Thursday, January 8, 2009

from the archives: sleep deprived mamma

This post struck a chord with sleep-deprived mums. Written out of my experience with 4 very different children, it reminds us that babies don't always follow rules, that we can relax and do what works with our particular infants, and that struggling mums of newborns need sympathy, support and encouragement, not judgement.

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 pain at every feed, until she 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 I 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.



Gina said...

God is very merciful. The timing of this (re)posting for me is perfect. The combined efforts of our toddler and 3-month-old are making for 4-5 hours of broken sleep per night at the moment. My temper is frayed, I'm resenting my friends with sleeping kids, I'm wondering what I've done wrong and how I could be such a crummy parent. This post has cheered me up, helped me not to universalise, told me I'm not alone... and reminded me to ask God for help.

Jean said...

I'm so sorry! My heart goes out to you - I remember how dreadful it was to be getting no sleep, and how irritable I felt with the world and everyone in it. I'm glad the post was helpful. I've prayed for you.

Rachel said...

I, too loved this post and am writing through eyes brimming with tears brought on as I read your 2nd last paragraph - the relief felt that first morning of full sleep.