Surviving without sleep

(This post first appeared on www.meetothermums.com)

I was a lover of sleep.

It had to be dark, not even a slight crack in the curtains.

It had to be silent, no ticking clocks or traffic noises.

It had to be flat out on my stomach in full starfish pose.

It most definitely was MY side of the bed (so back off!)

Now it’s a completely different story. But every now and then, I dare to think back to the good old days – or more specifically – nights. Where sleep was exactly that – sleep. Simple. Calm. Relaxing. I still am a great lover of sleep – but it’s not dark; it’s not silent; it’s not starfish and it most definitely is NOT my side. Just where did it all go wrong? A long, long time ago we decided to have a baby…

Say the word ‘baby’ to anyone and the first thing they’ll say in reply is – sleepless nights. And they’re right to. Sleepless nights are a real b@#*h.

But the problems with sleep pre-dates the baby’s actual arrival.

It started with the pregnancy. The starfish had to go. Turns out it doesn’t mix well with a growing belly bump. Gradually, I trained myself to sleep on my back – problem solved (temporarily). Apparently, it’s not good after a certain number of baby weeks (which I forget now) to sleep on your back, so I began training myself to sleep on my side. Only problem was, this hurt my hips – cue the introduction of the maternity pillow. The maternity pillow is like having a third person in bed (little did I know that this was actually good training for the future but let’s not digress to that gem yet). Bump plus pillow equals incredibly awkward nighttime turning – think beached whale and you’d be right there.

I tried not to moan about the sleeping as I loved having my bump and knew that these issues were a small price to pay. However, on the odd time I let something slip the only response I ever got was – it’s preparing you for the ‘sleepless nights’ to come.

When I left work to go on maternity leave, the mums tried to advise me about the sleepless night – spend your last few days sleeping, get as much rest as you can – why I thought it’s not like you can bank it for the future is it?

Did I listen? No – there was stuff that had to be done, like painting the garden fence, clearing out the garage, washing new baby clothes etc etc. Sleep could wait… And by this stage I’d developed a pregnancy mantra – it went something like… the first thing I’m going to crack is ‘The Sleeping’ – well, six months in and I’ve not cracked ‘the sleeping’ at all – instead, as it happens, the NOT sleeping has cracked me many times over.

Every baby group I’ve ever attended, every family or friend I’ve visited, literally EVERYONE asks about sleeping. It’s a hot topic and with that comes EVERYONE’S opinions and wisdoms.

With all this sleep talk – but no actual sleeping I’ve come to realise a few things…

Firstly, there are a few lucky people who, eight weeks in, have a baby that sleeps from 7pm to 7am without a peep. Like I said, lucky people. Not us.

DO NOT fall into the trap of comparing your baby to others. Everyone exaggerates for a start, either about how bad or good their baby is at sleeping – it’s only natural. It also only serves to make you feel bad. Why is their baby sleeping? Do I pander to him too much? Am I not feeding him enough? Before you know it, Mummy guilt (another real b@#*h) is rearing its ugly head.

Secondly, you wont DARE to actually sleep. This began night one in the hospital. It was the beginning of some big changes for me and my relationship with sleep. Not only was I struggling to get my head around the facts of the day – induced at 11:55, baby arrives at 17:54 and by 23:00 I’m alone, cocooned behind my curtain walls with my baby. Although we were both obviously still feeling the after effects of drugs I’d been given in labour – seem as he was, at this point, sleeping soundly (the only one on the ward that was I might add!) – I knew from that moment that sleep would never be the same again. I lay there aware that the night hours were ticking by, that I should sleep whilst my baby was sleeping (another of those golden nuggets everyone tells you) but I daren’t. I was scared to sleep. What if he stopped breathing? What if the blanket came up over his face? What if someone takes him? No, I’m not sleeping, I must stay awake to watch over and protect my tiny baby.

Thirdly, it doesn’t get any easier being at home. There are no doctors or midwives around if something goes wrong. He has become totally our responsibility so with that it absolutely can NOT be pitch black – I need to see my baby or I cannot rest (mostly to watch if his chest is moving, that he is still alive and well). In addition, it absolutely can NOT be silent – I’m only comforted and relaxed when I can hear him breathing. And, I absolutely can NOT resume the starfish position as my boobs will not allow it.

Slowly, I started to adjust to breastfeeding every hour and a half to two hours from the start of one feed to the start of the next. A feed for us meant ten minutes of feeding, a nappy change and the ten more minutes of feeding (approximately a thirty minute job, if all ran smoothly, which it almost never did) – so in the night that equated to about one hour of sleep, one hour up, and repeat.

Then we got to night three. It was 1am and I’m waking my hubby up saying, ‘He’s fed, he’s clean but I can’t stop him crying’. I’m now crying too as I’m failing at motherhood already.

He tries to rock him, walk him around the house, put him in the car seat but nothing is working. We decide to break out the emergency dummy – and it worked. Miracle – I’m now in love with the dummy (and so we currently have about 15 all over the house).

As the nights went on, I found more and more that I’m telling myself off for nearly (or actually) drifting to sleep whilst sitting up feeding baby – yet again failing at the basics of motherhood. So I started to do something I NEVER do – take a daytime nap.

Once I even ‘napped’ for two and a half hours – more sleep that I ever got in one chunk at night.

Did I feel better for my naps? Sort off. Yes for the sleep and no because I’d made the baby wait too long for his dinner… Hello again Mummy guilt!

I can’t specify for certain if it was lack of sleep or hormones, probably a combination of the two, but I’d become an emotional wreck. Crying ‘just because’ on a regular basis.

Just because he’s two weeks old.

Just because I can’t fit in those jeans.

Just because he’s got a sticky eye.

Just because, well, just because.

So six weeks in and I’d had one too many ‘just because’ mummy meltdowns for my hubby’s liking, he swiftly took me to buy a breast pump, bottles and sterilising kit – Friday nights were now his and I was instructed to sleep (or at least try to sleep and not interfere!)

Just what the doctor ordered. I felt human again!

Finally, I’ve learnt that sleeping is all about cycles or phases. Each phase at the time feels like a MASSIVE DEAL – but in hindsight they never last that long before he seemed to almost grow out of it – and the next one start.

These are a few we’ve been through so far…

Massive deal 1: to wind or not to wind? As a breastfed baby I got conflicting advice about whether to wind him or not. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes I’d be doing it forever and nothing would happen. Sometimes I’d do it and then he’d get massive man hiccups. Sometimes he was asleep and I didn’t want to wake him… Cue mummy guilt as I felt I always made the wrong choice.

Massive deal 2: tummy pain. We tried infracol but he didn’t really like it. I could hear his tummy gurgling as he fed and then he’d cry. Eventually, we got Gripe Water and it worked – hooray! – however, he hated it. I never knew if I was giving him too much/too little/filling him up with it etc; on top of that he would scream blue murder whenever I tried to give it to him… Cue more mummy guilt meltdowns.

Massive deal 3: banging legs. For a number of weeks he took to raising both legs and banging them down loudly on the mattress. Still don’t know why about that one, but it’s impossible to sleep through boom, boom, boom!

Massive deal 4: sleeping arrangements. For some reason he never really took to the little crib we had in our room so once he outgrew the moses basket we had to spend our nights holding his hand through the bars of his crib. Awkward to say the least. Also at this point, I was trying to use the dummy to get longer between feeds, pushing for an extra 20 minutes here and there (it was working…but obviously your still awake whilst doing this process). In the end, to give us all some sleep we started co-sleeping – he would only settle in Mummy and Daddy’s bed – this is where it became definitely NOT my side of the bed anymore. Co-sleeping itself is a whole other blog post…

Massive deal 5: teething – teething gel plus a finger to chew on usually solved the problem, but again that’s really a whole other blog post…

Massive deal 6: itching. He’s got eczema and when he’s tired and hot he scratches – arrh stop scratching! Night-time creaming has now begun.

To conclude – having a baby is a terrible experience and you become a sleep deprived emotional zombie…

No not really, of course not!

What I’ve learnt is that you need to cut yourself some slack – you are not failing at parenthood if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night at 8 weeks old. You are not failing at parenthood if baby will only settle in your bed (obviously they feel secure there – parenting win actually!)

Sleep is like any other milestone – baby will do it (or move onto the next massive deal) when they’re ready. Unfortunately, unlike other milestones i.e. he couldn’t roll and now he can, it’s not a fixed one. It depends on so many other factors; are they sick? is a tooth coming? are they upset? are they hungry?

There are things you can do to try and influence baby’s sleeping i.e. routines, controlled crying, gentle parenting approaches etc, but overall just remember that no two nights are the same so don’t be too hard on yourself and do whatever is right at that moment, in that phase, for all the family.

Up to now, I’ve not had a ‘full’ nights sleep in six months. On the whole, I’m used to it – sort of. Some nights are good, some are not. Some are filled with worry and guilt, yet there are others when I sit and feed him and I’m brought to tears by how much love I feel for him.

It’s hard.

It’s cracked me more than a few times but it’s bonded me to my baby.

No matter how tired I am, I wouldn’t change a thing. My baby knows I’m there for him any time of the day or night and I always will be.

Cuddle Fairy
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