What Sleep Taught Me About Parenting

04/23/2013 02:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013
Sarah Chang

I recently joined a mommy/baby yoga class with my three-month-old. Every Monday morning, we sit in a room at our local New York Sports Club, dressed in yoga pants and nursing tanks (hey, we're postpartum, after all). There's a relatively large group of women, and babies of varying ages. Perched on her mat, perky and friendly in Lululemon, our instructor leads the introductions. Classes such as these are more for the mothers, after all, and it's important to get to know one another. As we move around the room, sharing our names (and those of our infants), the conversation invariably turns to sleep.

Now, if you're a parent (and perhaps even if not), you know sleep is a touchy issue. Rife with different philosophies. Hundreds -- dare I say thousands -- of books have been published on the subject. People love to talk about it -- failures, and often, successes. This group is no exception. At any given class, more than three quarters of the women are quick to speak of their babies who sleep through the night (many since birth!). I'm not saying I believe this is the case for every child in the room (I think social pressure sometimes takes over in these situations). Still, whether the sleep is real or imagined, there are generally only one or two moms at a time who admit to a child waking every few hours.

Four years ago, I would have been one of these women, nodding knowingly as others spoke. I may have even shared what I thought I was doing right (makes me laugh, now). My first child, Gemma, was a pretty fabulous sleeper. By two weeks of age, her stretches ranged anywhere from four to six hours. I remember waking in the middle of the night, startled, and realizing my newborn hadn't stirred since 7:00 p.m. I'd anxiously place my hand on her little body, searching for the familiar ebb and flow of her chest. Once I realized that Gemma could sleep, I wore the status like a badge of honor. Sleep. Bah. I knew what I was doing. It was innate.

Four years later, things are admittedly different. My second child, Cleo, slipped into our family like the missing piece of a puzzle. Very quickly, I figured out how to make it work with two children. And generally, we're very lucky. Nestled snugly in her carrier, Cleo comes everywhere. Swimming lessons, ballet, Chinese school drop off. She's sweet, happy, and adaptable.

She also rarely sleeps for more than three hours at a time.

Four years ago, I would have wondered what I was doing wrong. Why my infant wasn't sleeping, when everyone else's was. I would have sought advice from the other new mothers; asked them for their secrets. I would have sat, nervously, on my yoga mat, dreading the moment when I'd have to share my sleep experience.

Four years later, I've adjusted to resting in short increments. I've also realized that parenting doesn't follow a formula, nor do my children. I've learned this from my little, and, more surprisingly, big one.

Shortly after Cleo's birth, Gemma's sleep became more sporadic. She'd call for me in the middle of the night, asking for something as simple as a blanket adjustment. At first, I was adamant that we wouldn't go down this road. Then, I began to wonder whether her change in behavior was the result of a new sibling. Cleo was sleeping in my room; attached to my breast; always with me. Difficult for even the most well-adjusted child. So, I decided to indulge her; let my instinct guide me. When she called, I'd respond. It seemed like the right decision, given the timing, and despite the drain on my own restfulness.

It's been three months, and we're almost back to normal (with a few relapses). Even so, sleep is still a balance for us. Finding that right window when Gemma's just tired enough -- but not so exhausted that hyperactivity sets in -- takes work. I'm always wondering how to encourage the ever elusive later wake-up. How to prevent naps in the car (they sabotage an early bedtime). I have no doubt we'll be discussing sleep well into the teen years -- although by then I may be wondering why my children can't get out of bed, rather than stay in it.

The truth is, I've seen great parents who struggle with sleep. Sometimes, the best book -- the most impeccably applied parenting advice -- works in piecemeal, or not at all. I stood at the park, last week, with a mother of two. She lamented how difficult sleep training was with her second (versus how easy it seemed with her first). Different kids, different results. I suspect this message applies to parenting as a whole.

Four years ago, I'd have sat in yoga, applauding those new moms (and myself) for doing everything right.

Four years later, I'd tell them to enjoy the full nights of sleep. To ride the wave while it lasts.

But be prepared to modify and adjust when the swell turns.

That's being a parent.