Why We’re So Obsessed With Our Kids’ Sleep

A sleeping baby
A sleeping baby Photo: Image Source/Getty Images

There are days, now that I am a mother who works full-time, when I get to 7 p.m. and think to myself, “I am empty. I’m ready for bed.”

This is a full hour before my 2-and-a-half-year-old’s bedtime at 8 p.m. At this time of year, it’s still light out. But being ready to retire before my baby has become a running joke I have with myself. Occasionally there are days when I just give in: I put her to bed, shower, and go to bed for the night at 8:30. It’s rare, and I always feel ridiculous. But I wake up feeling like I’m 18 again. Because the truth is, sometimes I run myself a little ragged putting her needs before my own, which is kind of inevitable, but still damaging to my well-being.

Sleep — getting enough, making it of a higher quality — is a huge business and each year, hundreds of books are published on the topic, from some very high-profile sources. And baby sleep is no different. Parents obsess over how to get their kids to sleep through the night, how to get them to sleep until an hour that isn’t completely ungodly, what time to put them to bed, when to move them from cribs into real beds, what they should wear, the temperature of the room, if we should use white noise or not, if babies need to be swaddled or in a sleep suit of some sort.

We wonder about these things, we track their sleep in apps, and yet the problem is never solved. Even a child who sleeps well experiences, like all humans, constant fluctuations in patterns based on how they’re feeling or if they’re growing or the weather. I just made a bunch of jokes a few weeks ago about how I hate the Fourth of July now that I’m a parent: The fear of fireworks waking my baby is real. But she breezed right past it, only to be awoken a few nights later, screaming, because of a thunderstorm. The truth is that once you’re a parent, even when you sleep well, you always have one ear open, just in case.

Most of us adjust to these new sleep realities pretty quickly, all things considered, and if our kids are onboard, life can resolve itself into normal — if new — patterns of behavior. But it’s just a fact: Your sleep will depend partly on your kid’s.

That’s one of the reasons many parents are so concerned with how their babies sleep: self-interest, a need to sleep themselves. But there are two other pressing reasons we focus our attentions on this. First, babies are much, much happier when they are well-rested — not just from one good night’s sleep, but from a pattern of it, night in, night out. Many sleep-focused books on the topic bolster this idea. The best-seller Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules (short review: Read it!) lists the benefits of a well-rested toddler: They’re better behaved, their brain development and ability to learn is increased, and their physical health is improved. A new, just-published study indicates that children who go to bed earlier (by 8 p.m.) rather than later are a lot less likely to be obese. Jo Frost argues that even a bedtime that’s earlier by 15 minutes can help enormously over time.

The other reason is more frustrating: Kids sometimes fight sleep. Babies always do. So bedtime can resemble a war zone, and it’s easy to start thinking that maybe your baby or toddler has a sleep “problem” or disorder. This can lead to an expectation of abnormal sleep patterns, but it isn’t reflected in the literature. Recent studies found that around 60 percent of babies sleep through the night by 3 months of age, and over 80 percent by 9 months. Of those remaining percentages, many sleep experts suggest that it’s the parents — not the child — who are to blame if a child doesn’t sleep through. In fact, it’s estimated that under 5 percent of children and babies have a health problem or sleep disorder that precludes their ability to sleep at least eight to 10 hours straight a night.

That doesn’t mean they want to, of course. And there are a thousand books teaching different “methods” to get our babies to sleep. But many of them have some things in common: They all suggest consistent, and usually early, bedtimes, and they all invariably promote a pre-bed routine that is the same every night to make life predictable for young ones. Many also suggest not rushing in at the first sound of stirring — after all, most adults know that if they are disturbed at the exact moment they are in the middle of a change in their sleeping cycle (repositioning themselves, coughing), they’ll be fully awakened, which makes it harder to get back to sleep.

But here’s one of the most complicating factors of reality that most sleep books don’t address (though a few absolutely do). One of the heartbreaking and difficult parts of getting our kids to sleep well — and early — every night is that most of us work every day. We’re extremely busy, and the end of the day, where the dinner window ends and the bath/bedtime window begins — those are the most precious hours we have with our kids. Who can blame us for not wanting to bend the rules a few times a week, rather than turning into a prison guard and marching our charges off to bed?

Many of us, by the time our kids are toddlers, however, do find a balance: We stick to the routines that work for us, and we adjust where we need to. We keep reading about new tactics, we try earlier or later bedtimes; we buy little “okay to wake” clocks for our babies who can’t tell time. We fall for the latest swaddle craze, sure, but our hearts are always in the right place: We just want to get some rest.