My year of no sleep…

Hello world!

It’s the eve of my original due date of little Maurice monkey. He was supposedly due to arrive into the world on 3rd July last year. And although this “due date” phenomenon appears to be an entirely arbitrary plucking of a date out of the air rather than adhering to any particularly concrete science that I can see (my calculated due date had been 7th July and the 12-week scan brought the date forward by 4 days…but then he was born much later…), you can’t help but be in some way emotionally caught up in the date you have been told your baby will be bouncing into your world on. You tell people for at least 6 months that your baby is due on this particular day, and coming up for the day everyone is asking you about it and merrily counting down to it…the day arrives and you feel a sense of anticipation, akin to waiting on the side of the Jubilee street pageant, waving your flag and admiring the bunting, waiting for Queenie to drive past regally. And so if Queenie doesn’t arrive, you’re left waving your flag as the streets empty around you, with a sense of slight deflation. Once you’re past the day you receive well-meaning texts with shouty messages such as “NO BABY YET???” “HAVE YOU POPPED YET??”, as if you’d had your baby but omitted to let anyone know. And if bubba hasn’t appeared within 2 weeks beyond it, you’re more than likely to be induced into labour artificially. But that is a whole other issue, as we know…

So from 3 July last year I remember my sleep suffering, as every potential twinge was noted “is this what a contraction feels like….or do I just need the loo…?” wondering every night whether tonight would be the night I met my baby. He stayed inside for 12 days after his due date, he wasn’t particularly keen to come out, and due to the narrative of my birthing experience I had had absolutely zero sleep for about 3 days when he did finally enter the world. Now, when you’re about to start a new job you’d probably want to start it feeling refreshed and energised and ready, rather than feeling like you need some industrial strength caffeine injected into your bloodstream just to keep your eyelids open.

Newborns are renowned for sleeping a lot in the first couple of weeks or so. Maurice, for whatever reason, wasn’t one of these newborns. He slept for 20 minutes here and there, occasionally slept blissfully on my chest for an hour at a time, but was mainly unhappy and crying a lot poor wee man, as he was tiny and had lots of problems with establishing feeding. He seemed to have a pavlovian reaction to being put to the breast: he would scream. Take him away, he could be calmed. Put him back, he screamed…given that he needed to be calm at the breast to get any nutrition into him, we had a bit of a tough screamy time of it over the first few weeks (I was rather tunnel-visioned for various reasons about the idea of simply offering him a bottle of formula to give him some proper nourishment and me some rest – after all, your milk supply actually really suffers if you’re run down and exhausted, which seems like an evolutionary defect as far as I’m concerned – but in the dogged daze of trying to establish breastfeeding and the various opinions around it didn’t seem like an option). Even with a calmer easily feeding baby, those first few weeks of having a baby are a turbulent melee of experiencing every hour of the 24, operating on a very basic level, learning new skills, fumbling in the middle of the night to change nappies and get to grips with the inconceivable popper arrangement of some sleepsuits (those clearly not designed by a parent), and if your baby is sleeping, chances are you’re not as you’re gazing at him/her with awe and smiling that you get to keep them and don’t have to give them back, or generally constantly checking that they’re still breathing.

The first two nights in a row back from hospital Mo slept from 4am to 8am, rather cruelly on his behalf as it lulled me into thinking that he would sleep from 4am to 8am every night, and eventually this would elongate and soon he would go to bed easily and happily at 7pm and sleep for 13 hours straight and always wake up at 8am and that would be just brilliant, this baby thing was a complete doddle, why do people complain so much? Turns out this long 4-hour stretch of sleep wouldn’t be replicated until he was 7 months, and even then certainly not every night…

From about 8 weeks on, one of the first things people ask you about your baby is “does he sleep through the night?”, or “how’s his sleep?”, “is he a good baby?”…and in the various parenting guides you read confident paragraphs such as “by this time, your baby is probably sleeping for much longer periods, maybe even sleeping through the night, so you’re probably be feeling more rested and normal by now” (I remember wanting to throw this particular book out the window when reading this paragraph). You may have friends who have babies who have started to “sleep through”, waking or being woken briefly for a feed at 10pm and then sleeping soundly until the early hours. So if you’re still stuck with hourly wakings, you begin to feel like you’ve missed a bus that everyone else is comfortably on, having run for it in the rain and been left bedraggled on the pavement…

Up until Mo was about 6 months, I could just about feel like it was “normal” that he was still waking so often, sometimes hourly to feed. The fact that we had so many problems with breastfeeding (another topic for another blog day) made me reluctant to stop breastfeeding overnight as it was the only time he would feed calmly at the boob. I had seen a lactation consultant when he was 6 weeks old about the various feeding issues we were having, he had been losing weight and wasn’t thriving. She glimpsed a copy of The Baby Whisperer sitting on my coffee table (the “light” Gina Ford…which seemed so easy and so simple and foolproof when I read it before having an actual baby in my arms), and said that if I had tried to impose a 3-hour feeding rule such as the one in that book on Mo he would simply have died. Which was slightly disconcerting to say the least, but made me feel better that i had followed his vociferous demands for feeding rather than try and place some regime on it. And on some level it probably made me nervous about ever not feeding him overnight if that’s what it felt like he needed or if it was the only thing that soothed him.

And in those early weeks/months, all you really do with your days is sit on the sofa trying to feed your baby and probably watch a hefty amount of daytime TV (I became slightly obsessed with the Real Housewives of Orange County), or meet other mums and eat carrot cake and drink coffee (probably decaf), and talk about poo and sleep and nappies and whether your baby is actually smiling yet or whether it might be wind…and you’re probably all talking sleepless gibberish and not really paying attention to what anyone else is saying, nor do you need to as you’re all in the same boat… so you really don’t need to be firing on all cylinders of the brain really, everyone is operating within the same haze of bleary-eyed newness.

Once the first three or four months are under your belt, it becomes slightly more problematic having a sleepless baby. For me personally, I am freelance and I went back to teaching a couple of classes a week when Mo was 3 months old, and started various forays into other freelance work, including a day working at my publisher editing the app to accompany the My Pilates Guru book. Operating within the real non-baby world having had 4 hours’ broken sleep highlights how much affect sleeplessness has on your brain and body, and makes you realise you’re inside a strange slow-motion bubble while everyone zips around unforgivingly at normal speed. I felt I needed to wear a badge that said “it’s ok, I’ve just had a baby” to explain the blue black bags under the eyes, the grey pallor and the occasional slurred or incompressible speech, along with the bizarre penchant for discussing poo.

But aside from that…in my experience, all the other babies in the world started to sleep for decent stretches by 4 or 5 months, usually with little input from their parents in terms of “training”, they simply started to sleep for longer stretches… but Mo was determinedly sticking to his guns and waking vocally and moodily at least every 2 hours, and not able to settle himself back to slumber. Quite apart from the lack of sleep starting to kick in as a very real and debilitating physical and emotional issue, you also start to question why you’re the only one who’s still having this problem. And have to contend with opinions, advice and judgements, however well-meaningly delivered, every day that might help you to get the little man to sleep better and sort your life out.

It’s a curiously lonely thing, having a sleepless baby beyond the acceptable time for sleepless babies…everyone accepts that the first 3 months is a weary bleary time which you need to just take on the chin having decided to plunge into parenthood, but if your baby is still not sleeping “through the night” at 4 months onwards, people look at you with a sympathetic/pitying raised eyebrow and probably suggest you try controlled crying or that there’s something else you’re probably doing wrong, be it cosleeping/feeding to sleep/use of a dummy/(insert other emotive issue), and you realise that with a prolonged situation of sleepless baby syndrome you sort of end up doing whatever you can just to find some semblance of normal night time in your household. Things that people who have no children, or parents of “good” sleeping babies, look wide-eyed and silently disapproving at, such as cosleeping, or sleeping on a mattress on the floor of your baby’s room, or maybe perhaps, I don’t know, falling asleep with your face squidged up against the bars of the cot so that your baby can hold onto your hair while he falls asleep… And it’s something that no one can really understand or empathise with unless they have also had lengthy experience of sleepless baby syndrome. Like I said, the baby book The Baby Whisperer on paper seemed like such an obvious and easy thing to put into practice before I had a Maurice, of COURSE put your baby down drowsy but awake in order for it to learn to self settle and therefore not rely on you to go to sleep ever, and build independence and healthy sleep patterns, of COURSE that is sensible and practical and right. But, ah, so hang on, my baby only has AWAKE or ASLEEP settings, he doesn’t have a DROWSY BUT AWAKE (and stay drowsy don’t ping fully awake and get angry when set down in cot) setting…erm, what are you supposed to do now book…?

Nearly a year on, and Mo has only three times slept for longer than a 4-hour stretch…There are days when Ben and I feel utterly destroyed by tiredness, but then actually because we haven’t experienced a night of proper sleep for a year we’re probably completely used to it and would feel a bit jet lagged if he (and we) were to suddenly sleep for 12 hours tonight. The times that he has slept his longest stretches, from 7pm-2am, I have been almost entirely awake from midnight wondering when the next waking will be. I have lost the sense of “going to bed”, the looking forward to laying my head on the pillow to welcome the sandman and relax into dreamland, as my “going to bed” is always slightly on edge, wondering when I will be woken, as I will definitely be woken at some point, a few times, before the break of day.

I believe that eventually Mo will get it, all in good time. I know that I won’t be complaining that he wakes up crying every 2 hours when he’s 15…I hope…but in the meantime, in the moment, some days are a bit of a fog, feeling like a bit of a misfit in a land of functional parents who efficiently get their functional babies to sleep for the designated baby sleep 7pm-6am/7am timeline. 7am…wow, Ben and I used to have an alarm clock that woke us up at 7.15 pre-baby. Now we’ve usually been awake with Mo for about 2 hours by that time.

So…I have met a group of friends who also have sleepless babies, and wow it makes such a difference to know you’re not alone, you no longer feel like you’re doing something hugely wrong, but instead realise that babies are all different, and ours happen to be slightly more highly strung when it comes to being able to sustain sleep for a long period, and they are all fine and jolly and confident babies who just seem to function just as well on less sleep (dammit). As an aside: these are friends who i believe will remain friends even if one of our babies suddenly starts sleeping magically…one of us said in a worried fashion the other day that her baby had started sleeping better for a period, and she was a bit concerned that it meant she couldn’t see us as she had moved to the “other” side… So now, nearly a year on, I may be still waiting for a good night’s sleep, but i am massively and smilingly thankful for my amazing little man, who is wonderful and fun and funny and lovely and sweet. This makes him a good, nay, great baby in my eyes. Sleep or no sleep.

But…I’d quite like to be able to boast having had a good night’s sleep this time next year please Mo…

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