Sleep Deprivation: Who Knew?

Last Saturday, at our monthly Mazel Tots meeting, the topic of sleep came up. Every parent there, with kids ranging from 9 months to 9 years old, had or is currently struggling with sleep issues. I said to the group, “Who knew before we had kids that sleep was going to be such an issue? I knew that sleep deprivation was a possibility for a few months, but I never expected it to last this long or be so consuming.” One mother responded, “That’s because our parents all let us ‘cry it out.’ You fed your baby at 2 and 6 and let them cry if they woke up any other time.” That said, nearly every parent in the group, out of pure necessity for being a functioning and kind person, had done some version “crying it out”. The same mother, who’s youngest is now nine, said, “My husband and I cried right along with our oldest son for three nights straight, all night long. I still feel conflicted about the decision to let him cry it out but I know I was a better mother afterwards.”

When I was researching and interviewing for Conscious Motherhood, I began to conceive the idea that the birth of the identity as mother or father begins during preconception and continues in a process of emotional, psychological and spiritual expansions and contractions throughout the first year and beyond. We contract as women as we turn inward and recognize the myriad ways in which we need to sacrifice aspects of ourselves in order to make room for the burgeoning mother-identity. We expand with the soul-altering love that we feel for our growing baby. The sacrifices we make as parents are endless, but so are the fruits of our labor as we expand our inner resources of patience, tolerance, endurance, and self-trust and hopefully recognize the potential to grow into better versions of ourselves.

At the core of the transition into the new identity as mother or father is cultivating this last resource: self-trust. Without self-trust, we listen to others more than ourselves and find that wading through the endless sea of questions that arise during pregnancy and the first year of motherhood is daunting and overwhelming. As we being to develop this key resource, which usually happens by the end of the first year, we trust that the decisions we’re making for ourselves and our baby – whether the issue is vaccinations, eating solids, weaning, or sleep –  are the right choices for us, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says.

As I sit here bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed after six years of interrupted sleep and another night of endless wake-ups, I wish that I could let my baby cry it out and be done with this. But my husband and I have had countless discussions on this topic and, while we’re okay with letting Asher cry in our arms, we’re not okay with letting him cry unattended. I trust myself enough at this point that I don’t even consider the option anymore. At the same time, I completely trust and respect when other parents make the decision to “sleep train” their baby as I know it can be a heartbreaking process but one that ultimately benefits the family unit. As with every parenting choice, there are no right answers or wrong answer as long as the choice originates from a deep knowing inside that it’s a loving decision for the family as a whole. It’s impossible to arrive at this place with integrity without accessing and cultivating the resource of self-trust.

In my work with people getting married, I talk to them constantly about the idea of self-trust as it usually presents itself in the first session with the question of, “How do I know I’m making the right choice?” If I see any glaring red-flag issues, I’ll tell them, but other than that I do my best to guide them toward their own self-trust of their decision making process. As is always the case with transitions, when we walk through one consciously, it will aid us during the next one, so when my clients develop a greater capacity for self-trust during their marriage transition they’re able to access this resource more easily when they become parents.

Similarly, I work with both engaged people and new parents around the expectations that are often so damaging around these transitions. We expect to feel blissful during the engagement and question ourselves mercilessly if we feel anything less. We expect our babies to be “sleeping through the night” by six months or a year and when they “fail” to do so, we think we need to make a change. So alongside the self-trust lives the issue of realistic expectations and how to educate our culture so that we know that there is an enormous range of normal regarding what we feel during transitions.

Finally, while we develop self-trust and temper our expectations, it’s critically important that we remember to have compassion for ourselves during this trying first year – and possibly beyond – as our babies and toddlers figure out how to fall asleep and stay asleep. For whether it’s naps, bedtime rituals, or nighttime wake-ups, I’ve rarely met a parent who isn’t struggling with some aspect of sleep. The more compassion you have for yourself, the more you’ll be able to surrender to whatever may be the path for you.

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Sheryl Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions. In 1998 she pioneered the field of bridal counseling and  has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions.