smoked half a pack of cigarettes, drunk two bottles of wine, snorted a gram of cocaine, done a cannonball into a hot tub full of people, and ridden the BART train without any shoes from Lafayette, California, to San Francisco, where a small child asked me if I was OK.


<3 Jenny

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