My son recently turned two and he's slept through the night exactly twice. He wakes up anywhere between one and three times—and this is a huge improvement from when he was younger, when it wasn't rare for him to wake every hour or two, all night long.
Being a single parent, every wake-up falls on me to deal with. So aside from those two nights, I have not gotten more than four hours of sleep at a time since he was born.
Prolonged sleep deprivation isn’t just exhaustion. It’s physical aches and pains, and depression, and crying jags. It’s hopelessness and despair and desperation; it’s irritability and social withdrawal and anger at everyone. Lack of sleep affects physical and mental health, concentration, work performance—everything. There’s a reason it’s used as a form of torture. I often take to Facebook or Instagram to document my life and I show all sides of it: the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. In my chronicling of my son’s lack of affinity for sleep, I’ve gotten a whole host of comments and suggestions—well-meaning, to be sure, but there are some things you just don’t say to a sleep-deprived, under-caffeinated, on-the-verge-of-tears parent. Here are the worst offenders.
1. “Oh, that sounds awful. My child slept through the night at two weeks old.” Clearly I’m being hyperbolic, but any kind of comment about how your child slept through the night before the first birthday will likely be met with thoughts of throat punching you, along with a healthy eye roll.
2. “I don’t know how you’re functioning.” Neither do I. In fact, for the first 18 months, I didn’t function all that well. My work suffered. I would cry almost daily. I was short-tempered with everyone, including my son. I hated everything and everyone. I got up every day and drank loads of caffeine just to be able to stay awake, and crashed as soon as my son went to bed, just to grab some sleep before he started the wake ups. I did it because I had to, because there was no one else, because I had to work.
3. “Are you drinking too much caffeine while nursing?” Of course I’m drinking too much caffeine! I’m getting no sleep and I have to be alert for work. But I can also almost guarantee you that every mom who is nursing and having baby sleep issues has already tried reducing or cutting out caffeine, in hopes that that’s the magic bullet. Most of the time, it’s not. Besides, caffeine is the ONE VICE I have left. Let me have it.
4. “Why don't you just sleep train?” Oh, but I did. I tried Ferber. I tried Happiest Baby on the Block. I read Babywise. I even tried CIO. But one can only take so many hours, night after night, of high-pitched, soul-shattering shrieking before they give in and pick the child up. Especially when you have work the next day. Besides, I was afraid of what the neighbours were thinking (even though I did give them a heads-up, along with a gift bag containing a bottle of wine, chocolate and ear plugs). I know sleep training can work miracles, but for some babies, it doesn't work at all.
5. “I know it’s hard, but try to enjoy every moment. This phase won’t last forever.” I get that, and the intent is good, but this is often said by people who use #blessed un-ironically in their social media posts, or by people who don’t have children. It is completely okay to not enjoy every moment of parenting, and the last thing a sleep-deprived, despondent parent needs to hear is something to make her feel guilty for sobbing as her child screams like a rabid banshee in the wee hours of the morning, after already awakening four times since midnight.
6. “Have you tried…” Stop right there. Moms are problem-solvers, so in all likelihood, she's probably tried a whole host of things—maybe everything. For us, on top of the regular bedtime routine we’d already established, we tried sleep training (various kinds), white noise, trying to exhaust him through play and walking during the day, reducing naps, later bedtime, earlier bedtime, earlier awakening, gluten-free diet, cutting out caffeine (me), essential oils (hey, I was desperate), weighted blanket, Epsom salt baths, baby massage, aromatherapy, melatonin… I’m sure I’m missing some. A more helpful question would be, “What have you tried so far?” An even more helpful thing would be to just commiserate, or better yet, offer to come over and watch the baby so the mom can take a nap.
7. “After years of infertility, I was so happy to finally become a mom that I was thankful for waking up at night to cuddle with her.” Ah, the stealth mom-shamer. As if you're not happy to be a mother. As if you couldn’t have fertility problems and still need sleep/want sleep/love sleep. Don’t be that person.
8. “You look tired.” Just don’t.