Newborn baby crying despite sleep training

Sometimes You Just Have A Bad Sleeper

And eventually you will stop blaming yourself.

Originally Published: 
The 2023 New Parents Issue

The first time I realized how profoundly sleep deprived I was, was when I reached for my morning coffee and my hand sailed right past it, a few inches to the left. It’s not like the mug was on the run — my brain just wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. I blinked my blurry vision back into focus and grabbed it from the table, probably snuggling my new baby in the other arm. I don’t remember how old my son was when this happened, but I think we were on month three or four of waking up every night.

My husband and I lived, then, under a cement ceiling of fatigue, each morning waking up feeling like we’d barely slept at all because we hadn’t. It was always there, making us groggy at work, snappy with each other, and increasingly prone to crying because we were awake (that was just me).

When I came home with my newborn, I expected we’d be up every two or three hours to feed him in the early weeks. I had prepared myself for longer, but I did think that after three months we’d all be getting our Z’s. But as months three and four and five whizzed by, my husband and I were still getting up with the baby three and four and five times a night. What I couldn’t have survived hearing then, but what I knew in my gut would be true, was that this “phase” of not sleeping through the night was going to last a very long time. I didn’t know how I knew it — I told myself I was just being negative — but the creeping suspicion never went away.

I dreaded seeing friends or family, who would inevitably ask “How’s the baby sleeping?” Our answers were grim. What followed was always one of two things: hollow reassurance that he’d sleep one day (“Will it be before I die or after?” I retorted in my mind) and unsolicited, often self-righteous advice from someone whose baby happened to be a good sleeper. (Yes, we’ve been using a white noise machine and blackout curtains all along, thanks for the hot tip, Rita.)

For nights on end, all three of us cried it out. But still he woke, over and over, every single night.

And because I know you’re going to ask: Yes, we did “cry it out.” When my baby turned 3 months old, I dutifully followed the Ferber method like my life depended on it because it felt like it did. He became a pro at falling asleep on his own in a matter of minutes, but the night wakings continued. For nights on end, all three of us cried it out. But still he woke, over and over, every single night. What had I missed? How was I f*cking this up?

Every other baby I knew seemed to be growing out of their wakefulness. Sure there were occasional bad nights and sleep regressions, but the moms around me reported that their babies were sleeping through the night. I figured we must have been doing something wrong.

If it’s only my baby, it must be user error, right? So what’s a modern mom to do: I Googled, extensively. I asked our pediatrician (and any I happened to be interviewing for work) what might be waking my baby. They said we were doing everything right. He was long, so maybe he just needed to eat more than other babies his age. I scrolled through baby sleep advice on TikTok, resenting all the mommy sleep experts who looked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They regurgitated all the same advice I was already heeding: Lay the baby down drowsy but awake, follow age-appropriate wake windows, keep the baby’s room between 68 and 72 degrees, and more “hot tips” ad nauseam.

Then I did the last thing you’re supposed to do when frantic for solutions: I started buying stuff. We tried three different bassinets and a crib, two white noise machines, and lavender sleep lotion. We bought enough pacifiers to surround him in a circle of them, so he could always find one easily in the night. His crib looked like we were planning to sacrifice him to the sleep gods. We bought weighted swaddles, loose swaddles, arms-up-by-his-head swaddles. A woman on the brink, I read him the same book each night (Goodnight Moon), worried that even changing his bedtime story would mean we hadn’t stuck to the sacred bedtime routine no one would shut up about. Within a couple of weeks I could recite it from memory, usually done in the dark, lest a dim night light disturb my son’s melatonin production or something.

By this time, 10 months into waking up three times a night to feed our baby, my husband and I were in deep sleep deficit. We lived in a constant state of tension. We bristled at each other’s presence, knowing exactly who got up how many times the night before and waiting for the other to make it up somehow. Without adequate rest, all the sounds and sensations in our home intensified. Walking to the kitchen to make a bottle while my baby’s crying rang in my ears, the sand on my dirty floors (didn’t I just clean them?) sticking to my feet made my thoughts race. The dog whining to go outside was somehow always the thing to tip us over the edge, earning her a sharp reprimand on her way to go pee and us a new layer of guilt.

Finally, we broke down and hired a sleep consultant. I shelled out about $500 in exchange for a personalized sleep plan for my baby and two weeks of texting support from our new on-call expert. I PayPal-ed her the money, knowing in my gut she would not be able to help us but needing to know I had tried absolutely everything.

The sleep consultant told me, “We may be at his biological best,” which felt like the polite way of saying “You’re up a creek, lady.”

Armed with our sleep consultant-approved new schedule, we shuffled nap times, bed time, wake times, all the times. She told me to top his food with avocado oil because maybe the extra calories would help him need fewer at night (she is not a nutritionist), so I obediently scrambled his eggs in it each day. The rule-follower in me was elated to have a guidebook on at least one aspect of parenting for a change, while the budding mother in me was gently nudging me back to my instinct: You’re not going to fix it, and you don’t have to self-flagellate while you try.

When we reached the end of our two weeks, my son now only waking twice a night, the sleep consultant told me, “We may be at his biological best,” which felt like the polite way of saying “You’re up a creek, lady.” I was blind with rage, in the unregulated way only a sleep-deprived person can be. But part of me was also relieved. An expert (however debatable their credentials are) had also tried and failed at making my baby sleep.

So, finally feeling heard and $500 lighter, I unburdened myself of the weight of thinking I could do any more to make my baby sleep. I stopped blaming myself.

I called my mom to tell her about our failed sleep experiments. She, unlike the rest of the world, had never offered her unsolicited advice, so I finally asked: How did she get her babies to sleep? She told me my sister slept 13 hours a night after a few weeks at home. This might have sparked more Big Feelings of anger for me if I didn’t already know where she was going with this. Her second baby (that was me), on the other hand, didn’t sleep all night until she was 4 years old. I finally snoozed till morning when, after trying everything else, she explained to 4-year-old me that if I woke up at night, I could just roll over and close my eyes again. To this day, I take prescription medications to fall asleep, and then do it so lightly that if a housefly farts, I wake up again.

It was all the validation I needed. Here was one mom — my mom — who had two babies, diametrically opposed in their sleep habits. For one baby, she did nothing and was rewarded with night after night of blissful slumber. For the next, she did everything and struggled with sleeplessness for years. Our tendencies surrounding sleep carried on for our entire lives. Was it really any surprise that my baby, 50% predisposed to being a god-awful sleeper, was just… being himself?

Each time I would sit, rocking, feeding, feeling in my bones like I had failed again at getting my baby to sleep. Now, I recognize that I was cradling, kissing, mothering. I was getting him to sleep, in the way that he needed, however maddening it was for me.

This was the first time I realized that my son is his own person, a person who doesn’t sleep well, and not the factory model baby that powers down when placed on its back in the crib, lights off, glorified TV static on loop. (Seriously, why do babies like white noise so much?) It’s also when I learned to listen to that tremulous little voice inside me that knew this about him all along, that knew there was no changing him.

A few weeks after my son’s first birthday, I remember opening my eyes, noticing our bedroom was light and seeing my husband dart to the nursery, certain something was wrong. It was past 7 a.m., and 11, 2, and 4 had all come and gone with no cries in the night. He slept all night. Nothing much had changed. He was taking wobbly steps now, drinking whole milk, eating more solids. Maybe all that time he really was just hungry. Maybe something just clicked for him. I’ll never know. But between the excitement and the full night of sleep, we felt capable of anything. I told my husband I could literally run to the moon.

Cooper is 2 now. When I think about our sleepless year, I remember the feeling of waking up while already walking across the hall, the bottle I made in the dark on my dresser in hand. Each time I would sit, rocking, feeding, feeling in my bones like I had failed again at getting my baby to sleep. Now, I recognize that I was cradling, kissing, mothering. I was getting him to sleep, in the way that he needed, however maddening it was for me.

That gut feeling, intuition, the sense of knowing, call it whatever you want, it’s not there all day every day. But now, when I just know something, I heed my instincts. I know when my son’s bottom eyelids turn red, he’ll be sick a week from now and it’s viral. When someone new wants to win him over, I tell them to pretend he isn’t there, and he gravitates toward them. And when it’s time for bed, everyone stays downstairs, because, like me, he’s a very, very light sleeper.

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