It has been a sleepless week chez The Mummy Coach. My 4 year old daughter finished nursery last week and promptly fell ill with a virus, which meant very little sleep for her, and very little sleep for us. Just as she seemed to turn a corner, and a good night's sleep appeared to be within grasp, my 2.5 year old son, pictured, came down with the same thing. Sharing is caring, so they say. This week's night-wakings got me thinking about sleep, and 8 things I've learned about it since becoming a parent.
When you have a baby, everyone wants to know how your baby is sleeping. I don't just mean your new mum friends from antenatal classes, who naturally want to compare and contrast. I mean everyone. Society seems to be obsessed with babies' sleep, particularly their night sleep. "Is she sleeping through the night yet?", they ask, of your newborn baby. And you want to cry and say, "No, you idiot. She isn't. She is currently pretty focused on surviving. So f*** off!". You don't say this, however, because even though you're chronically sleep deprived and totally fed up of being asked this question, you realise this is no way to speak to an elderly relative. Be prepared for this question: you're going to be asked it a lot. It's fine to lie and just say 'yes' if it gives you an easier life.
Sleep deprivation does strange things to a person. Before I had children, I had had nights where I did not get enough sleep, but I now realise that a late night here and there does not really have any lasting effects beyond the fatigue you feel the next day. When I experienced the persistently broken sleep of a new parent, I became irritable, forgetful, irrational, unable to make decisions, and clumsy. I read somewhere that 'sleep deprivation decays the mind and body', and I think that sums it up quite neatly.
You spend a small fortune on things that may make your baby sleep better. A swaddle that is softer than all the other swaddles? A session in a lovely, warm baby hydro-pool? A lamp that makes pretty shapes on the ceiling? Lavender-scented bubble bath? Don't get me started on black-out solutions. We've tried blinds, curtains, a blind-curtain combo. My conclusion: no matter what you do, some of the light always finds its way through.
You may be amazed by your partner's staggering ability to sleep through the night (wakings). When my daughter was a baby, I was breastfeeding and so, generally, would do the night feeds myself. Routinely, my husband would turn to me in the morning and say, "Wow, she had a good night! Did she sleep through?" I would look at him in shock and disbelief and inform him that, no, she had not slept through the night. I was now too tired to remember exactly how many times she had woken, and for how long, but I was confident that she had definitely not slept through the night.
Even after your baby starts sleeping through the night, you may find you cannot. The first night that my daughter slept through, I was mostly awake, staring at my clock in disbelief, and marvelling at the fact that she had slept so long, while repeatedly nudging my sleeping husband and excitedly whispering, "She is still asleep! She is still asleep!" When sleeping through became a more regular occurrence, I found myself struggling to sleep soundly at night, often finding myself wakeful at around 2.00 am. It took time and discipline to reset my internal body clock.
When your baby starts sleeping through the night, the focus (of you and everyone else) shifts to the morning wake-up time. "What time does she wake up in the morning?" asks every single person you meet, and this just compounds your own feelings of dissatisfaction with your lot. As a first time mum, all I had wanted was for my baby to get through to morning without a feed. But then, when she started sleeping through regularly, I wanted her to sleep until 7.00am, not 6.00am. I tried so many variables: nap, no nap, earlier to bed, later to bed, a room as dark as we could make it (see number 3, above) and do you know what I have learned? My children always wake up at approximately the same time every day, regardless. Oh, and that time begins with a '6', not a '7'.
There are always curve balls. This is the big one, that I was perhaps ill-prepared for. All of my focus was on my baby sleeping through the night. I did not appreciate that, when my baby did start to sleep through the night, it did not mean that I was going to have uninterrupted sleep at night forever more. It took us quite a while to get any regularity after that first occasion of sleeping through the night. Even as they get older, I have found that there are times where night-wakings resume. Illness is of course a common trigger, as in our household this week. Others that spring to mind from my first-hand experience are: developmental milestones, such as learning to roll over, crawl or walk; going away on holiday; moving house; a parent returning to work; teething; starting nursery; moving to a big bed; and potty training. So, yeah, there are quite a few factors which might cause you to continue to be up with your kids in the night for a while to come.
Not all children are the same. This is based on my incredibly scientific study of my own two children, who have very different temperaments and who, as a result, bring different challenges on the sleep front. My daughter, for example, simply will not sleep unless she is in her bed. "Not even in a car?" my friends will ask. Nope. Not even in a car. Last summer we drove 6 hours through the night from Cornwall to London to try to ensure she slept for some of the journey. She stayed awake the entire way. My son, on the other hand, will happily sleep anywhere, which sounds ideal but can actually be problematic when you're trying to maintain a sensible bed-time. "Where's Sebby gone?", I asked my daughter the other day at approximately 4.30pm. We eventually found him, fast asleep on the floor behind the sofa.