My friend and her husband are in the midst of a nighttime war. Their son, a happy, healthy six-month-old, is a little night owl. He’s master of many things – babbling, solid foods, two-toothed smiles – but falling asleep on his own is not one of them. Bedtime involves the elaborate treatment of bouncing, rocking, and feeding – after which he conks out, only to wake up two hours later. More bouncing and rocking ensues.
Dad’s point of view is that the baby needs them, so they should respond. Plus, he’s at work all day, so co-sleeping gives him snuggle time. Mom is exhausted and frustrated. She and her breasts are the ones who actually do the responding, plus she can’t sleep well with the baby next to her and is pretty sure all the bouncing and rocking is just keeping him from learning how to self-soothe.
Last week, before climbing into bed, she snuck to his side and turned off the monitor (reasoning she’d hear her son if he really needed her). But later that night, she woke up to a baby bundle curled up next to her, breathing heavily in her face.
They’re at odds over nighttime, and it’s causing a string of hazy, sleep-deprived arguments.
Sleep can stir up a lot of emotion for couples – who sleeps where, who does the feedings, how long to wait before going in, and what techniques to use when you do go in. Some moms and dads are in sync – others not so much. We always hear that consistency is key, but what are you supposed to do when your sleep styles collide?
With a newborn, fixing sleep feels urgent to a lot of parents. It’s partly because we want eight hours of slumber back, but I think it’s also a way of dealing with the complete and total upset that a baby brings to our lives. Solving sleep feels like the ultimate milestone – an unconscious hope that “if I can just get this to work, things will go back to normal.”
But the other reason sleep is touchy is that it’s so personal and intertwined with our parenting philosophies: how we set up boundaries in the house, how we value personal time with our spouse, what message we want to send our kids about how their needs are responded to. The way we handle the night says a lot about how we see ourselves as parents.
My husband and I agree on our overall sleep stance, but still we’ve had our heated debates. He thinks I’m a little trigger-happy when it comes to going into my son’s room. And, yes, when I hear, “I want my mo…” I’ve usually got my hand on the doorknob already.
Meanwhile, from my vantage, my husband sometimes seems stone cold. Back in the baby days when we did a modified sleep training program, I couldn’t believe that he remained totally calm and composed when our kid cried. After approximately 45 seconds, I would be near desperation, climbing the walls contemplating what psychological ramifications there’d be if I didn’t swoop in for my son. My husband, however, could pop into the kitchen and fix himself a snack.
I used to glare at him lying there, fast asleep in the middle of the night while I was glued to the monitor with my charts and flashlight, writing down the exact times and lengths of my son’s night wakings. “How can you not be awake with me right now!” I would fume at him, silently.
In retrospect, it was the “not being with me” part that was making me so mad. I was home with my son almost full time at that point, feeding him non-stop, living in yoga pants and a nursing bra, with only the occasional social contact from play dates and Target runs. I felt alone during the day – and that’s what made me so upset in the wee hours of the night.
I think that’s why some couples hit an impasse over sleep. We talk about the tactics of it – the who, when, what, and how – but sometimes underneath we’re really talking about much broader issues. One person might feel alone or overburdened, one person might worry that the baby runs the show and there will never be personal space or intimacy again. These themes run in the undercurrent, we just don’t always speak up about them.
What I told my friend, after laughing about the surreptitious night moves she and her husband are making, is to try to open a bigger conversation about what’s really going on in their sleep-train versus co-sleep debate. Be curious about your husband’s desire to sleep as a trio, don’t just argue against it – maybe there’s something in there about feeling like an outsider in the special mom-baby dynamic. If that’s the case, you can either keep it going, or find another way to give dad some bonding time.
If you lead with empathy for the other person’s point of view (even if that point of view makes you mad), then you’ve got much more information on the table to work with. Sure, sometimes sleep is just about sleep, but other times it’s a cue we have to dig a little deeper.