How to answer 'Is the baby sleeping through the night yet?' without punching that person in the face

Answering one of the most common questions you'll hear as a new parent. How is your baby sleeping? Well, it's complicated.  |

Answering one of the most common questions you'll hear as a new parent. How is your baby sleeping? Well, it's complicated.  |

"So is the baby sleeping through the night yet?"

If there's one question you're going to hear again and again as a new parent, it's this one.

Well, that and "What's that stain on your shirt?"

Asking about your baby's sleep patterns is so common, I think, because it's the one thing basically everyone knows about newborns and how they impact parents. You don't have to go far to find a sitcom or movie that has a plot line about a baby being up all night.

There was literally an NBC sitcom called "Up All Night" about new parents. It was funnier than critics thought and never really got a chance and then they wanted to change the entire format and actors kept saying they were going to leave the show and OK tangent sorry.

We knew you too briefly, "Up All Night."

We knew you too briefly, "Up All Night."

What's the harm in someone asking you about the baby's sleep, you ask. It really is an innocent question. Nobody is trying to be a jerk when they are asking it, and I know I've asked it a time or three.

But man, when you've got a newborn, it can be frustrating!

Because even if it's not the intent, "Is the baby sleeping through the night yet?" sounds like it's implying two things:

  1. The baby's worth is tied to his or her ability to sleep for long periods. If you say "Yes, she is sleeping 8 hours in a row!", people think, wow, that's a good baby! If you instead tell the truth and say, "Not at all. She gets up about once an hour," people think, wow, sure hope you find a solution for that baby! 
  2. Your parenting skills are tied to the baby's sleep pattern. Sleeping long stretches? You're a master! Not sleeping at all? Oh man, guess you haven't gotten the hang of it yet.

And the "yet" on the end — it always seems to be tacked on — always sounds like there was a timeline that your baby should have met.

The realistic answer when asked "Is the baby sleeping through the night?"

I've said this before and it's extremely true here:

It is unrealistic to think your baby is going to repeatedly sleep through the night.

They aren't designed for it right away. For the first couple months, the need to eat trumpets the need to sleep, and that's just one potential issue. 

There are so many factors that can easily wake them up, it's like asking someone to kayak down the Mississippi with half an oar and holes in the boat while paddling the wrong direction. Sure, you might end up floating down the right away at some points anyway because sometimes nature just takes over, but you might hit another rough patch out of nowhere and feel like you're sinking.

You have to give yourself a break. It's easy for you to think you're doing something wrong if your newborn isn't sleeping great, or compare his sleep to another baby's sleep, or find yourself losing your mind a little because you assume people ask that because the baby should already be sleeping eight hours in a row.

People are just being nice when they ask. They want you to get some sleep, and they know if the baby is sleeping great, that's a good sign. But you know as a parent how it's so much more complicated than that. A simple cold, for example, can screw up a whole week's worth of sleep because the congestion will make them wake up.

You had thought you were on track and all of a sudden, you're up all the time, and when someone asks how the baby is sleeping, you perhaps want to punch them in the face. 

Don't punch them. Resist the urge. They mean you no harm.

But also don't ever feel like you're obligated to justify your baby's (lack of) sleep! I know as a new parent, I felt like I wasn't doing a good job if I was asked about my son sleeping through the night and the truthful answer would be "#$%* no."

The truth is there's no perfect way to respond because it can vary so much, even day-to-day. They want to hear "She's sleeping like a beautiful angel on a cloud of rainbow unicorns" because if you told them how it's really going, you'd be in a really awkward conversation really fast. (Side note: If any of you reading this asked me this question before, no worries. You weren't the inspiration for the post. I love you all.)

Instead, allow yourself to be realistic yet optimistic in your response:

  • "Some nights he does great so we're hoping that continues."
  • "We're making progress!"
  • "Off and on."
  • "Not yet but we don't expect her too this early."
  • "Good so far." (Because there's no harm in just glossing over it.)

And if you get a response of "So-and-so's friend's baby sleeps through the night already. I'm sure it'll happen soon. Did you try such-and-such?" you can just nod politely. We all have a tendency to want to fix things, even if it's a coworker in a casual conversation. 

Your baby might have slept a grand total of 5 hours overnight for an entire week. Knowing another baby is sleeping great has no relation to how your baby should be doing. Because guess what? There's going to be a time when your kid sleeps great and that other baby is an overnight monster. That's how it works.

I know babies that slept 10 hours a night almost from birth. I know babies that have put their parents in tears because it's been 14 months of waking up constantly. There's one common theme: Eventually, all of those babies turn into kids who consistently sleep through the night. Just like the crawling/walking milestones, it all happens eventually.

Sure, but is there anything I can do to help my baby sleep? I'm freaking exhausted.

Your baby is an individual case. He or she isn't like any other baby in the world. Your baby might be predisposed to sleeping in short cycles. Or getting easily upset if it's too hot or cold. Or get hungry quickly. Or not like sleeping on their back as much as they like sleeping on someone's chest (I know we've had that issue!). Or a million other things. It doesn't mean you messed up! Or that your baby needs "fixed."

What it means is that you are the parent of a newborn baby. 

And that baby is going to sleep for long stretches basically when he/she feels like it's time.

That all might sound a little pessimistic, like I'm saying "THERE'S NO HOPE FOR YOU! SUCK IT UP!" 

That's definitely not the case. While you can't control the natural progression of when your baby is ready for a big night of sleep versus waking up in cycles, I believe you can make sure you are giving them every advantage to fall asleep and stay asleep as much as they are capable of doing.

I think there are some really solid strategies and little tips that can help them fall asleep. White noise has always been a little magical sleep aid in our house.

Other small changes help, too. It took me some time, for instance, to realize that by placing one hand each under my kid's head and butt and sliding them out from where they fell asleep while nursing, I could easily move them to the crib in a horizontal position. This worked so much better than trying to cradle them in my arms during the transition, which always jostled them awake. Basically, I minimized how much repositioning they needed to do so that they were essentially in the same position they'd be in when I placed them in the crib, rather than curled up like I'd normally hold them.

No matter what, though, don't go crazy if your baby just isn't sleeping the way you'd like. It's exhausting and frustrating, no doubt. But it doesn't mean you're less of a parent or that there's something wrong with the baby! Colic comes and goes. The need to nurse/bottle feed all the time won't last forever.

One day, before you know it, you're going to wake up at 6 or 7 a.m. and realize you just slept through the night. Your first instinct is going to be to panic. "What happened? Oh man, is the baby OK? They couldn't have slept all this time. Did the monitor turn off? AHHHH!"

Guess what? Your kid slept through the night. You did it. It happened. Soak it up!

For babies, that can feel like one of the biggest accomplishments of the first year. You'll undoubtedly post about it online because you're still incredulous. 

Word of caution that you don't often here: Sleeping through the night comes and goes.

With my son, he initially was great at sleeping. We didn't realize until later that was related to his jaundice, which made him sleepy. When that cleared up, he was up all. the. time. I'm talking 15 minute spurts of sleep and me talking in incoherent sentences. Then he hit a period where he slept great all the time. We were so happy! And then that ended. Hard. He was up all the time, and we couldn't figure out why. 

Turns out babies can go through sleep regression. They'll become more aware of their surroundings, and what they could previously through now will wake them up. And they also are developing light and heavy sleep cycles more like an adult instead of just deep sleep. That makes it easier to wake up. Four-months-old is a typical time for this sleep regression to kick in.

Again, don't get too down. It won't last forever! It took a few months, but our son went back to sleeping great. We're in the middle of it all again with our twin girls, but this time we're even more focused on keeping them in the crib as much as possible. It may work, it may not, but we're definitely not going to beat ourselves up over it or think our kids are any less awesome.

So give yourself a break. Next time someone asks you that, give them a smile, a quick reply, and ask them if they noticed that seed stuck in their teeth. There isn't a seed, but it'll make them freak out and run to a mirror. Problem solved.