As soon as you have a baby, your baby's sleep habits will become fodder for conversation with friends, families, and random strangers who feel the need to inquire about a subject that, until you became a parent, is usually quite private. Before having children, I can't recall a grocery cashier ringing up my eggs, then casually asking how my nights are going, can you? I didn't think so. I don't think such questions are ill-intentioned, it's just the equivalent of 'weather speak' between parents, a subject meant to fill in those awkward pauses. Banal, yes, but a subtle way of enforcing the idea that babies should sleep well at night.
In recent years, an entire industry seems to have sprung up around the idea that babies should 'sleep through the night.' A recent baby show in Ottawa featured no less than five sleep consultants, all vying for the hard-earned dollars of sleep-deprived parents visiting the show. Until they are thrown into it, nothing prepares new parents for the lack of sleep that having a baby entails. It's no wonder sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique used to extract information, it's just as effective at extracting money from the wallets of tired parents who are willing to do just about anything to catch a few extra zzzz's at night. Forget about the post-baby sleep banter mothers have been subjected to in the past, sleep consultants are now working hard to reinforce the idea that babies should sleep through the night at a young age before a baby is even born, offering workshops to parents-to-be that promise a '100% success rate' (note: no money-back guarantee!), claiming to offer tips that will ensure good sleep habits from day one. Day one!!!
Self-proclaimed 'sleep consultants' will list the many benefits of getting your child to sleep in long chunks at an early age, if you were to believe their claims, children who wake regularly through the night will grow up to be out-of-control dullards who will fail at life (of course, I'm paraphrasing, but the gist of their promise is that interrupted sleep at a young age will encourage brain development and good behavior). While I won't argue that sleep *is* important, I would argue that the idea that young babies should 'sleep through the night' is unrealistic, and from a biological standpoint, not ideal.
The reality is that when your baby is born, she will have a very small tummy. Newborns must wake frequently to eat frequently, because their small tummy's simply cannot hold much liquid. Furthermore, breastmilk is quickly digested, which provides another reason for babies to wake regularly.
Nutritional needs aside, like adults, babies wake frequently at night for a myriad of other reasons. They are cold, they are warm, they heard a loud noise, or maybe they just want reassurance that a parent is nearby. Whatever the reason, sleep disruptions are normal, and do not reflect on your baby or your ability as a parent.
While sleep consultants will promise you tips and tricks to get your baby to sleep long stretches, I'm a little skeptical of their claims. Babies are not machines, they do not come with user guides, no two babies are alike in terms of temperament and needs. Some babies may self-soothe to sleep from day one, many (most!) won't; some babies may sleep long stretches at an early age, many (most!) won't.
As an example, our first daughter only woke once through the night basically from birth. The rest of the lot (three of them!) woke many times a night, for many years. Yes, it was tiring, but we got through it, and while I can remember being tired, sometimes to the point of tears, as our children get older and more independent, I miss the special moments that those middle-of-the-night wakeups afforded us (OK, mainly me).
On this last point, if you are reading this, and you are a severely sleep-deprived parent, you probably want to reach through the screen right now and punch me in the throat because I sound like a total asshole telling you to enjoy waking up eleventy million times a night because you will miss it one day, but trust me, I'm right (I ususally am). Bookmark this page and come back to it in 10 years and re-read it, and you'll issue a silent apology to me, and maybe shed a tear or two when you wonder where the last 10 years went. You'll probably also be googling "How can I get my child to wake up on time for school?" because guess what? You will actually never be happy about your child's sleep habits (true story). If they're not sleeping enough, they're sleeping too much...
So, what are you supposed to do then? Where are the tips you thought I was going to offer that would solve all of your sleep problems? Here it is. Wait for it. Are you ready??? Sleep when the baby sleeps. Nap through the day, or go to bed early. No, it's not fun, but it's a way to catch up on that desperately needed sleep. The baby will only sleep on you? Get a good carrier and carry your baby while she sleeps. You are not creating 'bad habits', you are meeting her needs. Baby never sleeps? Call a friend or family member, and ask for help. Someone in your life will gladly hold your grumpy baby while you catch a few zzz's. Baby is waking multiple times through the night? Bring the baby into your room, or into your bed, or ask your partner to pitch in - that may mean getting up with the baby through the night, or it may mean letting you sleep-in in the morning. I often hear new mothers suggest their partners *can't* help with nighttime duty because they work. Guess what? Mothers work too, and their job is just as important. Nighttime parenting should not fall on one parent's shoulders.
Most importantly, above all, if you simply acknowledge that your baby's crap sleep habits are normal, you'll feel better about the situation. Adjusting your own ideas of what's 'ideal' will leave you less likely to feel pressured to force your child to adopt what may be an unrealistic sleep routine for your child.