My son is a pretty terrible sleeper.
My daughter, on the other hand, started sleeping through the night at two months, and even though we had plenty of tough nights with her and bad sleep stages that felt endless and awful at the time, she still sleeps through the night very reliably.
Even in their shared room, even when he’s awake and screaming, she’s unflappable. After one recent awful night, when her brother was screaming half the night, she told me, “He tried to wake me up, but I just went back to sleep.”
But not everything is harder with the little one. He falls asleep much faster than his sister (Is there a male gene for this?). And he naps every day. They might be short, but they are reliable. I think he’s skipped one nap in his almost two years and I’m pretty sure it was my fault.
With the older one, naps were hard work. When the infant, sleeping-on-and-off-all-day-on-her-own stage ended, I was utterly unprepared. I had no idea that I had to do something to make naps happen. In my pre-baby days, I imagined long stretches of time when she would sleep and I would spend time writing or sleeping or exercising. Yeah, not so much.
It was a rude wake-up call to learn I had yet another job to do. In fact, I had to get her to sleep three times a day (ugh). Good thing I wasn’t yet counting the five times a day I would have to get someone to sleep when he brother showed up on the scene. At one point, I realized I spent something like three hours a day between naps for two kids and bedtime.
It’s adding insult to injury for a parent who’s not sleeping enough to have to focus so much on the sleep of others. It’s unbelievably frustrating to be falling asleep while holding a baby that won’t fall asleep.
I remember days when I would sit in our living room, shoulders up around my ears, listening for my daughter’s voice to pop up again on the baby monitor, in tears or with surges of anger from the effort required to get her to sleep and the number of days that she skipped naps altogether. After I realized that she had actually, finally, mercifully fallen asleep, my anger and frustration would give way to guilt and self-doubt. And I would start to rehearse my apology for when she woke up.
I yelled at her a lot for not taking naps. And I remember she would be so sorry and tell me, “Mommy, I promise I’ll do it this time.” Or, the gut-wrenching, “But mommy, I’m not tired.”
It doesn’t matter how much you love your kids, you have to have a break. Imagine the most amazing job—but with 14-hour days and no lunch breaks ever. Who wouldn’t consider quitting?
My life as a stay-at-home mom can be reduced to a simple equation. No Nap = Bad Day. And it’s inverse: Naps = Sanity. Even with a short, thirty-minute nap, I have space to breathe, a little time to myself to exhale with the relief of being alone, not even realizing I had been holding my breath all morning. When I don’t get to pause, for even a minute, I’m a tense wreck at the end of the day.
Friends who work and have their kids in day care full-time almost seem to be relieved as their toddler’s naps become a thing of the past. For them, no nap means more freedom on weekends. And even more exciting: an earlier bedtime. And earlier bedtime is code for: “I get to say hi to my spouse before I pass out tired.”
Even beyond my own sanity, I believe it is part of my job as a mother to teach my kids to be good sleepers. It’s a skill with life-long benefits for physical and mental health. I’m a pretty terrible sleeper myself, with all kinds of insomniac behavior. My mother says I never took naps. Maybe if I had, I’d be a better sleeper now.
After a lot of reading and talking to other moms and watching my own kids when they do and don’t nap, I stubbornly believe that naps are important.
But at what cost? Not napping is not bad behavior. But it’s oh-so-hard not to get mad about it.
So the reliable naps of my “bad sleeper” have been incredibly important for me. I’ve also learned not to rely on naps as my only downtime all week. I now schedule a babysitter for a few hours every week, and hang my sanity on that. Not foolproof, but a lot better than going nuts because a toddler won’t sleep when they’re not tired.
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