Who needs sleep? Me! But maybe not you?
People prioritize their mental health in different ways, & that's okay
I care a lot about my sleep. A lot. I have always been a champion sleeper. I missed my first day of kindergarten because I overslept. I was supposed to be in the morning class, but had to be placed in the afternoon class because my parents could literally not wake me up early enough. Sleep disruption was probably the number one thing I worried about related to becoming a parent. The biggest parenting argument my spouse and I have gotten into (so far!) was partially centered around my fear of disrupting our son’s sleep schedule (thus disrupting my sleep schedule). I started this newsletter in the first place because I felt personally attacked by a New Yorker article on sleep training that was too nonchalant about the health consequences of sleep disruptions for parents (I seriously could not shut up about it). I’ve continued to write about how sleep training does not appear to be harmful for babies, and that sleep is important for postpartum mental health generally.
I’m aware that sleep and sleep training are controversial topics in parenting circles. Posts about sleep often come with a content warning in my Facebook parenting groups. “How is your baby sleeping?” has become a moralistic question. It’s one of those things that parents feel incredibly judged by, as if how your baby is sleeping is a direct indication of how good of a parent you are. The decision whether or not to sleep train your child can feel like a lose-lose situation: Either you sleep train your child, which means you’re a selfish, callous monster who can just listen to your baby cry and do nothing, or you don’t sleep train your child, so you’re some weak, exhausted wreck who is setting your child (and yourself) up for a lifetime of sleep difficulties. Obviously, none of this is true, but it can be really difficult to shut down those negative thoughts. It’s also unfortunate that sleep has become such a loaded topic because, in all honesty, however we choose to address (or not address) a baby’s sleep habits will likely have no effect on their future behaviors.
What gets lost in the jumble of these imaginary judgments from others and the anxiety of being a new parent is the confidence that it’s okay to prioritize your own mental health. I like writing about sleep and mental health in parenthood because I like being reminded that, actually, my choice to prioritize my sleep isn’t selfish. It’s vital. I feel validated when I read studies on these topics. I want others to feel the same.
However, I don’t want my previous (or future) writing on sleep and mental health to reinforce the notion that there is only one correct way to prioritize your well-being. I know that, either by choice or by circumstances, sleep is not as important to others as it is to me. My mother, for one. I don’t think she’s slept more than 6 hours a night for… decades? And it doesn’t really bother her. A predisposition towards not needing a lot of sleep combined with years of rotating shift work have made her into a person who is usually awake by 5AM most days.
Parents can (or have to) prioritize things other than than sleep: work shifts, bedsharing or roomsharing with their baby, breast milk supply, a desire to not or an inability to sleep train, etc. Like in so much of parenting, there’s no right answer. Yes, I sleep trained my baby. It doesn’t make me virtuous or callous or selfish or whatever other judgments I felt in the moment. Just like the parent who chooses not to sleep train their child is neither a better nor worse parent than me. We’re all just doing the best we can. One of my goals with this newsletter is to help you make evidence-based, informed decisions related to prioritizing your mental health. I’ll keep writing about sleep and mental health because, yes, it’s important, but I also acknowledge it might not be the most important thing for you. And that’s okay.