My daughter only napped in 30-minute increments. For months and months. Every day, I put her down in her crib, held my breath, and hoped that it might be our breakthrough moment. Maybe this would be the nap where everything clicked, she would sleep and all of the work and preparation and research would have paid off.
And when after thirty minutes, her tiny cries echoed through the house, I hung my head and wondered where I had gone wrong. It always felt a little like reviewing a test in school, one for which I had meticulously prepared and yet somehow still bombed. If I could just figure out my mistakes, I could do better the next time.
Needless to say, I continued to fail the test. My daughter didn’t take consistently long naps until she was almost 2-years-old.
For a really long time, I assumed this represented a failure of parenting. I had friends whose kids slept in long, beautiful, chunky stretches. There was evidence of this A+ napping everywhere. It was all over the internet, on forums and blogs, and in the massive stack of parenting books I ordered because they promised that they would solve the puzzle of my daughter’s defective napping.
I devoted myself to these sleep books, became a student in their didacticism. I’m a planner and a bit of an over-achiever, and I just knew that if I studied hard enough, absorbed the wisdom of all of these baby sleep gurus, surely, we could get to the root cause of our issues.
All of my insecurities as a parent were justified in the pages of these books. My daughter wasn’t napping because of the following parenting mistakes: she was overtired, not tired enough, hungry, overfed, too cold, too hot, too stimulated. Her nursery wasn’t dark enough or was too dark, was too noisy or too quiet. One book told me that our routine was all off and if I fed her before naps, I was creating a sleep crutch. Another book told me that if I put her to sleep too long after a feed, obviously she’d wake up early out of hunger. One author assured me that rocking her to sleep was the way to go, while another promised that if I rocked her to sleep, even once, she wouldn’t sleep again until college.
I tried everything, eat-play-sleep, pick-up-put-down, drowsy-but-awake, awake-but-drowsy. I stuck to a regimented schedule. I avoided the car and the stroller. I used sleep sacks, magic suits, white noise and blackout curtains. I let her cry because one author told me that was the only way she would ever sleep. And then I felt immediately guilty because the next book insinuated that cry-it-out would turn her into a sociopath.
The more I read, the more approaches and methods I attempted, the more resounding each failure felt. Each short nap was clearly an indictment of my mothering.
Eventually, as time passed, and she got older, my daughter started to take longer naps. She was more and more active, and even though she never became an A+ napper, she at least achieved a solid B- on occasion. But I could never shake the feeling that the problem was with me. Mostly, because all of the books I read made it clear that in their opinion, baby sleep, like so many other behaviors, is up to the skill and effort of the parents.
I believed that up until I had my second child, a sweet, mellow, bouncing baby boy. When he got out of the newborn coma phase and it was time to actually put him down for set naps, I felt a little shiver of fear run down my spine. All of the memories of my stress and anxiety about my daughter’s naps came rushing back. I had clearly failed her, and now I would fail my son, curse him to a childhood of horrible naps.
But then, before I could haul the baby books out of storage, before I could obsessively check sleep websites, something miraculous happened. He napped. Like really napped. In long, glorious stretches. These were the kind of mythical naps I had worked for with my daughter, only I wasn’t working at all. They just happened. On their own. While my daughter subsisted on multiple catnaps long after the books told me she should have consolidated into two long naps, my son fell into that pattern all on his own.
And that’s when I realized something that felt pretty revelatory. Babies, like adults, are unique human beings. And parenting books, while often well-intentioned and helpful in many respects, operate off the premise that every baby will behave in the same way if parents follow a set series of steps. They’re also written by adults writing from their own unique experiences, and those experiences cannot always be duplicated.
After having two wildly different babies, I can emphatically state that at the end of the day, things like sleep likely have nothing to do with your parenting. It more likely comes down to each child’s personality. Some babies sleep beautifully. Others, like my daughter, want to ruin their parent’s happiness (or maybe it just feels like that when you’re in the thick of it).
You can force it, like I did, read every parenting book out there and make yourself miserable. Or you can just accept that every child does things at his or her own pace and time. When it comes to parenting, there are no exams, no final papers, no college credit. The secret is that most of us just show up, make it up as we go along, and hope for the best.