At about six weeks of age, my daughter Ellie started sleeping through the night, regularly snuggled into her Moses basket for eight to ten straight hours without so much as a peep. I’d expected it to take months and lots of painful sleep training to get her to accomplish this feat, so I was elated that it had happened so quickly and easily. As first-time parents who had heard lots of sleep horror stories from our friends, my husband and I couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We eagerly told everyone who asked how well Ellie was sleeping — and when you have a newborn, pretty much everyone asks you how she’s sleeping, so we had lots of opportunity to boast. In my head, I knew that Ellie’s night sleeping success had nothing to do with my skill as a mother, but it still felt really good to tell others that my daughter had figured out how to do something many babies didn’t master until a year or later.
When I informed my friend Kristin, herself a mother of three, how well Ellie was sleeping at night, she said something that took me by surprise. “That’s great,” she said, “but don’t worry if she stops at some point. That is totally normal.”
At the time, I dismissed her words, certain this would not be the case for Ellie. She’d been sleeping through the night for a month now. Why would she ever go back?
What I didn’t realize as a first-time mom is that life with a baby would not be one grand parade of forward progress, each developmental milestone being checked off neatly once and for all before moving on to the next. When I looked at my own baby book, the achievements my mom recorded for me seemed so simple and straightforward — first laughs at three months, sitting up at six months, walking at eleven months. There was no record of me forgetting how to do something once I knew how or of me needing to be retrained in a certain area.
But I soon discovered that life with Ellie was not quite so linear. She rolled over from back to front at every opportunity for two weeks and then completely forgot how to do so for two more. She found her thumb one day and then ignored it the next. And, as Kristin had warned me, she suddenly stopped sleeping through the night somewhere around two and a half months, waking me up from my deepest sleep each morning between two and four and demanding to be fed.
I couldn’t understand it. Why was something that had been going so well for so long suddenly not working anymore?
Everyone tried to reassure me that Ellie would return to her old habits eventually, but all I could think about was that she wasn’t sleeping through the night now. I had allowed space in my expectations for life with a baby to be hard, but I hadn’t considered the possibility that it might get harder still. And even more frustrating was the reality that I had no idea how long this phase would last.
“I almost wish she hadn’t slept through the night in the first place,” I complained to a friend. “It would be easier if I hadn’t gotten used to eight uninterrupted hours of sleep, if I hadn’t formed the expectation that she’d keep doing that.”
My friend, whose ten-month-old daughter had recently learned to stand and decided to spend two hours in the middle of each night practicing her new skill in her crib, nodded in weary agreement.
Parenting a child, I am learning, is not a nice, smooth trail that progresses directly from Point A to Point B; rather, it is a journey full of detours and switchbacks. I’m not sure why this has taken me by surprise, seeing as life itself rarely marches forward in neat, evenly-spaced intervals. But surprise me it has. I genuinely thought that by three months of age, Ellie would not only be sleeping through the night (based on her early mastery of the skill), but that she’d have settled into a regular schedule, that I’d have figured her out, that life would once again feel manageable and predictable.
But even at her current age of six months, thanks in part to her battle with acid reflux, my little girl is far from predictable, and she’s still not sleeping through the night like she did at six weeks. Our daily life reads like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, where the success (or failure) of each feeding, naptime, or night takes us down one of many possible paths for the day. I honestly don’t know when — or if — it will get better.
As the type of person who likes to get things done and stay on schedule, who too often measures the value of a day by the number of things I am able to cross off my to-do list, having an inconsistent child has been, to put it mildly, a real challenge. I’ve found myself oscillating between stubborn determination to “fix” Ellie by improving her eating and sleeping habits and frustration and despair when my latest plan falls flat on its face, when she refuses to eat at her scheduled time or wakes up an hour too early.
Just this morning, in fact, I dissolved in tears, tired after waking up with Ellie twice in the middle of the night, frustrated that she wouldn’t eat at the time I’d tried to set for her first morning feeding. I felt the heavy burden of condemnation, remembering how I’d read on a parenting website just the day before that consistent schedules were key to a baby’s ability to thrive and establish healthy sleep patterns. I compared myself to all the other mothers I know who seem to have no problem getting their babies on a regular schedule or sleeping through the night. And suddenly, all I could see was failure. Ellie’s failure. My failure. Our failure.
But thankfully, in that moment, I did something I’ve done far too infrequently these last six months — I prayed. And thankfully, in that moment, God whispered grace. He reminded me that I do fail, time after time, day after day, but that He forgives me each and every time, treating me, through Christ, as if I had never failed at all. He reminded me that in my own journey with Him, there have been many times where I completely forgot a lesson I’d already learned, where I had to be gently corrected and retaught. He reminded me too that no matter how much I mature, I will still fall short, and that even then, there is only grace.
So today, I held my Ellie girl tight when she woke up too early from her nap, kissing her soft, warm cheeks and smoothing her fine, auburn hair. Instead of stressing about her erratic feedings, I bounced her in my arms, reveling in her happy laughs. And tonight, when her cries interrupt my sleep, I will remember that there is grace for this journey, grace for me, grace for Ellie, grace for the steps God has determined for our lives together, no matter how winding and circuitous they may be.
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