In it for the Money: Sleep, Baby

Why babies don't sleep through the night

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

On March 1, 2012 medical doctors tore this nice new baby from out my wife’s guts. (Don’t worry: momma and baby are both tip-top, but if you’ve ever had front row seats at a C-section, you know that the preceding sentence is 100% accurate, both factually and emotionally. The true miracle of childbirth is that anyone returns for an encore.)

At the urging of this fine publication’s editor, I’ve subsequently decided to “take it easy” this month.

The following column is a “reprint” of an essay I wrote about five years ago, for the second issue of The Birth Project, a zine published out of Ypsilanti by a group of birthing professionals (including the doula we used for our son’s birth in 2006, Kate Stroud).

I’ve forced myself to leave the original text unaltered, but taken the liberty of lightly annotating it, for clarity’s sake, and because my thinking has (predictably) shifted a little.

Why Babies Don’t Sleep Through the Night
by David Erik Nelson [1]

I can shoot a running millipede with a BB gun from a dozen feet away. I couldn’t do this before my son was born.

Shooting isn’t even a hobby I would have come to on my own; it’s my father’s hobby that I tried on a lark one afternoon a couple years ago. As it turns out, using buckshot to shatter a single or pair of orange disks cruising at 50 mph feels an awful lot like doing a half-hour of yoga.

Last May [2] my son was born, and I made a quick, drastic career change from high school teacher and administrator to at-home parent. That fall, I went shooting for the first time since becoming a father.

Despite not having shot for over half a year, that first time back I hit 80 percent of my clays – better than what I’d been shooting before Otto was born. And I picked up all of my doubles.

A few weeks later I was pouring tea from a teapot when the handle unexpectedly broke off. I caught the pot as it fell and set it onto the counter without spilling a drop or burning myself.


Since my son’s birth, something has been happening to my brain.

I sleep less, but have less trouble staying awake. I eat less. I have less stamina – physical and mental – but more endurance. My hearing has been deteriorating for years, and although I often cannot make out what’s being said to me from across a mildly noisy room, I can pick up the first ragged in-breath preceding my son’s scream, even when he is sleeping in his bassinet in our bedroom and I am in my basement office with music playing. [3]

My memory skips and stutters like a scratched CD. At the end of the day I can’t remember what I did in the morning, but old memories come to me now unbidden, dredged up by long strings of associations that had never linked before: water running into a red mug inexplicably brings to mind a stretch of road that runs in front of a Des Moines Catholic church I once slept in, a woodcut in a book of Grimm’s fairytales reminds me of a school bus conversation I had when I was eight. [4]

I’ve been dreaming in Spanish, a language I’ve neither spoken or studied in almost a decade. I can no longer estimate time, either how much has passed, or what time of day it is. [5] My taste in music has changed. and I’ve begun to be able to play melodies by ear, something I could never begin to do before Otto’s birth.

I explained all of this to a close friend, as of yet unmarried and childless, and he replied:

This explains why most people with babies can only talk to other people with babies: Mentally, they’ve become a new species. They’ve leveled. They’re now level 5 grown-ups who can cast all sorts of new spells involving home-ownership and thriftiness. [6]


At one time the reigning scientific view was that, unlike the rest of our bodies’ cells, neurons do not regenerate: you are born issued a finite set, you wire them up throughout your youth, and are stuck with them until the bitter end. Most of us were taught this in school and work under the assumption that our brains are a kind of engine, akin to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin: raw notions and sensory data go in, the brain threshes and grinds and presses that information, and out drops a world-view and beliefs and skills.

The engine’s basic design parameters – will it be good at math? at reading sheet music? at stringing together words? – are laid out immutably in our genes, and the machine gets built during our childhood and adolescence. Some of its operation can be tweaked and optimized by chemical additives – hormones, pharmaceuticals, caffeine – but its functions are set: a grain harvester will never be a ’64 Impala, a Picasso will never be a fry-cook, a drunken ne’er-do-well never a president. [7]

It’s long been accepted that when a woman gets pregnant and gives birth, her whole system gets a hormonal wash-and-rinse that softens ligaments, relaxes muscles and elevates her mood in preparation for her baby’s coming. “The Mommy Brain” by Katherine Ellison even lays out five ways in which a mother’s brain is optimized by the action of hormones, resulting in increased sensory perception, efficiency, resilience, motivation, and emotional intelligence.

This is all well and good for my wife, who’s had the benefit of relaxin, estrogen, oxytocin, but what about me? What’s happening to my brain?

First off, scientists are increasingly discarding those old notions about neuron regeneration. We now know that neurons grow on a daily basis, forming new connections. This isn’t tweaking, as the hormone adrenaline tweaks the heart into beating faster; these are gross structural changes in the brain, as if adrenaline might cause the heart to suddenly have more chambers. Our brains, as it turns out, are plastic, which is to say that they are easily molded by our experiences and environments.

Secondly, the one physiological change that both parents share is disrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation has profound and cryptic effects on the brain. For example, sleep-deprived individuals generally show a rapid collapse in math skills and recall, a collapse documented by observably decreased activity in their parietal lobes (for math work) or hippocampus (when being asked to dredge up a memory). But those same sleepy folks show greater activity in the prefrontal cortex than their well-rested counterparts.

The prefrontal cortex is the structure that coordinates information coming in from all over the brain and gives us our most human quality: the ability to compare the eventual outcomes of various courses of action, to make a plan, and then to delay gratification in the service of an eventual long-term reward. Our capacity to feel guilt or remorse is bound in the folds of the prefrontal cortex, as is our ability to interpret reality. During the Cold War, sleep deprivation was recognized as a non-violent way to effectively disassemble a subject’s sense of personal autonomy.

Sleep deprivation is the reset for the brain. When our regular sleep patterns are disrupted much of the brain goes dark, but the prefrontal cortex – the part of our body via which we sense Gods and Culture and Religion and Law and Justice – goes into overdrive. Our narcissistic obsession with our own needs, goals, and identity unravels, making space for a new structure to determine how we assign value and use our scarce resources.

Human beings might experience bouts of sleeplessness in many situations: working long hours to bring in a crop, carousing all night during a celebration, participating in a psychological experiment, or a war, or being tortured – all can mean lost sleep. There are plenty of times that a human might be deprived of sleep, but only one life-passage where he or she is always deprived of sleep: the arrival of a new human. [8]

My son – your sons, your daughters – do not sleep through the night because for hundreds of thousands of years the babies who did not sleep through the night triggered the reset in their parents’ brains, sculpting those brains into faster, more accurate, more sensitive instruments, instruments more accessible to the world, willing to forgo their individual autonomy for a greater collectivism [9], to knit a new sense of self. These sleepless babies with sleepless parents thus had a greater chance of living on to adulthood, living long enough to have their own babies who would likewise not sleep through the night, who would likewise reprogram their parents’ brains, who would likewise suddenly wake to see how much more important we is than me.

Our babies don’t sleep because they are knitting us new brains, accurate enough to kill the monster in a single shot, quick enough to catch before the falling have fallen, sensitive enough to hear the snap of a twig out beyond the ring of the fire’s light, perceptive enough to finally hear the way that the notes in a song stitch together.


[1] The file info indicates that this was drafted in May 2007. That is, it was written about a year after my son’s birth via emergency C-section and two years before I was diagnosed as having “panic disorder with agoraphobia” (aka, “300.21″ in the ole DSM-IV-TR).

[2] That is, in 2006.

[3]  My hearing continues to be crap – I subsequently talk too loud, and generally keep any volume slider a notch higher than most people want – yet am still unsettlingly acute to the signs of life. Especially at night, our new baby girl’s breathing is a roaring in my head, like rough surf. The other day I was standing in my driveway when I realized I could hear this robin’s wings striking his sides as he hopped and fluttered in the easement. The psychiatric professionals among The Chronicle’s readership might look at something like this weirdly acute hearing and say, “Hunh; if that guy had been in a war zone, I might call this hypervigilance.”

It probably bears mentioning at this point that the birth of my son back in 2006 was pretty traumatic for all involved. Following over 24-hours of active labor my wife had an emergency C-section. The birth itself went fine, but the surgeons struggled to control her bleeding. She stopped breathing. She lost consciousness. Our son and I were ushered out of the operating room. Four hours later someone finally tracked me down to tell me my wife had “woken up” – which was a relief as, to that point, no one had thought to tell me whether or not she was alive. I was assured: “She’s great! She woke up and quoted Shakespeare!” This, I knew, was inaccurate. My wife didn’t quote Shakespeare, she quoted Medea.

Three years later – a period during which I never slept more than four hours at a time, and little of it “restful” – I started having panic attacks. If you delve into crowds and find yourself squeezed by the visceral conviction that you’ll likely need to fend off a pack of bears at any moment … well, it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that the best course of action is to stay in the damn house. “Hypervigilance” was ultimately listed among my symptoms.

(Just to clarify: I didn’t have an irrational fear of bears; I had the sudden, irrational sensation of some impending mortal threat, and I had it basically all the time, and I basically just wanted to be the hell away from people. Hence DSM-IV-TR 300.21. To this day my fear of bears – when bears are verifiably present – is entirely rational.)

My psychiatric history notwithstanding, here’s the point of this interlude: The above essay celebrates the adaptive advantageousness of sleep-deprivation-driven neuroplasticity, but fails to acknowledge the dark side of that coin, because when I wrote the original essay I did not yet know it was one of those two-sided sorts of coins. I know better now.

[4] Most of this still makes sense – and certainly I’ve once again grown absent-minded and aphasiac with this new baby’s coming – but hell if I know what I was talking about with that woodcut business.

[5] I never regained my old sense of the passage of time. That change was permanent. Given the long view, I’d allow that all of these changes were permanent. When an old pond gets a new frog it’s a new pond; Splash!

[6] I’m taking issue with this point, and with the narrow-minded iteration of the Dave Nelson that made it. The base claim – which you hear all the time from breeders like me, and is widely accepted – is something like “Man, you don’t really know what love/responsibility/altruism/being-a-grown-up is until you’ve had kids!” Of course, there’s more than a healthy dose of selection bias here: Aside from a few obtuse hypothetical situations, the vast bulk of us either have kids or are close to someone who does (think through it for a second). Yeah, the vast bulk of the selfless and generous souls I know are people who have kids, but that’s just because the vast bulk of the people I know have kids. The vast bulk of the people I know also own shoes, but buying shoes didn’t make them better people.

That said, I grant that my son’s arrival and persistence – and the changes that brought with it – were instrumental to my growing as a human, in my “learning to set aside childish things” (by which I mean things like acquisitiveness and impatience and selfishness, not LEGOs and ukuleles). The “having kids makes you a better human” claim is bullshit, but not because the claim is without foundation; it’s just that we’re dealing in an unrealistically limited formulation.

The remainder of this essay is dedicated to discussing the gross physiological mechanism underlying this process of human improvement. But I want to be crystal clear: There’s nothing special about babies in this process. I’m ultimately going to be arguing that sleep deprivation is instrumental to our developing compassion, and I’ll note that there are many other major life passages that come with prolonged sleep deprivation, including warfare and natural disaster and carrying for an ill partner and seeing a loved-one to his or her grave.

Incidentally, this particular friend who I’m quoting is now married and the stay-at-home dad to his one-year-old. I don’t think he particularly feels like he’s leveled up. I guess part of the magic of Dunning-Kruger is that none of us really feel like we’ve leveled up once we have.

[7] It was 2007; this is a wry G.W. Bush reference, on account he was a dry-drunk and kind of a royal jerk.

[8] I clearly speak too soon – and too First Worldy – here. There are at least two other inevitable events that bring sustained sleep deprivation to humans: The prolonged illness of a loved one, and that loved one’s demise. The machine grinds slower here in the modern developed world, but it still grinds just as fine. We’re all destined to lose a little sleep, to hit the brain’s CTRL-ALT-DEL, and the one succor in it all is that when we finally wake back up from the sorrow, our hearts are strange and new to us.

9. Yeah, that’s, like, a weird Marxism joke. I don’t know what I was thinking.

A NOTE ON THE NOTES: This clearly ran pretty grim. In the interest of letting in a ray of sunshine, I’ll note (without commentary) that these thousand words of marginalia were the result of the editor telling me: “Seriously, dude, take it easy on yourself; next month, I want the column to just be: ‘Gee, isn’t my new baby cute!’”

About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.

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One Comment

  1. April 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm | permalink

    You speak from youth, David. Try when you’re 42 having a severely premature infant who must eat every 3-4 hours and is too weak to nurse. Within five days the ability to drop off to sleep for any amount of time is gone and you get no rest. Without good friends leaping in to help, to take the baby overnight, to find a night nanny, you will probably just walk into the wall and freeze solid.

    I don’t think it’s the sleep deprivation. I think it’s the parent hormone. I still come fully awake when my adult daughter is here and her breathing changes in the next room. Colors have been brighter and sounds have been clearer. Every moment is precious and cherished. The incredulity that another human is here because of what you’ve done never ebbs. The awe at seeing your future unfurl generations into the future still takes your breath away. Just the smell of your child or her clothes releases enough oxytocin that the FDA would forbid it if they could.

    Friends without kids have no way to understand that part of your heart belongs to each child forever. A phone call with her voice saying, “Mom?” in that certain way catapult’s you into readiness for any action. (What? You need me to come to the end of the earth? I’m on my way.) There is nothing comparable to the parent hormone – not finding your soul mate, getting the perfect job, being lauded for your gifts to humanity. Becoming a parent is becoming a completed person who understands when Garrison says, “Nothing you ever do for a child is wasted.”