From the very beginning, my daughter was a terrible sleeper. She was born in Japan, nine months after I followed my husband and his job to a coastal town in Southern Japan. Alert and hyper-sensitive, three-week-old Stella would lay in my arms, halfway to dozing, then pop open her eyes, fighting drowsiness with might and main. Until she was 14 months old, each night was punctuated by six, eight, or ten wakings. There was no daytime reprieve. Naps too, were short and unreliable, heralded by screaming and squirming as I lunged and paced, babe in arms, as far as my tiny Japanese bedroom would allow.
I had expected the exhaustion. I expected multiple night feeds and nocturnal turmoil as my baby and I got to know each other. But I also expected long, regular naps. I expected a schedule. And I expected sleep to get better as my daughter outgrew her 0-3 month onesies. But that didn’t happen.
Nine months into motherhood, I was desperate for change. I built a library of sleep texts. I planned and plotted, making spreadsheets that detailed every moment of our day, hoping to discover a pattern in the chaos.
There is a small industry built upon the wallets of tired parents. Books, websites, DVDs, sleep doulas all promise the same: restful nights. Though their methodologies differ, they all tap into parental fear with the same admonishment: Without adequate sleep, your baby will not develop correctly. I spent several hundred dollars on the services of a sleep consultant. I combed the Internet for that elusive golden ticket that I could redeem for a good night’s rest. But nothing worked. My daughter still slept fitfully and woke whenever she wanted.
The fatigue was terrible, yes. But I could have managed if it were only fatigue. I could have fueled up on caffeine, downgraded my expectations, and left the floors unmopped. What I couldn’t manage was the guilt. Despite my heroic efforts, my kid just wouldn’t stay asleep, and it felt like my fault.
As the nights wore on and exhaustion became a permanent thing, I wondered, was it really my fault that my kid wasn’t sleeping? Were my expectations even warranted? Was all these sleep advice little more than an elaborate old wives tale?
As a Canadian living abroad, I turned to my Japanese peers to see if their philosophies differed. One afternoon at the jidokan, a drop-in play center, I was bemoaning my wakeful nights. “What time does she go to sleep?” one mother asked. “Usually around 7:30,” I replied. “Sugoi! So early!” she replied, using a double-edged Japanese expression that conveys both wonder and alarm. I mentioned that I was thinking of night-weaning, hoping that without an all-night buffet, my daughter might just stay asleep. There was silent disapproval. It was as though I had suggested ceasing to feed my daughter all together.
Concerned about my daughter’s infrequent naps, I asked [my pediatrician? my friend?], Dr. Takashi Takeishi for some sleep advice. Dr. Takeishi, a Harvard Medical Fellow and father of quadruplets, knows a thing or two about baby sleep. “Don’t worry. One nap is enough,” then went on to explain that his own kids didn’t take naps, but went to bed “early” at 9 pm. Dr. Takeishi told me to allow only 30 minutes to one hour daytime sleep, or otherwise my daughter would not be sufficiently tired at bedtime. I asked him when we might finally start to sleep though the night. He said not to expect a good night’s rest until “one and a half years or later.”
Everywhere, it seemed, Japanese mothers and babies flouted American sleep recommendations. Experts advise early bedtimes and long naps. They suggest following a nap schedule and adhere to regimented sleep-inducing routines. Babies must fall asleep in the same way, in the same place, every single time, they say.
But that’s not what I see in Japan. Babies there take short, mobile catnaps in strollers or in infant bike seats. When I organize playdates for my daughter, I’m never asked to work around little Mi-chan’s naptime. Rather, babies nap around our plans. Babies and toddlers go to bed with their mothers, but not until 10 or 11 pm. Japanese mothers do almost nothing the American sleep experts advise, yet as far as I can tell, Japan is not a nation of underdeveloped, chronic insomniacs.
I wondered what other normative sleep practices were being broken the world over, so I asked Catharina, a Swedish mother living in Geneva, about how her son Carl sleeps. “I think we’re pretty lucky,” she said. “He can be difficult to get to fall asleep in his crib by day, so he takes his naps in the pram, car, BabyBjörn or the lap of his father watching a movie.” Hold on one second here. Could that be acceptance of non-ideal sleeping habits? Acceptance and even gratitude?
“Swedes are more practical – it doesn’t’ matter where the baby sleeps during the day as long as it sleeps,” Catharina reasoned. She described how in Sweden, al fresco naps are the norm, with babies snoozing in the garden or napping in their prams, while their mothers sip lattes beside them. Babies’ naptimes, Catharina said, are variable “depending on the weather and the mother’s schedule.” A more relaxed view of baby sleep, she believes, “creates more flexibility for the parents and less stress.” After my experience with baby sleep, I agree wholeheartedly.
Now, my daughter is almost one and a half and she still doesn’t sleep through the night. Though her naps are longer and more reliable than they used to be, they’re still not the two- or three-hour marathons of my pre-baby imagination. But I don’t care. She always wakes happy, eager to discover what the day ahead holds.
So I’ve got an idea for the other mothers out there, who, like me, may not have “ideal” sleepers: Let’s all leave the baby experts out of our nurseries. Forget what the books say. Don’t worry about should-dos and schedules and routines. Do what works for your family. Is it really that much of a surprise that your child, perfectly unique in every way, does not conform to “normal” sleep patterns? A lot of babies don’t. Twenty-minute naps happen. So do night wakings. I doubt very much that poor sleep in infancy will doom your child in any way. Energy wasted in worrying about baby sleep would be much better invested in a stroll to the nearest cafe. Right at naptime.