Almost six months ago, I had my first baby. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about sleep: how long; how deep; whether it’s happening in a car, on a walk, in a lap. And I’ve been thinking about how to achieve that sleep faithfully, honoring both the dignity of my baby and my duty as a mom.

For many new parents, sleep is a controversy, a series of choices that open you up to criticism. Some parents put their baby in bed with them. (Dangerous!) Others opt for a bassinet. (Cold-hearted!) Some use a pacifier. (Problematic.) Others don’t. (Equally problematic.)

In the newborn months, night feedings are necessary. The controversial faith-based program Baby Wise, promising full nights of sleep at only seven weeks, has therefore been condemned by pediatricians. But even as their babies grow, some parents continue to respond to every whimper. Loving, they proclaim. Unrealistic, say their opponents. And ultimately, not good for the baby!

Others choose to “sleep train,” putting their baby down awake so that they’ll learn to fall asleep on their own. This often involves crying. Worth it, parents insist. Selfish, say their critics. And ultimately, not good for the baby!

If you’ve cared for an infant in 2024 and successfully avoided sleep debates, I commend you. I have not. In part, because of Instagram. Also, because I needed information. My baby seemed tired all the time, and yet his eyes simply would not close. How could I help him rest?

I read some curriculum; I watched some videos; I browsed blogs; I talked to friends. Over time, I learned some strategies. We sang lullabies. We purchased blackout curtains and overnight diapers. We used a swaddle, then a “sleep suit,” then a “sleep sack.” Everything helped.

As for sleep training? Ultimately, we adopted a hybrid approach—putting the baby down “drowsy but awake,” tolerating some fussing but continuing to comfort. He took most of his naps in the crib. His eyes weren’t red anymore. Sometimes he slept the whole night through. For this blessed development, I had the sleep experts to thank.

And yet: Sometimes, sleep still made me anxious. When the baby went down for bed 30 minutes too late, or took another too-short nap, I worried I’d ruined his schedule. I wasn’t being disciplined enough. When the baby complained at 3 a.m., I lay in bed, watching the monitor, wondering if I was being too withholding, if I shouldn’t just gather him into my arms regardless of “the plan.”

Article continues below

Adopting the sleep techniques is one thing. But what hasn’t worked for me are the philosophies undergirding both sides of the debate: the regimented and strategized versus the freewheeling and improvised, and what they assume about human nature.

For the sleep training experts, kids are codes to be cracked. Put a baby down to bed at the same time each night—no more than 15 minutes too early or too late. Rocking or feeding to sleep can create a dreaded bad habit that can ruin a good sleeper in an instant. The science of REM and a table of nap times can tell us most everything we need to know about how to care for our children, they say.

It’s correct that infants respond well to routine, and that typically developing kids follow a certain predictable trajectory. But spend time with a baby and you’ll realize that they’re so much more than a machine, preset to roll, babble, and eat solid foods as the months progress. Each child has her own temperament. Each will buck the guidelines in his own way. Each is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” utterly distinct, not a prefab copy (Ps. 139:14).

The sleep training literature does offer caveats. Some babies don’t respond to the methods. Many babies experience temporary regressions. Babies get sick and grow teeth and sometimes get inexplicably cranky. The caveats feel more descriptive than the norms. Why did the baby wake up three times? Ultimately, explanations are futile, an attempt to understand a child’s needs within an adult rationale.

But what if adult rationale is getting in the way—in parenting and in the rest of my life as a Christian? Jesus asks us to come to him as children, guileless, lowly, utterly honest in our dependence on him.

The sleep trainers, with their charts and protocols, sometimes underemphasize the goodness of this kind of relationship, the beauty in pure, unruly, inexplicable need. When my baby wants me in the night, that’s not a failure of a system. It is the system.

Rather than trying to explain my baby—why he loves his fox toy, why he drinks bottles three ounces more than the guidelines, why he sticks his legs through the bars of the crib—what if I simply beheld him, content with a measure of mystery? What if I allowed my baby to come to me as Jesus invites us to come to him, through a Holy Spirit that understands groanings we ourselves can’t comprehend (Rom. 8:26)?

Article continues below

Yet I don’t think the “attachment” types have it all right either. For these moms—the co-sleepers and the snugglers—babies are ultimate authorities. Your child wants to suck for five minutes every half an hour? He’ll sleep only while touching you? Let him; he knows what’s best for himself. He’ll eat only until he’s full, and he’ll only cry when he has a need to be met.

But this doesn’t feel true either. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” writes Paul to the Romans (7:15). He’s speaking about sin. In a fallen world, this tension—doing things that run counter to our best nature, wanting what’s bad for us—is present from our earliest days, willed or otherwise (Ps. 51:5).

Babies want to stick their hands in their diapers, then into their mouths. They hate car seats. They hate socks. My job as a mother isn’t just to let my child lead, even when he’s small. It’s to raise him up in the way he should go. It’s to set parameters, to lay some plans, even if they have to be adapted along the way.

Being a mother, I’m learning, isn’t so much about the strategies and techniques, after all, whether it comes to sleeping, or eating, or the more complicated tasks to come: discipline, education, spiritual formation.

This isn’t just a matter of eschewing two camps for some kind of “middle way.” It’s rethinking the very idea of “camps” at all, understanding parenting less as a philosophy we adapt and more as a calling we answer, at times full of confusion, inconsistency, and improvisation.

God, after all, doesn’t call us to be experts, to read one more product review or research study, or to know all the answers in advance. Instead, we’re simply called to be wise, which has more to do with attention than information, more to do with end goals than tactics.

Wise people are authorities who depend on the ultimate Authority, asking questions of God, depending on and submitting to him even as our children depend on and submit to us. That’s my prayer this Mother’s Day, my first with a baby in my arms: wisdom. And more sleep.

Kate Lucky is senior editor of culture & engagement at Christianity Today.