My Two-Year-Old Doesn’t Sleep Through the Night
Felix is 25 months old and isn’t sleeping through the night. And guess what? He never has. In fact, he’s never slept more than four hours without waking up to nurse. Most people don’t know this, because I’ve been in the closet about it for a long time. Here’s how it went:
- Felix Is 2 Weeks Old: People start asking me if my new baby is sleeping through the night. At this point, nighttime doesn’t seem to mean anything to Felix, whose 24-hour nurse/nap fest is punctuated by periods of wakeful fussing every two hours or so, day and night.
- Felix Is 4 Months Old: Our pediatrician gives us the go-ahead to sleep train our baby, saying that he no longer needs to breastfeed in the middle of the night and should be left to cry himself back to sleep when he wakes up. We ignore this advice and continue nursing throughout the night with Felix in our bed. Sometimes I love this arrangement, and sometimes I am exhausted and unhappy.
- Felix Is 6 Months Old: I begin lying when people ask about Felix’s sleep habits, claiming he “usually sleeps through the night,” since I no longer am aware of any babies Felix’s age who haven’t met this milestone, and I’m sick of lectures from our pediatrician to get him out of our bed, stop nursing at night, and let him cry it out.
- Felix Is 9 Months Old: People finally stop asking if Felix is sleeping through the night, because they assume by this age he must be, like every other baby they know.
An Overdue Milestone?
In Felix’s baby book, the milestones list is roughly chronological, each line beginning with “When you first…” and a blank space to fill in the age when the benchmark is met.
The chart begins with “smiled” and ends with “said the alphabet.” Since Felix has been singing his ABC’s for months now, this page of his baby book is complete, but for one glaring omission. The “slept through the night” milestone is nestled right between “ate baby food” and “crawled,” two benchmarks Felix hit before he turned seven months old. Apparently the authors of the baby book know all the same families I do.
What’s Wrong with Him?!
Because I’m not friends with any families who co-sleep, skip the cry-it-out training, and continue to breastfeed their toddlers, I don’t know if my experience is unique. My hunch is that unless you sleep train and night-wean your baby, he’s not going to sleep through the night. Or maybe everyone else is lying too?
From the research I’ve done (including consulting my own and my brother’s baby books, as we were not sleep-trained children), it seems that extended nursers usually sleep all night after they are weaned, or between two and three years old, whichever of these happens last.
The Myth of Sleeping Through the Night
One obvious but often ignored fact is that no one sleeps through the night. We all wake between sleep cycles, if only to roll over or re-squash our pillow, and even if we don’t remember doing so come morning. My husband habitually mumbles gibberish in the wee hours before dawn, sometimes with his eyes open.
When Felix awakens, instead of bunching up his pillow and tucking the blankets under his chin, he wants to breastfeed, because this is how it’s always been. At the time of this writing, I don’t mind obliging him: I barely wake up, and fall back asleep the moment he’s latched on. His own sleep is virtually uninterrupted, and he wakes up cheerful and well-rested. But it’s not always so cozy a picture in the James family bed.
An excerpt from a recent email I sent to my my mother, who usually receives the brunt of my exhausted frustration:
Ugh! Felix nursed constantly last night, all night. It’s not the nursing that is so troublesome, but he plays with my other nipple and I can’t sleep through this (not well anyway). In these moments (hours), I find myself seething, thinking of Dr. Sears and his benign little know-it-all smile and wanting to claw his eyes out!
From Smug to Ugh
When it comes to our sleeping arrangements, my emotions run the gamut. Sometimes, I operate from a place of self-satisfied conviction that I’m doing what’s best for my kid—emotionally and physically—by sleeping near him, a practice shared by every primate besides humans. Other days, I’m exhausted and desperate, ready to renounce my beliefs, buy a crib and some earplugs, and let Felix scream, no matter how it may be harming him.
It’s my nature to never feel 100 percent certain of any decision I make. I agonized over which vaccines to get for Felix, and finally decided to give him all of his shots, on a delayed schedule. But, in my gut, does it still feel wrong each time he’s jabbed in the perfect, chubby thigh? Yup. And, in the months before he received his pertussis vaccine, did I fret when a cough sounded a little, well…whoopish? Totally.
Obviously, some parenting decisions are easier than others. When it comes to vaccines, at least either choice is about Felix’s wellbeing (or the wellbeing of the community at large). When it comes to allowing him to cry it out in order to learn to “self soothe,” I just can’t shake the truth: for our family, this decision would only be about making my own life easier, not because I think that “learning to fall asleep on his own” is something that will truly benefit Felix at age two.
Perhaps I should have said this paragraphs ago, but I realize that for moms working outside of the home, sleep training is likely the only realistic option. And I know dozens of amazing mothers with incredible, well-adjusted sleep-trained kids.
But Would it Be Better for Felix?
I have tossed around the notion of doing sleep training because perhaps Felix would benefit from having a more well-rested, and thus happier and more fun, mother. But then again, a lot of things would make me a happier mom—like drinking three glasses of wine while Felix and I eat lunch, or putting him in front of a Bob the Builder DVD for an hour while I take a bath (and drink three glasses of wine there). Of course, it would also be better for him to eat homemade spelt muffins than organic cheese curls, but I resort to a ton of packaged snacks simply because they are so much easier. Parenting choices fall on a spectrum, and we all have to find our comfort zone.
At this point, I can’t make myself comfortable with the idea of closing the door on Felix and letting him cry, no matter how tired some mornings find me. So, for us, for now, that section of his Felix’s baby book will just have to remain blank. Talk to me again when he’s three.
Maia, Founder & CEO
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Thank you Maia and other moms for sharing this real life! This post really made me feel better and more confident. I can relate with 18 month old co-sleeping and nursing through the night. I feel that everything is going just as it was suppose to until hearing some “smart pants” telling the “you should this and it should be that”. Trust your instincts is my motto too.
Don’t worry it comes to an end on its own. I too had an extended breast fed child until a few days ago and yes we sleep in the same bed. My son is three! After a dental apt with a lot of local anesthesia that day I thought it would be best to try and explain to him that mommy is sick and I do not want him to get sick either. Somehow this sunk into his mind, he kept asking me if I still feel bad. To which I responded yes. Then asked if the milk was bad, I responded with yes. 2 days of this and he has not cried or pushed to breast feed. After a few weeks I will put him to sleep in his own bed and see how it works.
I would never tell my friends about this as they would just shame me of course. So this is something I will keep with me for a long time, well until now that I am sharing with you.
Thanks for the commiseration, Gillian, and I hope you and your son get the rest you both need! It sounds like your instincts are on point, and he probably does need the mid-night snack. Have you tried feeding him something filling before bed?
Although my son is only nearly 1 (when did that happen?!) I can relate to not sleeping through the night. He finally gave me some rest around 4.5 months, but an extended trip overseas messed everything up. He no longer sleeps through the night and it is very frustrating for me because I know that he can. He did. He should. But he doesn't. In total contrast to your situation, however, is our sleeping arrangement: My son sleeps best in his crib, in his own room, with the door firmly shut. We never did bed-sharing but he was in our room (in a Pack 'n Play snugly against the side of the bed) for his first 7 weeks of life. After those 7 weeks I was reluctant to move him *all the way* across the hall, but he was the noisiest sleeper and it was keeping me up. So *all the way* across the hall he went and we were all much happier.
As for night weaning … I'm also torn. He is waking up around 330 every morning and roots frantically until he finds my nipple. He doesn't just suck to pacify himself back to sleep, he EATS. He drains me while barely waking up and is asleep in my arms before I've put him back down in his crib. I would so desperately love to wean him off this night feed by sending Hubby in to calm him and get him back to sleep, which is what we did to drop a night feed a few months ago. I'm just worried that he's waking because he is truly hungry and not only out of habit. But on the flip side, he used to sleep through the night and he eats a ton during the day and … I need sleep!
I guess I don't have much advice for you, just wanted to share that my over-9-month-old doesn't sleep through either.
Thank you so much for your candid reply! Your nursing stories (for both your little ones) give me hope that Felix and my breastfeeding relationship will end on a happy note, whenever and however it comes about. I also think your point about African-American culture is so interesting and one that I'd never thought of before–I don't know many women who sleep with their babies or breastfeed their toddlers, period, so I have no good comparison. I wonder, then, about other ethnic groups and their sleeping/nursing habits. Thanks for reading!
I appreciate your candid post! My firstborn, now 5, unequivocally stopped nursing at 1 year. At the time I was surprised, but eventually happy that it ended with both of us satisfied that we'd completed the journey. However, I can relate entirely to your Felix. My second son, now 3, enjoyed nursing well into his second year. As tired moms know, bringing him into our bed to nurse was the only way to finish a night's rest, since he insisted on feeding, and I never turned him down! I had the same concerns that you do about his sleep habits and whether he would ever sleep through the night without breast help. At 22 months, I realized that we both needed to make some changes before his 2nd birthday. He obliged. I was happy to be able to write in his journal that he stopped nursing at 23 months (whew!) . It did humor me just a few months ago when he said "Mommy…..I wish you still had milk in your breasts."
As an African-American mother, it bothers me that more moms in our ethnic group shy away from what is such a wonderful experience for babies and moms. My mom is a retired labor and delivery nurse, and I learned so much from her about natural birth, nursing, and using our God-given intuition to guide us, rather than being led by what others think. I'll stick with that. Thanks for sharing your experience–I'm sure so many moms have similar experiences. Best wishes to you and Felix!