Baby sleep: why do parents (like me) lie about it?

How much does your baby sleep? Your answer will probably be “so well!” (forgetting that it’s not perfect every night) or “terribly”, which is more likely to be accurate. So why do we lie about how well our babies are sleeping? Annie Ridout explains…

I feel fairly confident in saying that every new parent will, at one point or another, fixate on their baby’s sleep (or lack thereof). Ask Google any question about baby sleep and you’ll be inundated with articles about how to get more. (As well as books, toys, quick fixes, cots, cot inserts… etc – we’re prepared to part with good money for a guaranteed night’s sleep. Warning: you’re never guaranteed that, whatever the product/book blurb says).

If you have friends or neighbours with babies, you’ll have conversations about sleep. Family members will enquire about it. Heath workers will too. Strangers in coffee shops will even ask. You might delightedly discuss the good sleeps, and morosely reveal how bad the bad nights are. But one thing you need to be wary of is the fact that PARENTS LIE ABOUT SLEEP. All the time. How do I know? Because I’m one of them.

When I had my firstborn, a friend – whose baby was a similar age – told me, proudly, that her baby was ‘sleeping through’. My daughter was about three months old and definitely wasn’t sleeping through. I probed for more information: “You mean, she goes down at 7pm and wakes up 12 hours later?” I asked. “Well, she’ll have a feed around midnight and maybe at 3am but she doesn’t ever cry.” Oh.

I realised that day that ‘sleeping through’ has different meanings for different parents. But while I’ve never claimed that either of my babies has slept through before they have, I have found myself slightly fibbing about the sleep we’re getting. For instance, baby 2 was sleeping 7pm – 3am for a while (true story, it lasted a few blissful weeks). It then reverted to 7-midnight, feed, then 1-3, feed, then 4-6.

Never trust a parent’s comments on baby sleep

But I was (I should say ‘am’ – this is happening presently) so sure that the eight-hour stretches would return, I told people – when asked – that he was sleeping well. My husband, if he heard me, would say: “No he’s not! He was up twice last night!”. And I’d go pink-cheeked and shimmy back towards the park gate, muttering something about it being nap time. See, I can’t even commit to the present tense because I remain convinced that in the interim period between writing and publishing this, my baby will suddenly start sleeping through. (Maybe he will, TONIGHT?).

And so it is that I began constructing a web of lies about the sleep both my baby and I are getting each night. The truth is that he has, and so can, sleep longer periods. But he also has lots of nights where he wakes for a few feeds. On the whole, he’s an ‘easy’ baby and so I forgive his night wakings. But it’s still bloody hard being sleep deprived.

I put my truth-bending down to optimism: I’m so excited for it to soon improve, that I forget that actually, right now, I’m exhausted, because he woke me at midnight and 3.30am for feeds last night. And we were then up for good at 5.45am. So in my belief that he can and will improve soon, I omit the truth about where we are right now. A bit like that friend did, when she said her baby was ‘sleeping through’ until I asked her to explain what that meant. But also, saying it’s terrible is like admitting defeat – and I am not prepared to do that. He will sleep through soon, I’m sure of it.

When I looked back at the notes I’d written about my firstborn’s early months and milestones, I was surprised to see that it said: ‘started sleeping through at 13 weeks’. But then: ‘until a trip away disrupted this.’ And then: ‘started sleeping through at 5.5 months when solids were introduced and she went into her own room.’ I can’t even trust myself to keep an honest diary. It’s ridiculous, really.

Another reason for lying about baby sleep is surrounding success/failure. When we can tell people that our baby is sleeping through, it’s impossible to not feel just the slightest bit smug. It’s a combination of sheer joy at having reached the pinnacle of baby-rearing: getting them to sleep through. And perhaps feel a little bit pleased with yourself for having helped this to happen.

Of course, when the baby isn’t sleeping through, and we’re continuously googling reasons and solutions for this, we can’t help but wonder if it is perhaps something we’re doing wrong. In other words: we feel like we’re failing a bit at parenting. And this failure is all the harder to deal with when we’re so sleep deprived.

And so, in conclusion, never trust a parent’s comments on sleep. They are all lying. Babies never sleep through at four months. Except the ones that do. But they’re just magic. A bit like my baby, who’s going to sleep through this very night, aged four months. Or that’s what I’ll be telling you tomorrow if I see you, anyway.

What is your experience of baby sleep and the parents’ reporting of it: do you agree that everyone lies?