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Lucky Dad No. 8: Never Wake a Sleeping Baby

With the Ferber debacle behind us (see Lucky Dad No. 7), we dispensed with expert advice on improving the sleep habits of our daughters. All three of the girls were pretty good sleepers anyway, but when you have little ones in the house there are a lot of wakeful nights for both infants and parents.

The burden of the Midnight Watch fell most heavily on Francine. There were about eight years straight—from when Katie first arrived until Claire was about three—in which it seemed like Francine never got a full night’s sleep. This was certainly the case when the girls were nursing, but I can’t honestly use the “men can’t breastfeed” excuse as a comprehensive cover for not sharing the chores during the nocturnal alarums. When Katie was a newborn, everything she did was a stunning novelty. I frequently got up with Francine in the middle of the night, taking my turn changing diapers, burping the baby, etc. With Maura and Claire, though—and I’m not proud to say it—my default response to a wakeful baby was to roll over and go back to sleep, unless or until Francine prodded me with instructions. My excuse, if any there be, is that I was working full-time and then some to support the family. Francine was working at least as hard, to be sure, but her work was caring for the little girls and keeping the household running. So I fell back on the justification that I needed a full night’s sleep in order to be sharp at the office in the morning.

Parents love to engage in one-upmanship, and just about everything is fair game. It is a competition that never ends. You can hear grandparents hard at it well into their eighties, talking about their precocious middle-aged progeny, their promotions, their vacations, their pivotal places in local society, etc. Not only does the competition never end, but it begins even before birth, as we hear expecting parents talk about their brilliant pre-natal visits, the blood tests, Mozart in the womb, and all the rest. These are only the warm-ups, though. Birth is the official starting gun, with weight, length, amount of hair, APGAR score, difficulty of delivery, and resemblance to ancestors all entering into the scoring. Novices will try to gain points on cuteness, but there is no advantage to be won there—we will all admit that your little one is very cute, but none of us will ever think that yours is cuter than ours.

Without doubt, the subject of sleep is among the most fertile topics. There is no end to how much parents will worry, talk, and compare notes about their children’s sleeping habits. If you are ever with other parents and need an ice-breaker, I recommend asking if their children are good sleepers. This will inevitably lead to a heated discussion on how best to get them to go to sleep and stay asleep. After the Ferber fiasco, Francine and I disregarded all received wisdom on the topic. This has allowed us to treat the entire subject with a degree of detachment.

Francine and I are now old enough to have witnessed several cycles of one of the great debates of child-raising, namely: Should the newborn sleep on her tummy, or on her back? In the Year of our Lord 2021, an internet search reveals that the experts come down emphatically on the side that says babies should sleep on their backs. If the experts say it, it must be so. Still, there is ample proof all around us that your child is very unlikely to suffer harm as a result of sleeping on her tummy. That proof consists of the billions of humans inhabiting the planet whose parents paid no attention to the Tummy v. Back experts and the impassioned debates they inspire, yet who nevertheless survived infancy.

As I say, after Ferber we ignored the experts, but we did adopt one simple rule, so useful that I recommend it to every parent: Never wake a sleeping baby. This Rule is the distilled wisdom of my mother’s child-raising years. She had seven babies. I was number two, and I don’t know how firmly The Rule was established during my tenure as the household infant. By the time Nancy came along as number seven, though, it was Holy Writ. My mother’s logic was unassailable. Sleep is good for a baby. If the baby is asleep then it must be tired, and should therefore be allowed to keep sleeping. Further, if the baby is asleep, then the parent can take care of other business. Finally, if you wake the baby up, then any problems that follow belong to you, and who knows when it will go back to sleep?

In my mother’s rendition, there are no exceptions to The Rule. Where the baby happens to be sleeping is irrelevant; car seat, floor, kitchen table, dog kennel—none of that matters. The noise level or hygiene of the surroundings are likewise irrelevant. Maybe the baby’s diaper is dirty, maybe there is a river of snot running out of her nose, maybe it’s time to leave the party and go home. All irrelevant. The only relevant question is: “Is the baby sleeping?” If the answer is “Yes,” then Do not wake the sleeping baby.

Yes, there might be times when it is acceptable to wake a sleeping baby. Administering a timely dose of life-saving medicine might justify it (though certainly not giving cough syrup or other minor nostrums). Likewise, if the house is on fire it might be acceptable to break The Rule. Also, I get it that you might have no choice in the matter. If you have to get the baby to day care by a certain hour in the morning, then I suppose The Rule must fall by the wayside. Nonetheless, I say to new parents, let The Rule be your friend and your default setting, even if, God forbid, the baby is courting disaster by sleeping on her tummy (or is it on her back these days?).

You will sleep better for it.


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