Sleep. Sweet, blissful sleep. Usually enjoyed pre parenthood in 8 to 12 hour chunks of uninterrupted, duvet snuggling. Have a child and your nights become punctuated with one, two, three, four (more?) wake ups and getting three continuous hours feels akin to heaven.
This is pretty much accepted for the first few weeks, but by the time you are getting to 4/5/6 months of sleepless nights, the murmuring will start
‘He doesn’t need an overnight feed’
‘He’s only crying because he knows you’ll come’
‘He needs to learn to self settle’
‘You’re making a rod for your own back’
This will be from family, friends, random strangers and even worse, sometimes your health visitor spouting this nonsense at you.
Let me say this now.
Your babies sleep is not your ‘fault’.
It’s not your fault if you feed to sleep
It’s not your fault if you cuddle and rock and sway them to sleep.
It’s not your fault if you respond to their cries.
It’s not your fault if you feed them overnight.
Babies are designed to wake frequently during the night. It keeps them alive. They don’t wake at night to be manipulative. They have a need and they communicate in the only way they know how.
You cannot train a baby to sleep. Unless you want to leave them to cry till they eventually give up – but if you’re reading this it’s unlikely that you want to do that. You can certainly gently help encourage positive sleep associations, but as for actually making them sleep? Only they can do that.
Now I know some will disagree. Many feel that babies need to be taught how to sleep, and that if you don’t teach them how to self settle, then you’re failing as a parent. Firstly, that’s nonsense, and secondly if not wanting to leave your baby to cry is failing, then I’m wearing that failure badge with pride.
Knowing that night waking is normal doesn’t instantly make the sleep deprivation a breeze. It does however make the night waking easier to cope with if you can understand that it’s not so much a problem to be solved, but a journey to be travelled together with your child. The solution is not so much to search for ways to fix your babies sleep, but discover ways of coping as well as promoting the positive sleep associations I mentioned earlier.
I’ve been that knackered and desperate mum, stood weeping at the cot. My son went through a particularly delightful stage of waking every 45 minutes for weeks on end and I felt like I could die from tiredness. I drove myself in to despair reading books, discovering I was doing everything ‘wrong’, therefore leading me to try various tricks to get him to sleep. Nothing worked because at that time he needed me, no matter how much I shush-patted or laid him down ‘sleepy but not fully asleep’. One night trying the ‘pick up, put down’ method and all I had to show for it was a bloody sore back and a baby who could sense when I was merely thinking of laying him down in the cot, let alone actually doing it.
Once I ‘gave up’ trying to do something about his sleep, I became much happier. That’s not to say you give up entirely. We started and maintained a bedtime routine, and it’s the same one we follow 2.5 years on. We follow it again with my daughter and she falls asleep easily at bedtime. Her sleep has suffered with every tooth and developmental progression, but I feel far more rested and able to deal with her night wakings because I mostly cosleep (she does start the night in her own bed). And I don’t look at the clock. First time round, the clock was my enemy, and even when I did get him to sleep I would be so pissed off that it was only 42 minutes from the last time I had been woken up that I couldn’t get back to sleep. Then I would be super pissed off that it was only 56 minutes since the last wake up but I had spent 23 of them being peeved. Yeah, not cool. So no clock, no rocking, swaying, singing, shushing, I feed her and we go back to sleep. Yes, some nights that doesn’t work (all of this week and last for example) but even though, it all just feels so much better.
You’re still going to be knackered some nights. And there may come a time, after the first 12 months, that you feel like you need to start gently guiding your child to sleep a bit better. And that’s fine – we started night weaning with the toddler at 16 months, was fully weaned by 18, got a full nights sleep….then wham, bam, thank you mam, we’d made another baby. But do it when you and your child feel ready for it, not when you are told you should, or are guilted in to feeling you should. No one else is there at 3am when you’ve got a screaming baby – it’s all very well them saying just leave them to cry or give a drink of water, but they aren’t YOU listening to YOUR baby breaking their heart. Do what you need to do so that you and the rest of your family get the most sleep, If that’s doing everything ‘wrong’, then so be it. I’d rather be ‘wrong’ and happy, than ‘right’ and miserable.
No one can make the sleep deprivation go away, but don’t torture yourself even more by being pushed in to unrealistic expectations of what our babies ‘should’ be able to do. It’s not fair on them and it’s not fair on you. ‘This too shall pass’ – and it will.
*This post also appears on Huffington Post