For obvious reasons, sleep is a major concern of expecting and new parents. Will the baby sleep? How will it feel to try to function on less sleep than I’ve ever gotten before? Why isn’t the baby sleeping, and how can I help the baby sleep? When will the baby start sleeping through the night?
Newborn sleep deprivation is incredibly stressful, and it doesn’t help that everyone on the internet seems to have an opinion about it. Sleep training, bed-sharing, attachment parenting, cry-it-out – the mommy/daddy/parent wars are very real. Lately (though this is entirely subjective!), I feel like I’ve been seeing a renewed spate of articles talking about how it’s normal and natural for babies only to sleep for very short stretches of time, and that parents simply have to accept that and wait it out until the baby starts sleeping for longer periods. Appreciate these precious newborn moments! The articles say. Your baby needs you in a way they never will again!
There are – in my view – three problems with this approach. I’ll name them all in this post, but I’m mostly interested in addressing the last one.
The first problem is that baby sleep consolidation is not something that necessarily just happens. Regardless of the approach that you take to teaching your baby to sleep, it is almost always something that needs to be taught, or at least facilitated. And it’s incredibly hard to teach a baby to sleep if you are nonfunctional from exhaustion yourself!
And that’s the second problem with this approach – in promoting the sleep needs of babies, it erases the sleep needs of parents, which are just as real and just as essential for the health of the whole family, including the baby! People who are sleep deprived to the point of hallucination do not make good caregivers for infants, and telling modern parents that it’s “normal and natural” to put themselves through an experience that qualifies as torture under the Geneva Convention is dubious advice at best.
Because the thing is, if we’re going to talk about what’s “normal and natural” for babies, we have to look at the bigger picture, and that is:
Humans were not designed to raise babies alone. (And “as a couple in a nuclear family with at least one person working outside the home” qualifies as “alone” for these purposes.)
I’ll say it again, louder:
HUMANS WERE NOT DESIGNED TO RAISE BABIES ALONE.
Humans are social animals, and for the overwhelming majority of our history, as hunter-gatherers, herders, and farmers, we’ve existed in networks of extended families, clans, and tribes. The separation of work life and home life, and the pattern of nuclear families living in their own dwellings, is only two or three hundred years old. Our “natural and normal” way of caring for babies is in groups, which include not just parents, but older siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and just people who happen to be around.
If you’ve ever seen a group of people interacting with a really tiny baby, you know that babies get passed around. One person gets tired of holding the baby, the next person is happy to take over. This is supposed to be the way it is 24/7, not just when you happen to have people over or be out in a group. It’s my personal theory that part of the reason that people have different sleep cycles at different ages, is to facilitate the care of babies overnight. Auntie, who’s sixteen, naturally stays up until two in the morning, so she gets the first shift, handing off the baby to Mom when baby is hungry, and then going to sleep until late morning. Dad, who conked out early after a long day of hunting mammoths or herding goats, takes over between two and four, but by 4:30, Granny (or, if the generations are short, Great-Granny), who’s post-menopausal and naturally goes to bed and wakes up early, is ready to take the baby so Dad can go back to sleep until the sun is actually up. Meanwhile, Mom gets a full night of sleep except when baby is actually hungry, but is able to sleep soundly in between feedings. Baby is held by loving arms, and everyone gets enough sleep.
Holding other people’s babies is awesome.
For a couple of months when my son was a baby, my ex and I actually lived in an arrangement very like this, with a teenage aunt, a night owl grandmother, and also a grandfather who was delighted to pitch in his share. In my opinion, four or five adults is the absolute minimum that should be taking part in taking care of a baby.
(And psst, to dads in hetero relationships – if it is just you and your wife, you should be just as tired as she is. Yes, you probably have to go to work. But she has to take care of your child all day. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” is not a thing for a lot of people, in the daytime at least, and childcare is exhausting, essential, and just as skilled as whatever you’re doing for a living. Pull your weight.)
If you’re pregnant, the absolutely most important thing you can do for yourself – far more so that choosing the exact right brand of sleeper or baby carrier or breast pump – is find the people who will be, however imperfectly and partially, your village. Do you know teenagers who love baby cuddles? Or older folks who live far from their grandkids, and would be interested in becoming surrogate grandparents for yours? Or friends whose kids are a bit older and who know what it’s like? Talk to them. Find out if they can pitch in, even a couple hours at the beginning or end of the night, or during the day so you can nap. If your family and friends have more money than time to help, have them pitch in for a postpartum doula as part of the baby registry!
Living in extended families or clans is probably not going to be the default again anytime soon, but we can still take a leaf from the hunter-gatherer book and do our best, as communities, to take the load off the parents. Because we were never intended to do this alone.