The Science Of Sleep

February 3, 2009

I think that I’ve said it here before, but I’ll say it again: I’m exhausted. I’m going to say more about it right now, so if the topic of my slow spiral into sleep-deprived madness bores you, click away now.

When Emilia was a baby, I was pretty certain that I had the night-time sleep thing figured out. She refused, for the most part, to nap during the day, but was sleeping through the night from infancy and so I counted myself lucky. More than lucky: I was smart. I knew what I was doing, if only in this one area of motherhood. There were a lot of things that I couldn’t figure out (like naps, which I bitched about heartily), but getting baby to sleep at night? I knew all about that. When I spoke to other moms who couldn’t get their babies to sleep through the night, I shared my tactics – consistent bedtime routine, liberal use of loveys and binkies, a willingness to let baby fuss it out – and nodded sympathetically when they said that these tactics didn’t work for them. I nodded sympathetically, but secretly, I wondered: were they doing it wrong? They must be doing something wrong. My formula worked like magic. Of course it was because it was exactly the right formula, and not because Emilia was simply disposed to sleep at night. I wasn’t just lucky. I was doing something right.

I was wrong. I was lucky. Mostly. I mean, my tactics certainly helped – Emilia’s bedtime routine was made all the more straightforward for its consistency and its props. She did need to fuss it out sometimes, and my willingness to allow that helped us through some difficult periods. But mostly? She was, and is, a good night sleeper.

Jasper is not. And nothing that I do seems able to change that.

I’ve tried everything – routine, props, fussing it out, crying it out, nursing before sleep, not nursing before sleep, swaddling, not swaddling, vodka (for me) – and then tried it all again, and none of it has worked. Sometimes he settles easily into his crib, sometimes he will only fall asleep in his car seat, but regardless of how he falls asleep, he does not stay asleep. He wakes up, always, a couple of hours after going down, and then he will not return to sleep unless he is tucked in at the breast, in bed, with me, and then he will wake up, invariably, every two hours or so to nurse or just to grab at me and make sure that I am still there. If I sneak away to another room – as I have been doing most nights, just to remove the temptation of boob and try to extend the minutes between wakings – he still wakes up, and yells Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma until I return.

And so it goes, night after night. The husband gets up with him in the mornings, when he can, which affords me a couple of hours of rest, but beyond that there is not much to be had. I stumble forward into each day, ever more tired, ever more slow, ever more blurred and bleary and dazed. I’m coping, in a way – there are worse things, certainly, than to be exhausted from caring for a beautiful, healthy, ever-happy baby – but still: I look ahead at the days and weeks and months of Jasper’s babyhood and wonder whether I am fated to remain awake for the duration. And I wonder whether I will stay sane.

Of course I will stay sane. I’ll be fine. Millions of mothers before me have endured sleeplessness. Many, indeed, have done it without the advantages of helpful husbands and king-sized beds and spare rooms and Ativan prescriptions. So I resist the urge to proclaim myself overwhelmed unto defeat. If my own mother could do it, so can I.

What I am having more trouble overcoming: the nagging worry that I am not just unlucky, that I am, in fact – against all evidence to the contrary – doing something wrong, that I am missing some vital resource, some work of science or art or magic that would change things, that would make my baby sleep at night. I think back to the nights of Emilia’s babyhood, when I would stand outside her door and listen to her breathing and fight the urge to go in and – the mind boggles, it just boggles – wake her up to snuggle her, to have more time with her in her babyness, and I wonder whether that was a different woman, a different mother, a mother who knew things, things that I do not know, or have forgotten.

And then I wonder whether I am going crazy, and I shake the Ativan bottle to see how many pills are left and I calculate the odds of Jasper deciding to sleep through the night before they run out.

And I tell myself that I am very probably not that lucky.

Okay, maybe I’m a little bit lucky. It’s just, you know, it’d be nice to look at them and not have them be blurry.

(I apologize – do I need to apologize? – for turning off comments so much recently. I’ve been doing it when a) I know that I need to back away from the computer – to, you know, maybe sleep a little bit – and won’t be able to read comments, and b) when I’m just posting video of the babies, because that whole thing where you give way too much thought to whether people are going leave comments saying how cute they are and ohmigod what if no-one says they’re cute? I don’t like that. So I avoid the issue altogether. Feel free to tell me that you think that this is terrible of me. Because I worry about that, too.)

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    Meg February 3, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Hugs to you. I’ve been there. My daughter did this every night until she turned 1. Then it was like a switch flipped and she started sleeping at night. The DAY she turned one. Crazy.

    You’re not doing anything wrong. If you’re like me, you’ve tried everything. It’s just Jasper and the way he’s hardwired. I’m so sorry that you’re having to deal with all of this, but I hope that it all ends soon.

    Her Bad Mother February 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

    paperfairies – that’s an interesting thought, to measure, but I’m pretty sure that he gets enough. I’ve worried about it in the past, but now that he eats solids (REAL solids) he gets his tummy pretty full, especially before bed – full helping of boobie plus regular dinner. Hasn’t changed his sleep habits one iota. February 3, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I don’t know if you have ever read askmoxie she is a big advocate that people (and babies) sleep how they sleep, like other personality traits.

    My little guy is a solid waking up every two hours kinda guy. All night, since he was born. I have often felt like I was doing things wrong, but I don’t think so, I think people just sleep how they sleep. I wake up frequently through out the night, and get myself back (I remember being that way as a child).

    The worst was every 45 min (the entire month of jan. last year) that did nearly kill me, I started to go insane.

    Now the every two hours to nurse doesn’t seem to have the same effect on me. I have adapted. Unless he doesn’t settle quickly, or shrinks the times. I think you will adjust (and hopefully your husband can be used for comfort in increasing amounts to you guys can hand it off, and get some solid sleep)

    Chicky Chicky Baby February 3, 2009 at 11:05 am

    You, me, Sam… Ditto. Maybe they were born under some weird moon phase or something.

    Pass the vodka.

    Candy February 3, 2009 at 11:12 am

    I think that boys are just different. I too have an older daughter, younger son. They happen to be 18 and 16 now, but I went years…YEARS…without a decent night’s sleep, and my boy very rarely made it through the night until he was probably 10. We had rules…he could come in our room but slept on the floor in blankets there only for him. He tried to be quiet. But honestly, he just lacked the ability to get himself back to sleep after waking up, and that didn’t change for a long time.

    I’m sorry. I know how tired you are. It gets different, if not entirely better. But I don’t think it’s anything you’re doing, other than worrying about it too much, maybe.

    fidget February 3, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Bo and sleep are not friends. I’m tired too. Do you think they conspired against us while you all were here?

    Tina C. February 3, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    i am so sorry for you; i will light a candle for you. that really, really sux. sometimes i wonder how i can still love my kids even though they act like little sh-ts and can’t do something so simple like sleeping, for pity’s sake.

    Her Bad Mother February 3, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    fidget, conspiracy, YES. Must be that.

    Laural Dawn February 3, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I so understand you on this.
    My baby is 10 months and still wakes up a lot at night. I’ve given up the crib thing, put her in bed with me, and wear ear plugs. If she really needs me she grabs at me – but at least I tune out some of the whining.
    But, I just went back to work, so as much as I’m tired I value the time with her too. My perspective kind of changed because I miss her during the day.
    It goes by really quickly though.

    Anonymous February 3, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I have two boys. One is almost four, the other is 19 months. The elder never slept through the night until he was 18 months old, the “baby” started sleeping through the night at about a year. Both were nursed a year. I think some kids just sleep easier than others. Their father is a great sleeper. I have had insomnia since I was a kid. The difference now is that the lack of sleep makes me cranky and I worry about how that is affecting the kids. If you figure this out, please share your secret.

    Jamie February 3, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Not to discourage, but my two year old STILL doesn’t sleep through the night. My first two? Awesome, awesome sleepers. I beat myself up constantly over what I could possibly have done wrong… you would think that a third child would be the best sleeper. sigh. Kill me.

    Anonymous February 3, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    My now 7 yr old whom I did not co- sleep with, gave formula and let CIO is the best sleeper in the world. Seriously, he can’t even wake up to pee in the middle of the night :)

    My 18 mth old whom I co-sleep with, nurse and refuse to let CIO has never sttn and doesn’t seem like he ever will.

    No advice but I feel your sleepy-ness.

    Theresa February 3, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    My baby was EXACTLY like Jasper. Until 3 weeks ago. Now she sleeps about 7 hours straight, wakes up once, nurses and goes back to sleep for another few hours. READ READ TEARS AND TANTRUMS by Aletha Solter. You will not regret it.

    Michele February 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Every child is different! I learned that with my second, as well.

    Here’s hoping the sleep fairy is kind to you tonight…cuz apparently that Sandman hasn’t been doing his job. Men!

    Christy February 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I have three girls. My oldest didn’t sleep through the night until I let her fuss it out. She became a good night sleeper but did not nap. My second slowly worked up to near hourly night waking. I tried to let her fuss, but a little crying always led to more crying, then hysterical crying until I gave up and let her sleep with me and breastfeed all night long. She was a great napper, but didn’t sleep through the night until I night weaned her sometime between 12 and 18 months (I can’t remember – possibly due to long term sleep loss). My third, who is 8 months, goes to sleep easily but wakes frequently and is a short napper. She never just fusses. She’s a screamer. So, she’s in bed with me breastfeeding all night long. I really think each kid has his/her own sleep personality. However, I’m starting to think night weaning will be the solution to our current sleep problem. Just not sure I have the energy to do that right now. I always like reading about your sleeping woes because I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in my tiredness :)

    Julia February 3, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    My kids are now almost 3 and almost 5. I tell people expecting their second that there is NO WAY to understand how hard having two is. It is physically exhausting. If there is one thing I’ve learned about parenting, though, it is that nothing lasts forever. They DO eventually sleep (and stop pushing other random kids out in public!)
    Take Care.

    Badness Jones February 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Like you, my first child is a girl, and a wonderful night sleeper. My second, a boy, is not. He is 25 months old and has slept through the night exactly…once. I live my life in a fog, but I try to treasure those moments in the night when he calls for me, reaches for me, holds me and says, “momma…seep me. Seep ma bed”. Because although it seems endless, this time of him wanting me, of his warm little body snuggled tightly into the curve of mine, is short. And someday I’ll miss it. I don’t always succeed, some days I scream with frustration and exhaustion, but sometimes, sometimes, I manage to live in and savour the moment.

    Good luck honey. Sleep tight.

    Bubba's Mom February 3, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I feel for you! I have 4 kids, 2 good sleepers, to horrible sleepers. One of the horrible sleepers is 9 and the other is 7, 9yo has gotten much better, but I’m still sharing a bed 1/2 time with the 7yo. Both of my bad sleepers though are that way for other reasons. 7yo has reflux (since a baby), and is autistic. 9yo is autistic and adhd, and just never really needed much sleep. He’s pretty quiet now at night, just doesnt sleep well.
    All I can say is take it one day at a time, it does get better. Theres a time for everything, and all phases do end eventually. It’s just a matter of getting yourself thru to the end.

    Erica February 3, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I swear Jaspar and my Zachary are twins separated at birth. Well, they would be if I weren’t so darn sure where Zack came from. Same deal with Zack–happiest baby on the planet, but is not interested in sleeping by himself, has to be with me or my husband, loves to nurse at night. I’ve just decided (with the help of your blogging, I have to say)that’s the way he is, that he NEEDS this from me, and that some day down the road he’ll (a)sleep through the night and (b)thank me for this.

    Hang in there.

    Major Bedhead February 3, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I don’t have much advice, I’m afraid, except to say that my Bug is 2-1/2 and still usually wakes up at night. When she was Jasper’s age, she was doing what he’s doing and I was completely confounded by her. I slept with her, letting her nurse at will and not getting much sleep and generally going slowly insane. She eventually did start sleeping on her own, but it took for-freaking-ever to get to that point.

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this and I wish I had more words of advice for you.

    And turn off comments whenever you want/need. It’s your blog. Do whatever you want to do.

    cheesefairy February 3, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Totally. Boy1 was a freaking wonder in retrospect. We were talking about this last night and my husband said, “You don’t know how good it feels to get pissed on until the shit starts to fall too.”

    good thing all these genius (that’s why they don’t sleep, right? genius?) babies are the ones inheriting the earth.

    badmuthablogger February 3, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Glad to hear I’m not alone. I blog about sleep (lack of) all the time, because it is the biggest, most disruptive thing happening in my life. My 11 month old wakes up every hour or so to feed, all night long. Always has, and I’m starting to think he always will. As for naps, I’m lucky if he takes 20 minutes. I think he’s a “wakeful” baby, whatever the fuck that means. And no, he does not have apnea or anything else “wrong” with him. And yes, I’ve tried every trick in the book, he’s just not a good sleeper. End of story. One day, I’m sure I’ll have a hard time getting him to wake up and get his lazy butt out of bed, but that day is a LONG ways away. Anyway, at least he’s cute as a button, and a happy chappy the rest of the time. It’s amazing how little sleep one can get away with and still (sort of) function, isn’t it?

    mo-wo February 4, 2009 at 12:48 am

    If you do everything wrong and they are like that.. and you made me laugh like that… you are something 10 times better than lucky.

    NB: Myself and a wise review of motherhood in the sun and wind Feb morning… Granville & Broadway. 5 members in the audience, quoted you 4 times… you were right and much nodding. Just wanted to pass that on.

    Ali February 4, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    i had good sleepers (night-time. NOT daytime. no naps for the martells) and for so long i kept thinking that i was doing something right and my friends were doing something wrong.

    but then i realized. they were just good sleepers. and i was just REALLY lucky.

    now i don’t offer any sleep advice and keep my mouth shut when people discuss at what age their children FINALLY slept through the night.

    Eva Robertson February 4, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    I don’t know how old Jasper is, but after six months you should make it a priority to get him to sleep through the night, or failing that, to wake and not need/expect you. Both my kids sleep through the night, but they both had to be, to varying extents, trained to do so. I think all babies (and older people for that matter), wake up periodically through the night; they just don’t remember it if they’ve learned how to fall back asleep. Your baby does need sleep and can be trained to put himself back to sleep without you, if you’re serious about it.

    If you don’t want a week of crying it out, then do it incrementally — take away the crutches gradually, decrease the time you spend with him, or gradually extend the time he has to be alone. And don’t put him to bed when he’s already asleep — make him fall asleep on his own. I made the mistake of making sure my eldest son was asleep before putting him down (partly b/c it was easy and fast), but as he got older, boy did this practice become onerous! It was awful to break him of the need to fall asleep with me. Now we’re out of it, but he still has crutches and I wish I’d been more firm.

    Good luck!

    Her Bad Mother February 4, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Eva – I’ve deployed every sleep-training technique that I know of, seriously. The only thing I haven’t tried is getting outside help, but that can be expensive.

    Barbara February 4, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Sounds like you’ve tried everything, some babies just won’t sleep. My first was excellent sleeper, my second didn’t sleep through the night till 14 months old, I swear. It was awful. I tried everything, including crying it out even if that meant waking the other sleeping child and a CPA husband who had to work 12 hours a day through tax season. Nothing worked. He just HAD to have me comfort him. He didn’t even need anything, just had to see me come in his room and tell him to go back to sleep and he did…every 2 hours for 14 months.

    I feel your tiredness for you. He looks adorable though, blurry and all.

    Kat February 4, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    I had a HORRIBLE sleeper with my first baby. By the time she was 18 months old I had effin had it. Seriously, I was heading for a nervous break down. Plus my shoulder could no longer take rocking her to sleep every night for 30-45 min. I finally bought the Dr. Ferber book and it worked magic. The second child, I never had one bit of problem from. Thank God! All the advise I can give you is to hang in there. It sounds like you are doing everything you can. Jasper is just not a good sleeper. At least when he gets a little older you can at least work with him a little more. Not that that helps you now…

    Ashley February 4, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    My daughter was very similar to Jasper. My husband had to take over so I wouldn’t lose it. He would rock her to sleep – and she was angry – but he was there comforting her. She was entitled to be mad about her all-night milk bar closing, but I was entitled to some sleep. And she was getting comfort for her frustration. Just not from me. After she stopped the first night feeding – her tummy stopped craving it. And the 2nd wake-up was pushed later, too!

    One thing… my breastmilk supply dropped a bit when the night feedings went away. I think it’s good to keep at least one in there (around midnight-1am) until the solid feedings start kicking in more. For me, I needed greater supply until she was 9 months. But 9 months in the span of a lifetime is not much of a sacrifice. And then it’s OVER. And even though it feels like forever now, it will be a distant memory some day.


    Joy February 4, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    (((HUGS))) to you, in your sleep-deprived madness. I read this post after all three of my children (7, 5, and almost 2) took turns tag-teaming me ALL NIGHT LONG with wakefulness!!! Every freakin’ half hour, one or the other was in my room, and all trying to crawl into my bed! AGK!! That is not to say that they always do this, because usually the older two are great sleepers, NOW, and the youngest is getting better, really, she is. But it’s taking time for them to mature and grow, and it depends on so many external day to day criteria in their little worlds for how well they sleep. For my children, the magic age was about 2.5, 3 for consistent sleep through the night.

    And BAH to the “you’re just not trying hard enough” camp. YOU ARE. Anyone who goes without sleep tries their best. Because, seriously?, who would actively or passively choose to go without sleep?!? Kids are different – they eat differently, grow differently, play differently, and sleep differently too.

    So, hugs once again, and I’m toasting you and all the sleepless moms out there with my vermouth (because I just can’t do vodka) and say welcome to this sucky sleepless club, until we’re lucky enough for our children to start sleeping!!

    Patricia February 4, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I suppose one other thought is to keep in mind that no one (no matter their age) really sleeps “through the night,” – we all wake up periodically and go back to sleep. Its just that some kids wake up and want to stay that way or can’t go back to sleep. My little one wakes once or twice each night and, because he doesn’t want to get up and party or anything (hence putting me in the “lucky” category), he just goes back to sleep with a little nursing or cuddling (we cosleep). But my point is, we all wake up, it just takes different kids different amounts of time to adjust to the idea that its better to go back to sleep right away!

    I join Joy in saying “bah” to the “try harder” folks, and toasting everyone in the sleepless club.

    Chantal February 5, 2009 at 9:35 am

    My oldest son (he is 7 1/2 now) was a terrible sleeper. His naps lasted 15 to 30 mins max and he slept for just over 2 hours at a time. He only started napping regularly around the age of 10 months and that was just a few weeks before I was to put him in day care (I felt cheated!). We lived in a century home and I had learned every creak in every floor board and would walk around the house in a strange dance of “skip that floorboard, hug the wall, turn, turn, through the door”. It was crazy. I was crazy. I remember coming to tears almost daily when people would question me – “What isn’t he sleeping, my kids always slept” UGH. I wish I had the magic answer that will help but I guess the only thing to say is that he will grow out of it. It may take time. But he will. And eventually your sanity will come back. It will.

    kata February 6, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Haven’t commented much yet but I often think of you.

    You are handling what you’re going through really, really well. I cannot deal with what is, I think, much less sleep deprivation with anywhere near that kind of strength and grace.

    I’m only on my first child and I’m finding that one of the hardest parts of motherhood is that there will always be someone out there who will need to use your worst experience to make themselves feel better about their own worst experience. Your insecurities make them feel better about their own. But as mothers I think our emotions are so raw that we take this otherwise normal part of life much harder. I used to think, oh, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what other people think. But it turns out, I do. And I don’t think it’s in my daughter’s best interest either. Somehow though, I can’t help it.

    So all I can say is, you seem to me to be handling all this really, really, really well. And have a great time in Nashville!

    Anonymous February 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm


    I was introduced to your blog by a friend and colleague who took one of your Philosophy courses at the University. I’ve been reading your writing a little over a year now.

    Recently, I became a first time mother, and sank into extended periods of madness I hardly anticipated. Your recent post on sleep helped me more than all avenues of assistance I’ve sought, and I simply want to thank you for the courage you’ve shown in openly articulating experiences common to many women, judging by the number of responses here.

    I wish you and your family all the best.

    Janna February 7, 2009 at 12:08 am

    As someone who went through this with my first and then had a great sleeper with my second, I can totally feel your pain. My first born was such a terrible sleeper (and still is) but he does sleep through the nights (barely). I have already made a promise to myself that when he hits his teenage years I am going to sporadically go into his room at 4am and cry. Paybacks are hell.

    zakary February 7, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Both of my children were breastfed co-sleepers. Baby Troy (14 months) stopped nursing a few months ago and I’m kina glad he did because HE WAS KILLING ME SOFTLY. He did NOT sleep and had nursing parties every two hours. Now, he takes a bottle of milk and goes to bed at 9pm and stays asleep until the morning. Me? I have my life back. And I drink wine.

    Hang in there. This will pass. I promise! Your kids are adorable.

    Anonymous February 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I just have to say I know what your saying.
    My bub is almost 10 mnths, has never slept thru the night and everything you just said about Jasper could have been about my Henry.
    I hope one day I wont be summoned from the dark with frantic cries of ma ma ma ma ma, and clutched tight while he burrows his head into my neck, whimpering because I left him.


    Slice of Paradise February 11, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    My first girl was just like yours ~ perfect sleeper, easy to put down & Godloveher slept in her crib all night at 7 weeks. GO NEW MOMMY!!!!

    This second baby is paying me back & kicking my ass for all the smug thoughts I had the first time around. I know nothing, she refuses to sleep at night & I'm starting to wonder if she's part vampire … and my boobs are soggy from the Con.Stant. night time feedings. It's a good thing she's cute.

    StumbleBee February 11, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    The blog is a healthy place to talk and as you see the many posts, we feel your pain. I really went for 3 months in a semi-conscious state. I have no memories from that time, I was too tired to think. I hope you build up good karma points and have it easy during potty training. Good Luck.

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