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Sleep Where Art Thou?

(Originally published in the July/August issue of NZ Little Treasures Magazine)


When you’re heavily pregnant, the topic of sleep is a hot one, possibly second only to nightmarish birth tales. Friends and strangers alike revel in sharing sleep advice, horror stories, and confirming that You Will Never Sleep Again. “Sleep now, while you can!” people would crow at me when I was pregnant the first time – which was incredibly unhelpful as I had pregnancy-induced insomnia. “Congratulations! Hope you get some sleep soon!” seemed to be the most frequent comment when we announced the birth of our children. My Mum vows I slept through the night from four weeks, but I’m pretty sure she made that up to ensure I’d give her multiple grandchildren.

Amy was actually pretty good, as far as newborn sleepers go. She gifted me fairly long stretches of sleep during the night, and would resettle quickly. Daytime sleeps were a different story, but I didn’t mind holding her or taking her for walks to get her to drift off. I thought it was all going ok, until the day I picked up one of those highly prescriptive baby books to have a thumb through while one-month-old Amy was asleep in my arms. Several chapters in, I was in floods of hormonal tears, having realised I was doing it all completely WRONG, and was probably screwing up my child. A flurry of texts from one of my best friends (who was three kids ahead of me at that point) talked me down from my “I suck at being a mother!” ledge. Was Amy happy? Yes. Was she gaining weight? Yes. Was she getting enough sleep, regardless of where? Yes. Then carry on, because it’s working! My friend was totally right, and over the next while I gently eased Amy into a routine that didn’t involve her naps being on me.

Second (and subsequent) babies seem to attract less sleep advice, because people assume you have it nailed. I assumed I’d be ok. I absolutely wasn’t.

Tilly (Tornado Tilly, or Tilly the Trasher as we fondly call her) did not want to sleep. I could swaddle like a pro, her bed was so inviting, I had an eagle eye for sleep cues, but to no avail. The kid just wasn’t into it! This time around, there was a busy 2.5 year old to consider as well (who I inexplicably decided to toilet train the week my husband went back to work. I still don’t understand my motive for that), so self-enforced house arrest to get a routine nailed down just wasn’t an option. Nights were the worst, because I’d dash to grab Tilly before she woke up the rest of the house, and quickly found myself in a pattern of feeding her back to sleep almost hourly through the night, and carrying her around in a front pack during the day to get her to nap. One of my friends said she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to recognise me without a baby strapped to my front with a muslin thrown over top. This is all kind of ok with a newborn, but by eight months I started thinking I should really get it together.

On the upside, my correspondance with friends overseas really picked up, thanks to the hours alone in the night with a dozy baby clamped to my chest and a phone in my hand (Facebook and text messaging: I love you). Another very close friend had a baby ten days older than Tilly, so we often sent each other messages during night feeds. That made it all feel a lot less lonely, and kept me awake enough to not freak out about falling asleep and slumping forward.

On the downside, I started behaving a bit like a dodderly old lady. I’d forget what I was saying halfway through a sentence, I lost count of the times I went to the supermarket with my shirt undone, and became quite uncoordinated (not ideal, as I’d just started running in an attempt to get fit while simultaneously lulling Tilly off to sleep in the buggy). There was a lot of muddling: ice cream on the bench / keys in the freezer, that sort of thing. One day I intended to flick the contents of a force-10 nappy into the loo and throw a dirty onesie into the running washing machine, but several hours later I saw the onesie floating in the loo and realised I’d stuffed that up in the worst possible way. I managed to repeat that mistake while staying with family in Queenstown, and I can confidently report that it’s REALLY hard to get disintegrated disposable nappy out of black polar fleece and thermals.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Tilly to bits and adored the cuddles, but after a particularly rough night of getting up to feed her back to sleep every 10-30 minutes while we were staying with friends, I had to agree with my husband that Enough Was Enough. I needed more than 45 consecutive minutes of sleep at night, and carrying her for all day naps was getting impractical. I was starting to doubt my ability to drive some days, and worried that Amy was missing out by having such a zombified mother.

Initially, I felt a misguided sense of guilt about calling a sleep consultant: I’m sure other mothers have it worse, and with more children. A peruse of message boards about sleep generally featured “leave them to scream, they’ll soon learn” and, conversely, “well, why did you have children if you valued your sleep? Your baby is your top priority, you need to be there for them 24/7” sorts of commenters. I fell into neither camp, and both ends of the opinion spectrum made me feel like crap. Other sites (such as The Sleep Store) were far more sympathetic and helpful.

A very lovely sleep consultant came into our lives for several hours (plus ongoing email support), and I completely credit her with restoring our sanity. She got me out of the feeding-to-sleep rut (which was more of a canyon than a rut at that stage), taught me gentle settling techniques, and helped me work a routine that fit around family life and activities. Seriously life-changing.

As I write this, my eyes are on stalks after several weeks of sleepless nights thanks to an unfortunately timed sequence of teething, ear infections, and a three-year-old with a gastro bug. But I know this is a blip, not an endless dark tunnel, which is how sleeplessness used to feel. I have two mantras that get me through particularly rough nights: “I would rather be tired and holding you right now than not have you at all” and “In the morning there will be coffee. Strong coffee”.

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