It’s 3am. You’ve been cluster feeding for what feels like an eternity. But, somehow, this tiny limpet with a stomach the size of a cherry is hungry AGAIN!Anita Casu
Anita Casu shares with us her experience raising a baby who simply wouldn’t sleep at night. Read on to find out how she overcame/is overcoming the challenges she has faced during the first 10 months of motherhood.
In the last photo taken of me before I gave birth, I’m standing in a corner of the nursery cradling a (clearly quite stubborn) 42 week bump. Tell-tale circles under my eyes betray another night punctuated by hourly bathroom trips. No one ever warns you about the joys of third trimester bladder trampoline.
Aside from predictable forays into sourdough, a lockdown pregnancy had also afforded us plenty of time for DIY. Every weekend, my husband and I joined the throngs outside our local Homebase, committed to the cause of home improvement. (Or perhaps, unenthused by the prospect of another government-mandated walk)
My backdrop in the photo is a sunshine-yellow feature wall with a picture of a fox frolicking in snow. Draped across the wall is a felt garland, along with a trendy knitted name sign and various fox-themed items confirming an unhealthy addiction to Etsy. You’d be forgiven for wondering what on earth this all has to do with sleep. Well, in the centre of the nursery – of course – is a cot. Because that’s what babies sleep in, right?
Just not mine.
Would it surprise you to know I could probably count on one hand the number of times my baby graced the cot with her presence?
When thinking about my journey with baby sleep, I couldn’t help but think of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief:
First stage – Denial
“Enjoy your sleep now!” Those well-intentioned friends warn you. “You’ll never sleep again!”
You nod politely. It’s easier than replying, “Actually Susan, I had 9lbs of baby using my bladder as a stage for Irish dancing last night.” You’ve got restless legs, heartburn, hip pain and even the pregnancy pillow you’ve fondly nicknamed “The Giant Tooth” isn’t enough to make you feel comfortable. So you’re well primed for the sleepless nights in store. It’ll be fiiiine.
Second stage – Anger
It’s 3am. You’ve been cluster feeding for what feels like an eternity but somehow, this tiny limpet with a stomach the size of a cherry is hungry AGAIN. How is it that you can switch the vacuum cleaner on during the day and your baby nods off in nanoseconds but at night they JUST… WON’T… SLEEP?
Third stage – Bargaining
You’ve never been religious. Agnostic at best. But having spent the night repeatedly trying to lower your baby into the glorified bedside table that is their crib, you’ll try anything. You buy a different crib, try a thicker mattress and pray to any passing deity that might hear your nocturnal ramblings.
Fourth stage – Depression
By this point, you’re struggling to form sentences. Your brain feels like plasticine, your signature scent is sour milk and to say you resemble a scarecrow is putting it lightly. Perhaps the nights were getting better but with each stage of growth comes an explosion of development that interferes with any progress made. Hello, split nights and 4am parties.
You realise that something has to change for the sake of your sanity.
Final stage – Acceptance
At this point, I realised I was fighting a losing battle and whatever I had been trying wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard I tried. It was around this time I stumbled across the Instagram page of Lyndsey Hookway: pioneer of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Programme (and many other impressive qualifications besides). I read her book ‘Let’s Talk About Your New Family’s Sleep’ and found it immensely reassuring. There *was* a middle-ground between sleep training (which, with absolutely zero judgment, isn’t for me) and just waiting it out for the situation to improve. The idea of looking at sleep holistically really appealed. Rather than following generic advice, everything from birth to diet and temperament is taken into consideration. Babies aren’t robots, after all.
Rather than scheduling my day around a strict set of awake windows and tracking the minutiae of my baby’s sleep on Huckleberry (uninstalling that app was the best thing I’ve ever done), I surrendered to the fact that sleep was never going to be linear. Some days would be better than others, when teething, illness or peaks in separation anxiety might scupper my plans.
But did the world end when she skipped a nap or became overtired? Of course it didn’t! Instead, I accepted the things I could control and let go of those I couldn’t. I knew my baby loved to nap in the pram so instead of forcing naps at home, I’d wait until she was really tired, wrap up warm and stroll around the park listening to a podcast. I was moving my body and both of us were getting fresh air.
Sleep involves a bit of trial and error
The other game-changer in our sleep journey so far has been embracing the Montessori method of a floor bed. Developed as a way of promoting independence and free movement, the floor bed is also a wonderful way of supporting a baby or child to sleep before rolling away (ensuring they are over 6 months old, the room is fully baby-proofed and you have followed age-appropriate safe sleeping advice).
Having co-slept from day one, this felt like a logical progression. So at 8 months, we sold that lovely yellow cot and put a double mattress on the floor of her nursery. As usual, I’d breastfeed to sleep then ‘ninja-roll’ away to read, watch some Netflix or just decompress. At first, the false starts were almost immediate. But I persisted and with time, she just started sleeping for longer stretches on her own. I’d anxiously watch the monitor, waiting for the inevitable wake-up but soon that 20 minutes turned into several hours.
All those nights spent feeding, cuddling and shushing my baby to sleep had finally paid off and she felt comfortable enough to sleep solo.
Where are we with sleep now?
At the time of writing this, my baby is 10 and a bit months old. She’s teething, on her third cold and on top of all that, trying so hard to walk. It’s little wonder, therefore, that there’s been an increased need for support at night. As I said, sleep is never linear; when you think you’ve cracked it, something comes along to test you. The wonderful thing about a floor bed, however, is that rather than being up and down like a yo-yo, I can just go to sleep if she needs me close by and maximise my own rest. No tricky transfer required.
With a return to work on the horizon, I’m fully aware there’ll be other challenges in store but that’s ok. Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I could give a new parent with regards to sleep is to drown out the noise and trust your own instinct. Only you know your baby’s temperament, family set-up and unique set of circumstances.
If a rigidly-structured day helps you to feel in control, that’s fine! However, so much generic advice is bandied about as the gospel truth and the result is that it can make you feel like a failure. It’s seen as kooky to share a sleep space with your baby when really, it’s the most natural thing in the world and the norm in several cultures.
Some babies sleep through the night in their cot but I want other parents to know they’re not failing if their baby doesn’t. They’re not failing if their baby is one of the 80% of 6-18 month olds who wake through the night. They’re not failing if their baby doesn’t do a long lunchtime nap but instead prefers to nod off in a sling or the pram in the park. Their baby is just… behaving like a baby.
Sleep is no picnic
I won’t pretend it’s always been easy. Sleep (or the lack thereof), has certainly been a cause of stress in this first year of motherhood. But learning to follow my baby’s unique cues and accepting there’d be times she’d need me more than others has made all the difference. The days are so fleeting. In a matter of weeks, I’ll have a one year old. I’m never going to look back on this time and regret all the contact naps, cuddles and nights spent sleeping next to her. It feels right for us and it won’t be forever. For now, I’m soaking it all up while it lasts.
The Lullaby Trust is an invaluable resource for all things related to safer sleep.
I also highly recommend the lovely Charlotte Inskip, a Holistic Sleep Coach who can be found over at @theholisticsleepmama on Instagram.
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