Baby Sleep Tracking Made Me Lose My Damn Mind

Sleep Journaling Before the App Age

Written by The Editor

Before there were apps to track your baby’s feeding, nursing, and sleep sessions – there were good, old fashioned notebooks. I didn’t have a baby in the Stone Ages, but just less than 7 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of apps let alone the ubiquitious presence of the iPhone. One of the biggest takeaways from my birthing group class was to purchase a black and white, college-lined composition notebook, and to rely on it heavily to track my baby’s every move – at least for the first 3 months of their life. Nothing brings me more calm and sense of control, then writing, and note taking. I felt like a school girl with a fresh set of supplies for the new semester. I couldn't wait for my baby to be born so I could use my brand new notebook to monitor whether my baby was sleeping enough hours. 

Nothing brings me more calm and sense of control, then writing, and note taking.

My birthing group teacher was a wild-haired woman who summed up the C-section portion of the lesson with, “You’ll hear a lot of unpleasant noises,” and then moved back onto controlled breathing – since, in her mind, no one in our group would possibly end up with a C-section.

She convinced us that babies followed a rulebook, and that if we followed it closely, so, in turn, would our babies. She sent us each on our way with folders full of Xeroxes to read and highlight, and instructions on how to test our threshholds for handling contractions by holding ice cubes in our hands.

She convinced us that babies followed a rulebook, and that if we followed it closely, so, in turn, would our babies.

When I first opened my carefully inscribed composition notebook, I wrote down what, in hindsight, reads like “directions” for how to “work a baby,” as outlined by my birthing teacher:

  • Nurse (ideally 20 minutes each side).
  • Burp/Change diaper/Swaddle
  • Put down to sleep (1-3 hours)

Nothing went according to plan, of course. I had the unplanned-for C-section (where I did indeed hear a lot of unpleasant noises, but there were also ten thousand other things I also experienced that no one had warned me about.) And when I came home with my actual, real, live baby, my notes on how to operate it seemed to not apply to my particular model. My baby didn’t do any one particular activity for any length of time worth noting. Still, I clung to my black and white notebook for security and salvation. Maybe, I surmised, if I wrote everything the baby was doing, in neat handwriting and perfectly spaced columns, he too, would fall into line.

Maybe, I surmised, if I wrote everything the baby was doing, in neat handwriting and perfectly spaced columns, he too, would fall into line.

But my notebook continued to look nothing like it was supposed to. The data was horrifyingly out of whack; as if I had walked into a nightmare of a study where the objective is unknown and there are no controls. I imagined the notebooks of my birthing class classmate’s – and how drastically different they must have looked from mine. Theirs’ must be following a logical pattern, I thought; where babies sleep for longer than 30 minutes increments, and nurse for more than 7 minutes on the breast before breaking free into a howling scream.

When I look back at my old sleep log notebooks (yes, I kept them), I can see a clear degeneration of my handwriting and my resolve, as things got more and more chaotic with the baby. You could almost read my postpartum depression in the degeneration of my handwriting. Since I believed so wholeheartedly that all babies were supposed to act a certain way, and that I was supposed to have some kind of influence over that behavior, my only explanation for my baby’s lack of a schedule was that I was doing it all wrong. That shame over my failure as a mother festered and grew with every filled-in notebook page, becoming a dark rage that shrouded me and my baby.

Sometimes I would take out my rage on the notebook itself, writing down my baby’s wake up time from the world’s shortest nap in big, bold letters and triple underlining it – nearly cutting through to the next page with the pressure of my pen. It was as if I was having a conversation with my notebook, saying, “See? You see what I’m dealing with here? And you call yourself an “organizational tool”?”

The feeding and sleep “schedule” eventually became so haphazard, it lost all semblance of “scheduleness” at all. The words on the page bore no relationship to one another. An outsider might question whether they had anything to do with the care and keeping of a baby at all. The pages of lists of dates, time periods, and bowel movements – in the aggregate – provided no clear picture of my child’s overall wellbeing or growth. So why was I continuing to run to my notebook after every interaction I had with my baby?

Throughout my life as a student, I was told that if I studied hard, and took good notes, I’d succeed. So, I thought, here are my good notes. Here is my neat handwriting. Look! I’m doing the bullet points and the tiny little triangles underneath for the sub, sub-headings. When is my baby going to fall into line?

I couldn’t stop. I kept my notebook next to me at all times, like a diary, even when it had long outgrown its use as a reference tool for when the next feeding or nap should be. Instead, I turned to it as proof of my suffering as a mom of a colicky baby. There was weight to the deteriorating handwriting and the zigzag way that my words forged a path across the page. Even the jaggedly-written letters and the swirls and doodles I’d written in the margins during desperate phone calls with my mom and best friend, seemed important and worth memorializing.

If someone called into question what motherhood was like at the time, I would offer them these scrawls as proof that it is an endless list of seemingly banal tasks, of chores begun and halted because of a wet diaper, of too-short naps, and inconsolable cries, and long, long stretches of the day where it feels like nothing worthwhile is happening at all. None of the old ways one is used to controlling things apply when it comes to a newborn. It was my first lesson in managing expectations as a mother, and to accept that many things are beyond my control, the moment a baby exits the body. It was the one time writing couldn’t save me, and when perfect notes were not the answer.