Is Baby Sleep a Sign of Good Parenting?

Is Baby Sleep a Sign of Good Parenting?

Expecting your first baby? An inescapable truth is that you are about to lose a lot of sleep. You will know by now that seasoned, weather-beaten parents relish sharing this news. “It’s all about survival in the early days,” friends would say, when I was pregnant. “Enjoy those lie-ins while you can!”

By the time my daughter arrived, I had collected a small armoury of tools for the battle against her anticipated wakefulness. Swaddles, blackout blinds, a white-noise machine; for months after she was born, I used apps to obsessively track her “wake windows” and sleep totals to the minute, determined to crack the code for a good night’s sleep. When I think back to her first summer, I’m transported to my in-laws’ attic bedroom, where I spent hours in the dark, sound machine blaring, rocking her – willing her – to nap. But no matter what I did, my daughter never slept well, and I nearly drove myself mad in pursuit of discovering why.

Sleep deprivation can be so mind-bendingly hard that many parents are, understandably, consumed by it, and studies have shown poor sleep quality is an indicator for postpartum depression. But, looking back, I can’t help but feel that part of what made infant sleep such a charged subject for me was mismanaged expectations.

By the time my daughter was six months old, the question on everyone’s lips seemed to be: “Is she sleeping through the night yet?” The idea that those hazy, sleep-deprived early days pass just as quickly as they come, in a blur of milk stains and unwashed hair, is deeply entrenched. As is the notion that if they don’t, it is a result of “bad habits”, parent codependency or worse, incompetence.

The truth is more complicated. Yes, there are things any parent can do to encourage sleep, but the reality is some babies sleep well and some don’t. And sleep can be tricky to navigate well beyond the baby phase. Nearly 30% of two-year-olds have frequent night wakings, according to one study. Nightmares, illness and separation anxiety can all prove extremely challenging to manage when a toddler can get themselves out of their bed at night and call, unrelentingly, for Mum and Dad in a tiny, frightened voice. Another study found that new parents can expect to be sleep-deprived for up to six years after the birth of their first child. And yet, telling people my two-year-old still wakes at night has a tendency to elicit a gasp of horror.

Sleep seems to have morphed in our collective understanding from an innate biological process that we have little control over to the ultimate show of parenting competence: if you just master the right formula, a full night’s sleep will be your reward. Partly this is fuelled by a lucrative industry of sleep consultants that has emerged in recent years to “fix” families’ sleep problems, with many promoting the holy grail of baby sleep – 7pm to 7am, independent and uninterrupted.

But a one-size-fits-all approach to sleep is often incompatible with healthy biological instincts. For instance, babies waking to breastfeed at night for the first six months and beyond is normal and healthy, both for their development and a mother’s milk supply. Also, such attitudes stoke feelings of shame and anxiety in parents whose babies won’t conform, and force them into making distressing choices, believing them to be in their child’s best interests.

One parent told me he stopped his toddler’s night-time wakings by holding his bedroom door shut every night for a week while his son screamed inconsolably on the other side. Some parents simply have to prioritise their mental health when it comes to sleep, and I can’t blame them. But I don’t need to trial this method to know it would break me before it would break my daughter’s resolve to make her way into my bed in the early hours and sleep pressed against me, nose to nose.

A creeping commodification of baby sleep pathologises what could be more accurately described as simple “CBS” – or “crazy baby shit” – a term coined by a friend when our babies were small to describe those maddening, unexplainable inconsistencies in baby behaviour in the first year and beyond: why one week they slept and the next they didn’t; why one day broccoli was their favourite, the next it was refused, never to be touched again.

Division of responsibility is often cited as a helpful way for parents to understand their duties towards their kids at mealtimes. Parents decide what to serve, but ultimately it is up to the child to decide if and how much they eat. It has also proved to be a useful formula to follow for many of the negotiations that come with raising a toddler. I decide when and how I put my daughter to bed; she decides when she will sleep through the night. I know that day will come – sooner or later.

I can’t deny there is some shame attached to our current situation – am I failing her in some way? Is it my fault that I’m still this tired? But when I meet expectant parents now, I try not to burden them with the horrors of sleepless nights. Instead, if they ask, I tell them that my most valuable lesson since our daughter came barrelling into our lives has been trying, wherever possible, however hard, to relinquish control.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you move on, I wanted to ask if you would consider supporting the Guardian’s journalism as we prepare for one of the most consequential news cycles of our lifetimes. 

From Elon Musk to Rupert Murdoch, a small number of billionaire owners have a powerful hold on so much of the information that reaches the public about what’s happening in the world. The Guardian is different. We have no billionaire owner or shareholders to consider. Our journalism is produced to serve the public interest – not profit motives.

And we avoid the trap that befalls much US media – the tendency, born of a desire to please all sides, to engage in false equivalence in the name of neutrality. While fairness guides everything we do, we know there is a right and a wrong position in the fight against racism and for reproductive justice. When we report on issues like the climate crisis, we’re not afraid to name who is responsible. And as a global news organization, we’re able to provide a fresh, outsider perspective on US politics – one so often missing from the insular American media bubble. 

Around the world, readers can access the Guardian’s paywall-free journalism because of our unique reader-supported model. That’s because of people like you. Our readers keep us independent, beholden to no outside influence and accessible to everyone – whether they can afford to pay for news, or not.


  Lucy Pasha-Robinson                                                                                                    The Guardian’s assistant Opinion editor

Back to blog