Sleep Perfectionism. It’s an interesting term, isn’t it? Believe it or not, this describes me to a tee. Or it used to. I would say I’m a recovering sleep perfectionist.
It’s 100% natural as a mother to want the best for your child, which includes good sleep. Many of us have worked hard to create good sleep habits and done everything in our power to set our child up for success when it comes to sleep.
But sleep isn’t perfect (nothing in this world is), and if the irregularities in your child’s sleep produce constant anxiety, you may be a sleep perfectionist.
Let’s figure out whether this is a tendency for you or not. Which mom do you identify more with?
Mom #1 - Your baby is down for their nap and you snuggle up with a book and a cup of coffee to relax and enjoy the time (however long it lasts). Or you may be more of a go-getter and get to work on your own projects or stuff around the house, making the most of the time you have to yourself.
Mom #2 -Your baby is down for a nap and you turn that monitor on right away. The volume is up and you keep it right next to you. You may be getting things done or trying to relax, but you are constantly looking at the monitor, feeling a growing anxiety as the nap progresses, unsure of how long it will last.
That second mom was me. 100%. I was constantly calculating how long my baby needed to sleep in order to get that perfect bedtime. Planning my entire day around naptime, hardly allowing anything to come in the way of my baby and his sleep. When he woke early it affected my mood and I thought critically about what I could have done differently to get him to sleep longer. Did I miss the awake window by 5 minutes? Was he overstimulated? Understimulated? My whole day was directly affected by how my child was sleeping that day.
Now there is nothing wrong with planning out your baby’s day, there is nothing wrong with prioritizing their sleep, and there is nothing wrong with wanting their sleep to be the best it can possibly be.
But how do we handle irregularities when they arise? That’s the true question. Does it affect your day? Your mood? Are you constantly experiencing anxiety around your child’s sleep?
If so, you may struggle with sleep perfectionism.
Now let me pause here to say something really important. If your child is really struggling to sleep well (we’re talking lots of night wakings, consistant short naps, etc), then you can actually DO something about this. If your child’s fragmented sleep (aka: lack of ability to sleep independently) is causing you anxiety and taking a toll on you (and your baby), take that as a nudge to make a change. I’d love to talk with you about the first steps to sleep train if you are interested!
For this context I’m focusing more on families who have a decent sleeper. Maybe your baby was always a good sleeper or maybe you took the steps to sleep train and your baby is successfully sleeping independently. This is where sleep perfectionism can come into play.
Here is the truth: there is no such thing as perfect sleep. We all have good nights and bad nights. Sometimes falling asleep is easy and sometimes it’s difficult. We know and accept this about ourselves, but it is just as true with our little ones.
If you think you might be struggling with sleep perfectionism, here are a few tips for you:
1. Understand how infants sleep
If you have a new baby, just know that they won’t follow a regular sleep-wake cycle until about 3 months old. Their circadian rhythm needs time to develop. Irregular sleep is perfectly normal for babies in the first few weeks of life and it really has nothing to do with your competency as a parent.
2. Craft a consistent routine
Babies thrive within routines. Come up with a bedtime routine that you will follow each night (or almost each night… we aren’t striving for perfect, remember!). The routine could include a bath, lullaby, story, anything you want it to. A soothing routine that is followed regularly will help signal to your baby’s brain that it’s almost time to sleep. Once you’ve followed the routine and laid your baby in bed, you can know that you’ve your best to set your baby up for a good night of sleep.
3. Try Pausing
Try the “pause” technique. When your baby wakes up or stirs in their sleep, don’t rush in! Pause for a moment. I like to tell clients, just do one more thing. Babies often come to the surface of sleep between sleep cycles, so let’s give them the chance to try to resettle on their own. Pausing not only gives them space to develop some self-soothing skills, but can help reduce your anxiety as well. You don’t have to rush into their room the second they wake up.
4. Limit Screen Time
This is just good sleep hygiene. Blue light from electronic screens can interfere with your baby's (toddler’s, even your own) sleep-wake cycle. By limiting your child’s exposure to screens (especially in the hour before bedtime), you can create space for more calming activities that can promote good sleep. Once again, you know you’ve set them up for success and can relax knowing you’ve done what you can.
5. Practice Self-Care
It is an all-consuming job to take care of a baby. This can be especially hard on first time moms, but we can't forget to meet our own needs too. It doesn’t have to be a vacation with your friends (although we’d all love that, right?) It can be simple things like a short walk outside, a relaxing bath or even a moment of reflection and thankfulness. As moms, we can easily find ourselves spending all of our time and energy taking care of our little one. It's just natural. Remember to take time for yourself. This may feel like extra effort, but it’s 100% worth it. When you are calm and relaxed, it’s easier to cope with sleep disturbances.
6. Join a support group
Connect with other moms who are experiencing similar challenges. You can share advice, experiences and encouragement with each other. It’s always ok to ask for help too. None of us are perfect, despite what social media is telling you.
So go ahead and try to craft the best sleep schedule for your baby. Prioritize their sleep to whatever degree feels right to you. But caution yourself against slipping into sleep perfectionism.
When your baby wakes early, pause. If they don’t fall back asleep, take a deep breath and move on with your day.
When you sit down during naptime, set the monitor down. Better yet, make sure the sound is on, and leave it in the other room!
Try these simple steps toward releasing that tight grip on your baby’s sleep. We may as well learn now that nothing will be perfect – in sleep or motherhood in general.
By the way, you are doing a great job, mama.