I sat on the living room floor, tears sliding down my cheeks, choking on sobs that emanated from somewhere deep inside my chest. My five month old son stared up at me from where he lay cradled in my arms. His eyes mirrored my own; wet from recent tears and heavy with fatigue. 

I was utterly exhausted but sleep deprivation was not the cause of my emotional meltdown. It was the sense of my inherent failure that hung heavily over me, filling me with anguish.

You see, my baby was a ‘bad’ sleeper and I, in turn, felt like a bad mother. He did all the wrong things; catnapped, needed to be fed to sleep, would only sleep while being held, took forever to get to sleep. 

I knew he should be sleeping independently by now! He was supposed to nap for at least 2 hours, for 2-3 times per day. He was supposed to sleep for 12 hours at night only waking once for a brief feed and then go straight back to sleep!

How did I know this? Well, because it is written in black and white. Just google anything relating to infant sleep and you will receive a plethora of information about correct sleep patterns and sleep requirements. Or talk to any mothers group; there’s always at least one mum talking loudly about how her baby sleeps through the night. Or look at social media; those well-rested, fresh-faced mums with their angelic looking babies make it look so easy!  

As mothers, we are bombarded with information about what constitutes normal infant sleep, directly and indirectly, from a myriad of sources from the moment we become pregnant. 

The “knowledge” of my son’s problematic sleeping dominated my every waking moment. I obsessed over every night sleep and nap-time. I was consumed with assessing the quality of each sleep; determining if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on how long it had taken me to get him to sleep, how long he slept for and where he had slept (in his cot vs in my arms).  And while the physical hardship of sleep deprivation was merciless, it was nothing compared to how debilitating the mental toll was.

Sadly, this pervasive obsession with my son’s sleep is still one of the most dominant memories I have from his infancy. 

Myths and misconceptions about infant sleep are common and widely publicised. Often this is done by well meaning but ignorant friends and family trying to help. But more often than not this misinformation is disseminated intentionally by large corporations endeavouring to make big bucks selling sleep aids that aren’t really necessary. These businesses are successfully preying on sleep deprived parents with promises to “fix” their baby’s “sleep problems”. 

The biggest issue with this is that a great deal of mental turmoil endured by mothers arises from the discrepancy between expectations (what we are led to believe is normal) and the reality of normal infant sleep. Not only do we fall down the rabbit hole of purchasing things like white noise machines, essential oil diffusers and books titled ‘Baby Sleep Miracle’, but we also spend endless hours second guessing ourselves and fretting about what we are doing wrong. We are led to believe the notion that our baby is a ‘bad sleeper’ if he/she does not conform to an idealistic sleep pattern. And to an overtired mother fraught with worry, it only goes to follow that this perceived failure to get a baby to sleep must be a result of an inadequacy on her part. 

But the truth is, a mothers maternal competence is not based on her baby’s sleep. 

There is simply a wide range of normal for healthy infant sleep. Sure, some babies will happily sleep for large blocks of time in their own bed from day dot. But it is also completely normal and healthy for a baby to wake frequently overnight, to require help getting to sleep (feeding, cuddles, etc), and to prefer to sleep in close proximity to their mother. 

As for me, I am currently in the thick of it with my second child. At 5 months old my daughter will only nap in my arms or sleep next to me in bed. I breastfeed her to sleep, and she wakes up multiple times during the night. But none of this causes me one ounce of anxiety, because I know that this is normal. 

Sure, like most mums, I’m overtired and I spend a great deal of time stuck under a sleeping baby when I could be doing other things (such as eating or showering) but on the whole I am unbelievably happy. I don’t obsess about my baby’s sleep habits. I know that this phase will soon pass and, one way or another, she will end up sleeping independently in her own room. For now, when my baby girl falls asleep in my arms or at my breast, I simply soak up the feeling of having her beautiful tiny body pressed close against me and I drink in every precious second.

I can’t tell you for sure which path my baby’s sleep journey will take. Perhaps we will end up sleep training down the track or perhaps we will continue to bed share for months to come. But whichever direction our journey to independent sleep takes, it will be done free of unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure. 

By Phoebe Shields

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