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‘Sleep When The Baby Sleeps’ Is a Big Fat Lie

That enduring homily of age-old wisdom is, in reality, a fat burrito of hot garbage.

As a parent in this, the Internet age, you are certainly aware of two universal truths: One, most people enjoy telling you how to parent; and two, almost all of them are uproariously wrong.

Happily, much of their quasi-advice is easily enough ignored, like the bit about attempting to engineer a chess-and-violin-playing brainiac by subjecting your fetus to some in utero Mozart, or planting your partner’s placenta in the actual soil to grow magic love trees, or how a daily Eastern European diet of sauerkraut and onions has tremendous benefits for a baby’s cognitive development. (Actually that last one came from my Grandma, and I can’t say it doesn’t work. All I know for sure is it gives them dragon breath.)

But some pieces of advice hang on in flagrant defiance of their impracticality, which brings us to “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” that enduring homily of age-old wisdom is in reality a fat burrito of hot garbage. It’s cute and simplistic, something that sounds like it comes from an Emily Post Book of Pioneer American Child-Rearing from the 1840s, or whenever Emily Post was born ( I don’t have time to look that up, because I have children.) It connotes tranquility. It addresses one of the most crucial concerns faced by new parents. And like all adages, headlines, and religions that preach preciously easy answers, it’s 10 lbs. of wrong in a 5-lb. Diaper Genie wad. Yet since your mother-in-law has very likely been telling you to do this for three months, we thought we’d lay out the rich tapestry of reasons this doesn’t work. 

1. It Assumes the Baby Sleeps

Mine didn’t, for about five months! But maybe yours does. If so, while I’m sorry that you’re missing out on some of the things I enjoyed, such as hallucinating in malls and snapping at baristas in sleep-deprived episodes of micro-rage, congratulations. I guess.

“Sleep when the baby sleeps,” that enduring homily of age-old wisdom, is in reality a fat burrito of hot garbage.

2. It Assumes the Baby Sleeps for Long Periods of Time

If babies are known for anything, it’s their talent for sleeping in lengthy and predictable stretches. Here on Earth, baby naps can last anywhere from 3-4 hours to 12 seconds, depending on how bad you are at quietly closing the door. As an adult, naps of 12 minutes are not particularly restorative, nor is the process of laying down, trying to sleep for 25 minutes, partly nodding off for six, and then waking up 34 seconds later to the sound of a screaming baby. 

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 3. It Assumes That You Have Nothing Else in the World to Do. 

Here is a partial list of tasks that become difficult when you are carrying around a fragile 11-lb. football that poops: laundry, dishes, picking up toys, feeding the dog, washing the dog, letting the dog outside, screaming for the dog to come back inside, grocery shopping, full-time jobs, side hustles, freelance projects, wiping up baby vomit, removing bags of garbage from your house and, though it’s unfairly at the bottom of the list, taking 10 minutes to stare into space and reset yourself. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” means “Wash clothes, make lunch, wave to your spouse and pay your bills when the baby is awake,” which is not advice that sells baby books.

 4. Humans Are Not Programmed to Fall Asleep on Command. 

Sleep is not a switch. If it was, I’d have slept through every last one of my college-summer jobs (well, more of them) and the entirety of Pitch Perfect 3, which I watched because it was her turn to pick movie night. (Really, an exploding yacht? Please try harder.) Even in the fog of new-baby chaos, you can’t just close your eyes and fall down. Well, sometimes you can! And that’s great. But it means your body is nearing full collapse and unable to keep itself upright, which is generally bad as a parenting strategy. It’s far more likely that you’d try to sleep a little, fail, and be mad that you’re behind on both sleep and laundry.

“Sleep when the baby sleeps” means “Wash clothes, make lunch, wave to your spouse and pay your bills when the baby is awake,” which is not advice that sells baby books.

5. It’s Nice to Have Quiet. 

You know what’s sort of awesome? Having a few minutes where the baby isn’t awake, so you can venture outdoors, or watch four minutes of baseball, or wave at the person with whom you used to visit restaurants, or eat a sandwich, or stare at the wall attempting to make sense of your new reality. I can’t speak for everyone, but there were plenty of instances when my need for conscious downtime far outweighed the need for unconscious downtime. 

6. There Are No Good Ways to Do This 

But the following revolutionary ideas will help: 

• Asking friends and family for help. Or, possibly more accurately, taking friends and family up on their offers to do so. LET PEOPLE HELP.

• Multiple sources will supply the helpful idea to “Ask your partner to help with baby care and chores,” but if you are a partner who’s not helping, or you’re with a  partner who’s not helping, you’ve got way bigger problems than sleep training.

• Sleep as best you can, the way you used to. Same time, every night, in a quiet room without an obnoxious and addictive phone machine in it. Knock off the caffeine after noon, if it helps.

• Find a schedule that works for you, and do the best you can. Everybody else’s ideas and advice don’t add up to jack if they don’t work for you. You know your baby and you know your family. And keep in mind: This phase will last much, much longer than you’d like. But it won’t last forever.