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Sleep Deprivation

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast,–

– Macbeth, Act II, Scene II

Since we’ve been discussing sleep training, why not look at one of the big reasons parents use it: sleep deprivation.  As I’ve said before, there seems to me an underlying idea in many AP circles that parents (especially moms) should just suck it up and deal with sleep deprivation.  Actually, to an extent I think it’s true.  When you bring home a newborn, your life is turned upside down for a while, and because a new baby’s needs are so vital, you do need to learn to cope with sleep interruptions for a bit.  In the first few months, babies need to nurse every 2-3 hours, with perhaps one slightly longer period at night, if you’re lucky.  Formula takes slightly longer to digest, but a baby’s stomach is approximately the size of his fist – no matter what you’re putting in, you’re not going to provide 8 hours of nutrition in one feeding.  So someone will be waking up with the baby.  And of course, they tend to poop frequently, get belly pain as their digestive system learns to cope with life outside mom, and generally need lots of help to organize themselves physically and neurologically.

During this time, moms and dads are encouraged to lower their housekeeping standards, rely on their social network for help with meals and household responsibilities, nap when they can, and trade off night time duties to allow each other at least one reasonably lengthy block of uninterrupted sleep.  During this time, keeping the baby in the parents’ room is not only powerfully protective against SIDS, it eases the burden of waking up to take care of the baby’s needs.  Most often, babies develop something of a routine, and begin sleeping for longer blocks of time as they mature.

But what happens if that doesn’t occur?  Or if a baby sleeps better for a while, then begins waking more and more often at night?  After four, five, or six months, most of the social support from friends, church members, and neighbors will have evaporated.  Parental leave and vacation days have been used up, and people no longer cut parents the same slack they did when their baby was new.  From perusing some parenting boards, I see that some babies (who probably slept for a few hours at a time as newborns) degrade to sleeping only 45, 60, or 90 minutes at a time, all night long.  While waking up with the baby twice a night might be a bit wearing, one can usually cope with it, and even get a total of about 8 hours of rest.  But waking up 5-10 times a night? How do you cope with that – for months?

“Lower your standards.”  There is a point at which lower would be too low for the health and safety of you and your baby.

“Sleep when the baby sleeps.”  This is awesome advice – for stay-at-home moms with no older children, that is.

Don’t worry, we’ll amuse ourselves. Is there flour in the pantry?

“Bed share!”  A lot of moms will take the AAP admonition against this at face value.  Others can’t bed share for a variety of reasons even James McKenna “authorizes” as legitimate.  Also, to judge by the bedsharing sections of The No Cry Sleep Solution and Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, bedsharing by no means guarantees a good night’s sleep.

In the whole Narvaez debate, I’m seeing quite a few people saying, “Those selfish mothers – I can’t believe someone would leave a baby to cry just so they won’t be inconvenienced!”  Now, I agree that parents shouldn’t put their convenience above their baby’s needs.  (Heck, I’m taking apart Babywise with just this attitude – the book so far seems to be based on the idea that babies shouldn’t inconvenience their parents).  To think that you can be responsible for all the needs of a helpless human being, 24/7, and not have major changes in your life is absurd.  However, when inconvenience develops into major cognitive impairment and huge health risks, some balancing of needs is called for.  To all those Judgy McJudgersons decrying lazy parents who can’t stand some inconvenience, I invite you to set your alarm to go off every 60 minutes at night, for just a week.  Then get back to us about how inconvenient you find it when you develop depression, can’t make decisions or concentrate, forget simple things, get in a car crash, or even develop high blood pressure or diabetes.

There’s a reason for all the controversy over the U.S. government using sleep deprivation methods on prisoners.  It is considered by many to be a form of torture, and is indisputably an effective means of breaking someone down psychologically.  So maybe, just maybe, you AP advocates could cut those “evil, lazy, selfish” parents who consider sleep training a little bit of slack.  Especially if you were lucky enough only to have moderate sleep deprivation, or you’re among the 5% of people who do OK on less sleep, or if you’re an “expert” who has never had children.

(By the way, I was looking for a good picture of a tired mom, and all the images were of happy moms holding sleeping babies, or moms asleep with a gentle smile on their faces.  To find an image expressive of true mom-sleep-deprivation, I finally did an image search for “zombie” – there we go, perfect.)