Monday, February 11, 2008

sleep deprived mamma

Last week I caught up with two new mothers.

I asked one how her 6 week old baby was sleeping, and she said, "Fine! She's only had two bad nights sleep!"

I asked the other how things were going with her 3 month old baby, and she answered "Not so well", her face pale with tiredness and her eyes brimming. Things had reached a low point the week before when her baby woke every 1-2 hours 3 nights in a row, and slept no more than 40 minutes at a time during the day.

Add to this the fact that her baby was refusing to breast feed - and this after weeks of anguished persistance through terrible pain at every feed, until they finally reached a point where breast-feeding became possible - and you can imagine her frustration.

Sleep deprivation does odd things to the mind. Believe me, after 4 children, I know.

I remember pushing Lizzy to and fro in her pram while she screamed for 2 hours every afternoon, and the numbing bewilderment that comes with a first baby. I remember making every mistake in the book, and how badly she slept in consequence, and the dragging exhaustion after 8 months of waking up every 2 hours every night. How everyone asked "Is she a good baby?" meaning "Does she sleep through the night?", and how I would cover for her, saying "Yes, she's a good baby" and meaning "I love her."

I remember training perfectly sleeping Ben (who would have slept whatever I did) according to the strictest baby-training methods, desperate not to make the same mistakes. I remember getting up with him at 5.30 for weeks on end, when his perfectly trained little body clock woke him, and he refused to go back to sleep in bed with me (after all, I'd trained him to sleep in his cot, hadn't I?). Every day I sat holding him and watching the sun rise, filled with resentment against the world and everyone in it, especially my sleeping husband.

I remember being more flexible and relaxed with Thomas, but still becoming so exhausted and irritable that I would slam objects down hard with frustration (I had the self-control to ensure they were plastic, not glass, but I've replaced a few plastic containers in my time). When each baby grew older I thought I had outgrown such childish displays, until another baby came and rudely reminded me that it was sleep, not godliness, which had increased. I remember that there were times when I sat staring into space crying with exhaustion, and had to will my feet to walk across the room to settle my screaming child one more time.

I remember Andrew, the worst sleeper of all my children, who didn't sleep through the night until after 14 months, even though he was the 4th child of an experienced mother. I perfected the art of dropping back to sleep to the sound of crying, before automatically waking up after the recommended 10-15 minutes to re-settle him, hour after hour after hour every night. Each time I thought he had learned to sleep, he would disappoint my expectations by screaming through the night again.

I remember the different feel of the night hours: how at 12.00 your head is stuffed with cotton wool and you sleep-walk to the cot, how at 3.00 the world turns into a gothic nightmare full of gloom and despair, and how at 5.00 the lottery of "will I fall back to sleep before the baby wakes up?" begins.

And I remember how unfair life can be where babies are concerned: how one mother can be given the "perfect" child, who sleeps through from 2 weeks, while another receives a baby who wakes every 1/2 hour for their first 6 months.

Once I would have put this down to different baby-handling techniques, and smugly advised a new method, until I saw how little my 4 babies' waking habits had to do with anything I did. How I used identical training techniques, and some slept through the night, and others didn't sleep at all.

It took me 2 babies before I became wise (or humble) enough to ask for help, and accept it when it was offered. I learned to stay in the hospital as long as possible (ah! the bliss of a quiet hospital room!), to say "yes!" when someone offered to cook us a meal, and most importantly, to call a friend the minute I started to feel depressed.

Wonderful aids to humility, babies. The more, the humbler.

And oh, the bliss of that day when you wake up in the morning and realise that your baby and you have just slept through the night for the first time in many, many months! It comes to all of us in time.

There are lots of books on settling babies. The most sane, flexible and helpful (and shortest) book I discovered on the topic was Settling your baby (a survival guide for parents - birth to 12 months). When anything worked, it did. And it didn't make me feel inadequate when nothing worked, either.

And for some helpful blog posts from GirlTalk on this topic, check out here and follow the thread here.

23 comments:

Nicole said...

Thank you Jean! I can relate to a lot of this. I must confess that I thought I knew everything about teaching babies to sleep - until my third came along and taught me that I knew nothing! Nothing that worked with my 1st two worked with her and I was a sleep deprived mess. Something that stayed with me from that time was reading an article about a woman with 17 children, who said that she found every baby that came along was different and that what worked with the previous one never worked with the next. That was kind of a relief for me to hear - and also made me very determined never to be smug again!

Jean said...

Thanks, Nicole, love that story about the 17-child woman. I love the way 4 children keep you humble, not just with the sleeping thing, but because they have such different personalities that you realise your wonderful child-rearing methods have less to do with how they turn out than you think. Not to say good parenting isn't incredibly important! But we are less significant than we think. And it helps us to stop judging people with difficult kids once we've experienced a few difficulties of our own.

Cathy said...

Hi Jean! I'm new to your blog and couldn't resist reading this post, a kind of morbid fascination in bringing up the horrors of that period in my life.
My big questions at the time were 'How is the Holy Spirit supposed to work through me when I am constantly sleepdeprived?' and, as well as questioning why I drew the short straw with both children, 'What does God expect of me in this state?
I know I failed to exhibit many fruits of the Spirit during that time. I don't make excuses, but pose the question of our limitations and what how far should we push ourselves?
Good to find you and look forward to browsing...
Cathy

Rachael said...

Oh Jean, my eyes brim with tears...

Rachael said...

PS I found your Kategoria article on the Puritans (a piety of joy) floating around my husband's office and have decided to read it (I recognise that name, I thought). He said it totally transformed his view of the Puritans. I has spoken a lot about the Puritans over the last year... and his devotional life has totally changed. For the better.

Jean said...

Cathy, not sure where you're going with the question "I don't make excuses, but pose the question of our limitations and what how far should we push ourselves?" I guess God always wants us to be 100% godly (1 Pet 1:15) - which we never will be, of course, especially when we're tired! - but he is also 100% forgiving for those who trust in Jesus (1 John 1:9). And he's also endlessly patient, and sympathetic with all our trials and temptations (Heb. 4:15). But if you're talking about other kinds of limitations - e.g. maybe I might not pray as regularly when I have a new baby, or I might stop doing all the ministries I normally do, or my kids might watch a bit more television - well, that sounds absolutely normal and fine to me. Not sure if I've answered your question.

Jean said...

Rachael, excellent about that old article, fancy it still floating around people's offices!! Glad your husband found it helpful. You've inspired me to blog about this sometime.

Cathy said...

Thanks Jean. I was wondering how we measure the fruits of the Spirit when often just a good night's sleep is all it takes to be way more Godly (patience, self-control to name 2 areas).
Is God's work in us hindered when our bodies and minds are not functioning?

Nicole said...

Please do blog about it!

Jean said...

Actually, Cathy, I think it's helped!! I was reflecting on our comments further and I realised that it's just as hard to be godly when things are going well as when they're going badly - it's just that sin takes different forms when life is easy, like pride, complacency, smugness, self-satisfaction, forgetfulness of God, to name a few!! They're just maybe less obvious.

Which is where suffering, including sleeplessness, come in: they destroy pride and smugness, remind us of our complete dependence on God, and train us in patience and self-control. Even if we fail time after time after time, looking back you can see how God has trained you. I reacted calmly to a crisis this morning - a flooded floor - and realised that yes, I have changed, it just isn't always obvious. And I wouldn't have grown in this way without all the suffering and struggles I have gone through - without growing in patience and self-control through all that sleep-deprivation. God gives us exactly what we need to grow us.

Suffering might look like it takes us backwards into ungodliness: but it is actually God's way of moving us forwards.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jean and Nicole.
I have a lot to repent of and I lot of sympathising to catch up on now....

Prue said...

Jean, thankyou so much for showing me that I shouldn't use the excuse of tiredness to pass off my grumpiness as acceptable. I found your blog via Nicole's and I am so glad I did. My husband has to put up with so much of my grumpiness. I shall have to work on it. Thanks.

Melanie said...

What a great and insigtful post. my fourth is 7 months old and the worst sleeper yet. I can relate to wondering how to answer "is she a good baby?" She IS good and I DO love her. She is quite content and very predictable, she just likes to eat round the clock. It seems the more babies I have, the less I know about them!

Swift Jan said...

I think so many mothers will relate to this post!! Thank you for sharing :)

Louisa said...

This is such a helpful post for a new mum who is just starting out!

Dee from Downunder said...

Hi Jean, over from WTBAY. This is a great, honest and insightful post. My girls did not sleep though till about 13 months, even at 3 , one still wakes in the night at times. so I probably have never had a really good night sleep since the kids.

Leslie said...

Um, my two are 20 and 17 and I have been sleep deprived again since they got their own cars. It's particularly bad at the moment.

Hippomanic Jen said...

G'day from WTBAY. I can't relate to the broken sleep patterns, but can see that it could take it out of you. I'm in awe of all new mums.

Joce said...

Hi from WTBAY, I'm a day late, but congrats on being featured! I know all about what sleep deprivation can do to you, though I'm yet to experience it at the hand of a baby.... great post! <><

Le @ Third on the Right said...

Hello there - I am a day late too ... I so identifed with this post .... the heady mix of first time mothering, no sleep, no experience and no magic solution to breast feeding dramas ... but like all things ... this too did pass.

cheers le

Liz said...

Being chronically sleep deprived through a month shy of six years straight of pregnancy and/or breastfeeding (and still going strong) I can relate...

Only problem is most of my friends have returned to work and there isn't that "phone a friend" option available.

Laetitia :-) said...

The side topic from this post on Fruits of the Spirit reminds me of one time when the leaders of the church we attended (many moons ago in a former life) exhorted us all to 'work on' each one per week in turn. I remember thinking at the time, as I do now, that they are the Spirit's fruit not mine - if I 'work on' each one then they are my fruit, not His and I will become proud of how far I think I've progressed through my efforts.

Mentally beating yourself up over how badly you feel you've done, especially when sleep deprived, is just as bad as physical self-flagellation. I'm always amazed that more mothers don't throw their children through sleep deprivation.

Jean said...

Yes, Laetitia, it's important that we live in grace. Our struggles with impatience etc. when sleep-deprived are reminders of how greatly we need the grace of Christ and the work of his Spirit, growing his fruit within us.