The first time my oldest son slept through the night—a solid eleven hours without waking—he was just over three months old. My mother was visiting from Idaho, and I’d complained all day about my baby’s night waking. But the morning after she arrived, I woke up at 6:30—a solid eight hours for me. Panicking, I ran to my baby’s room to see his peaceful, swaddled chest rising up and down, his expression angelic. My mom accused me of telling “naughty stories” about her first grandchild, and while my son was not a perfect sleeper, after that he dependably slept eleven to twelve hours most nights.
I chalked this up to the sleeping manuals I tore through during my pregnancy. I knew how to swaddle, sway, and shush a screaming baby. I avoided “sleep props” like the car seat or rocking or a swing. I researched bedtime routines and chanted “Lie him down drowsy, but awake” like a mantra. The books promised if I did everything right, my baby would sleep straight through to morning.
I did almost everything right. At four months, I stopped rocking him to sleep and implemented the “pick up, put down” method, which involved standing crib side for hours, picking him up when he started to cry and setting him down the moment he settled. I swooped down on him for naptime as soon as I saw a “sleep sign,” and bedtime was always right at six pm (because “sleep begets sleep!”). I crafted a routine of bath, bottle, story, prayer, song, special “I love you rhyme.”
My husband and I sacrificed to The Schedule, saying no to social events and going out to dinner at 4:30 pm, but we were rewarded with restful nights. While there were molars, ear infections, and the dreaded four-month sleep regression, I could generally depend on at least eleven child-free hours. I congratulated myself on my excellent parenting and tried not to smirk when friends talked about their babies’ sleep troubles. I’d put in the work and was reaping the results.
Then I had my second baby.
The night after my second son was born, my husband and I had an argument that left me in breathless, postpartum tears. The baby would not settle down, and my husband suggested a pacifier. “No pacifiers!” I cried. “Everything I’ve read says that early pacifier use leads to decreased length of breastfeeding! He can’t have a pacifier until he’s a month old!”
“Then you get him to sleep,” he said, handing the baby back to me and curling up in the hospital recliner.
All night, my son drifted to sleep in my arms, only to wail the second I laid him in the bassinet. I was exhausted from a midnight induction and subsequent seventeen-hour labor and begged my husband to take over, but he’d been up all night too, putting counter-pressure on my back and pushing my IV pole around the room as I paced through contractions. Our son wanted either breasts or constant motion, so when my weary husband sat with the baby, he started screaming. After a few minutes, I hissed that he was no help at all and took the baby back. I held him all night, only occasionally slipping into sleep.
Nolan continued to demand physical touch in exchange for sleep, and because his older brother had recently given up his afternoon nap, sleeping when the baby slept was not an option. In desperation, we broke the rules. I rocked in the glider for more than an hour, until I was certain his sleep was deep enough to transfer. If he woke too often, we brought him into our bed, where he sometimes managed a six-hour stretch nestled in my husband’s arms. As he got older, I attempted the methods that worked with my first son. I started a bedtime routine, bought a lovey, shut him in the pitch-dark bathroom with white noise blaring. I let him cry, feeling more guilty than I had with my oldest because Nolan cried longer and harder—and still woke up at night.
It appeared my highly successful parenting methods had worked on my first son not because of my prowess, but because of luck.
As the months passed, my desperation for sleep grew. Sleep deprivation deepened the postpartum depression I encountered after each birth. I returned to work as a night-shift nurse at three months postpartum—a plan I’d conceived with the belief that my second son’s sleep patterns would be like my first. Sleeping only in three-hour stretches—excepting the nights when I didn’t sleep at all—was destroying my sanity. I went on extended family leave after a few months and ultimately quit. The sleeplessness was a never-ending drain, a problem I simply couldn’t crack.
Ultimately, I had to surrender. I had to accept that despite my greatest efforts, I could not force this tiny ball of determination to sleep when I wanted him to sleep. I had to accept that sometimes I would be tired, that I couldn’t work long hours in this season, that I needed to go to bed early instead of exercising or cleaning.
Nolan recently turned one. Some nights, he sleeps thirteen hours; others, he is awake five times, consoled only by rocking and cuddling. I catch myself looking for patterns—he ate less last night, a molar is peeking through, we played particularly hard outside today—but his sleep remains unpredictable. “He never read the books,” my mom reminds me when I bemoan the fact that nothing has convinced him to sleep consistently.
There are so many areas of parenting that I think I can control. If I make the right foods, my children will love vegetables more than goldfish crackers. If I deliver consequences the right way, I break the cycle of playroom fights and toy snatching. If I say the right prayers, my children will be protected from evil strangers and sad feelings.
My heart is learning the reality that I control very little, as my mind slowly relinquishes its illusion of power—the double-edged sword that I can fix any problem, and any failure to do so is my fault. Control requires more effort, but acceptance is harder. Sometimes, a problem doesn’t require a program or an expert opinion, but patience and prayer.
By letting go the need to control my son’s schedule, I’m learning to revel in the quiet midnight moments with him. After feeding him, his little hands stretch towards my face in the darkness as he coos and babbles. Eventually, he burrows his face into my side, his limbs growing soft and heavy. I rock him, absently counting to one thousand before daring to lay him back in his crib. These quiet moments are sacred, the very essence of accepting what I could not control and learning to love it instead. Occasionally, I get a full night’s sleep. Other nights, I get a quiet space to practice acceptance.
About the Author
Lorren Lemmons is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. She recently moved to Washington state with her family. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured in Tribe Magazine, Parent.co, Upwrite Magazine, Literary Mama, and the Good Mother Project.