S L E E P
It is an obsession and hot topic that arrives part and parcel with a freshly born human. From both ourselves, and from those around us. It begins the very moment they are born, when we take home our fruitful bundle with absolutely no idea what we are actually doing, when the nights are full of wakings and fumblings and soothings, and we are introduced to a new perspective of sleep. Suddenly we realise its true value and the impact it has on ours and our baby’s well being.
In the beginning, in my completely naïve and miseducated view of motherhood, I had this idea that newborns woke often, but over time they learnt the rhythms of day and night and around a few months old they would naturally begin to sleep through the night. Why did I think this? Well I guess it was because I had seen people celebrating when their own baby allowed them unbroken sleep, and I had heard people asking that age old question “Does she sleep through yet?” And from that I had come to my own conclusion that this was a goal for a baby to meet, and it would do so sometime within the first few months.
When preparing for Ravens arrival, I read all the suggestions and advice on leaflets and websites, of course I would carefully follow the instructions and keep baby with me in our room for 6 months and then transition them into their own room. And so we bought a Snuzpod for the early days and a cot for the nursery. I imagined me placing my sleeping baby down into the cot, not only at night but also at nap time, drawing the curtains and whispering ‘I love you’ as I left them to sleep for an hour or two whilst I cleaned / wrote / relaxed. I knew there would be moments of difficulty, teething, maybe an overtired baby from time to time that took longer to settle. But I was sold on the idea that ‘this is how it works’. What I hadn’t counted on was that it doesn’t actually always work like that.
Naturally when Ray was born and brought home, the nights were challenging. As a ‘new mother’ – at least to a bring home baby – I followed the popular parenting method of ‘making it up as you go along’. There were both moments of great beauty and great struggle. The intimate closeness of night cuddles when it is as though you are the only souls awake in the whole world, and times when the exhaustion set in and the nights felt lonely and long and I wondered if if I was doing anything at all right. As Raven is exclusively breastfed I didn’t see the need to wake dean, and so the night feeds were my domain and I thrived on the knowledge I was needed and held onto the fact that it was only for a short while, soon she will sleep through…
And as a tiny newborn it was accepted by visitors that she napped on me or her dad, and occasionally she would sleep a little while in her Moses basket. Everyone around me agreed that new babies like to held and cuddled. In those early days no one really questioned me holding my tiny daughter as she slept. I had just had a baby and we were bonding and relaxing together, isn’t that what maternity leave is for? When she was tired I let her snooze, when she was lively I let her be awake. It was really very simple.
But time rolled on, and I was about to realise just how over complicated sleep can become with a little one. Looking back I can see that I got severely caught up in self doubt and hype, contending with all kinds of ideas and methods that really just stemmed from me not only wanting the best for my baby, but also from me wanting to be the best mother I could be.
Weeks 10 and 11. I’ll never forget them! Raven slept through the night for two whole solid weeks. I celebrated, naturally. I was so ready to get more rest and I believed we had ‘nailed it’, a milestone ticked off. I wasn’t smug, but I did feel proud. Which looking back is kind of odd, to think that I felt accomplished for my baby’s ability to simply sleep, as though it was a personal success. And ‘success’ really is a key word here, because without success, there is failure.
Needless to say, Raven slept through for two weeks only. Once the night wakings began again I fretted, we’re going backwards, and the thought of a fresh round of sleepless nights felt completely overwhelming. I had been so thoroughly exhausted by the end of her newborn wakings that I wondered if I could physically do it all again. Around the same time, someone questioned Ray sleeping only on me. It was a loving comment I’m sure, and I am certainly one to overthink and reach ridiculous conclusions, so absolutely no daggers thrown here, but it planted a seed of doubt. Yes, why would my baby only nap on me? “You can’t do that forever!” The newborn baby bubble was bursting, real life was beginning. There was a silent expectation that I couldn’t relax on the sofa any longer, I couldn’t let a little baby rule my movements, how was I going to get the housework done? And so many online photographs of sleeping babies in their Moses baskets or cot, what was I doing wrong?
Suddenly my baby’s sleep felt very complicated and I found myself questioning so much about when she slept, where she slept and how she slept. As her night wakings continued and the ‘success’ revealed itself to be short lived, a sinking sense of ‘failure’ set in. I had lost my boasting rights. And nap times too became full of anxiety. Instead of enjoying the lovely snuggly mother daughter cuddles, I would sit there thinking ‘I need to teach her to sleep off of me, I need to put her down’. I felt – wrongly so – that I was creating a bad habit, that I was being lazy, that my baby would never learn to sleep away from me.
And so it began. The countless adverts on Facebook about sleep training (I’m sure they hear your private conversations…?). Talking to other mothers about their nap routines and sleep schedules. Scrolling Pinterest and seeing a tide of posts ‘how to get your baby to sleep through the night in 48 hours!’. Conflicting advice, “don’t let them nap past 4pm” alongside “never wake a sleeping baby!”. If I implemented a routine of set times then I was bound by them regardless of if my baby was actually tired, and if I didn’t then I risked a tired baby napping too close to bedtime. It was all so confusing. What if she fell asleep in the car outside of her set times? Does it throw the whole day off? If she has a set bed time but isn’t showing any signs of being tired, do I soldier on and try to desperately induce sleepiness? Has she met her required awake/sleep times for the day? I read that babies need two short naps, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but what if her first nap arrived naturally over midday? I found myself waiting for Rays sleepy cues later in the afternoon, but what if they never came? As Raven began to sleep increasingly well in the pushchair it invited some newfound freedom for me during her naps, but whilst I could celebrate the ‘success’ of a nap out of arms that too came with inner questioning. Walking with my baby in a pushchair to get her sleepy sometimes ends in a two hour sleep parked up in the hallway and sometimes ends in no sleep, but even good pushchair naps left me feeling like I was doing it wrong. “It’s time for her to sleep in her cot!” And night wakings were frequently seen as a problem to be solved. I lost count of how many times I was asked the dreaded sleep through question, each time answering no and feeling the empathetic looks as though I had failed a driving test or won second place. And it doesn’t end there, as a breastfeeding mother I found even feeding comes with complications. “You shouldn’t encourage the feed to sleep association, no one else will ever be able to put her down at night!” “She can smell your milk that’s why she wakes up, put her in her own room and you will all sleep better!” “You should be putting her down to sleep on her own at night by now”…
I began to feel like a fish out of water.
But you see, I was yet to realise three defining things;
1. The strength of motherly instinct.
2. No two women mother exactly the same.
3. The fact that you can do whatever the hell you want.
And it was here that my journey of realisation and self confidence really began. After a lot of wasted fretting and mental self punishment, it suddenly occurred to me that whatever I wanted to do, is what I could do. It was like a lightbulb moment. Perhaps Sandra down the road is timing her baby’s naps in her cot and that works for her, but that doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe Barbara on Facebook has sleep trained and now gets 8 hours of unbroken sleep and that works for her, but I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t have to do it that way. Some babies naturally sleep through, some families have more than one child’s needs to meet, or work schedules to consider. And I think I just realised one day that everyone is doing it differently and that’s ok! I will do my own ‘differently’ version. Back to basics, swipe away the countless pieces of well meaning advice, and simply follow my instincts.
A big turning point for me was when I discovered breastfeeding legend ‘The Milk Meg’. Reading her book and blogs, I could have cried with relief. There it was in plain black and white; a lot of babies like to only nap on mum, night wakings for feeds and cuddles is natural, breastfeeding through the night is normal, feeding to sleep is peaceful and perfectly healthy. The endless comments on her posts of mothers saying ‘18 months in and still feeding through the night!’ didn’t fill me with nighttime dread, instead it confirmed to me that Raven wasn’t broken and I wasn’t failing. It removed my expectations for a full nights rest and I could simply relax in the knowledge that all was as it should be, my baby was getting nighttime nutrients and cuddles. Night waking wouldn’t last forever and it also wouldn’t end anytime soon, but I was prepared to make the sacrifices necessary with motherhood and I could feel confident whilst doing it, after all Ray wasn’t crying in the night, she was simply stirring and needed a little extra comfort. Sometimes lots of feeds, sometimes few. Go to bed early, celebrate the nights filled with sleep and prepare for the ones that aren’t. Someone said to me – when we feel it’s been a bad nights sleep for us, it’s been a good night for your baby, because you have continued to meet their needs whenever they have needed you.
And so armed with this newfound knowledge, I felt brave enough to commit in other ways too. When it came to Raven outgrowing her Snuzpod I knew I wasn’t ready to place her to sleep away from me, she was still dream feeding and I actually just loved having her so close at night. I realised the milestone of my baby sleeping in her own cot wasn’t a ‘real’ deadline. So we bought another cot, medium sized, took the side off, adjusted it to bed height and continued to co sleep. These days night feeds simply require me to sleep with a loose bra top so Ray can turn to me to feed without much stirring at all. I began to relax and enjoy her napping in my arms. I didn’t feel trapped, I liked it. My baby needed it and with no other living dependants I was able to give it to her. I didn’t feel lazy, I was recharging my own batteries and giving my baby a safe and peaceful bonding feeling. And that was as important and as much a part of my motherhood and maternity leave as awake time interaction, activities and daily chores. I utilised the wrap and was able to move around as she snoozed if necessary. I relaxed the expectation of a nap routine, Raven doesn’t appear to follow set schedules so I reverted to a looser outlook; she sleeps when tired. Oftentimes a morning nap at 10ish, Then sometimes she naps at 3pm and goes to bed at 7pm, other times she has a snooze at 5pm and is in bed for 8.30pm. We still have routine but it flexes to meet the needs of the day and that works for us.
Of course, the way we work in our house isn’t for everyone and that’s a big point here. You don’t have to breastfeed or co sleep, your baby is also perfectly fine if they nap away from you, nod off midway through playing or drift off happily on the sofa. It’s cool if they are sleeping in their own cot or sleeping through the night from early on, you can have a nap schedule if that works for you. I’m free from judgment and I hope that’s clear, this was simply my personal journey to sleep confidence.
As Ray grows I see changes in her every day, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But some things never change. Just today in the supermarket I was asked by a kind hearted and well meaning stranger ‘is she a good sleeper?’ And I simply smiled and said ‘yes.’ Because I’m there now, I don’t need to scramble for a reply, feel like a fraud or speak through self doubt. I’m happy with my choices.
My daughter, who feeds through the night, who sleeps practically in our bed and will do for a long time yet, who I cuddle as she naps, who is one hell of a happy baby.