Sleeping Soundly

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.

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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.

The Beginnings of Motherhood

Motherhood.  The experience that nothing can ever truly prepare you for, the most unprecedented upheavel a of a life beforehand and the most wonderful interruption of an easy life.

Before we had Raven I was, of course, already a mother, but there is no doubting that my mothering experience with a living baby is far different from that of mothering a memory.  From the very moment I first discovered I was pregnant with Winter, 33 long months ago, I had been imagining what being a parent would be like.  I did the prenatal yoga, listened to the hypnobirthing CDs and planned endlessly for my confident and serene transition into motherhood.  When I was close to my due date with Raven, I told Dean that I would have beautiful dinners ready each night and an empty laundry basket, I said that his days off would be set aside purely for big fun family days out.  I’d spent a lot of time on Instagram you see, and it seemed like that was the standard, well dressed babies, catalogue homes, smiling mother.

When Ray first arrived my confidence was sky high.  I had been waiting SO LONG for her and I was full of energy and bursting with excitement.  She took to breastfeeding immediately and the sleepy newborn phase meant she was content snuggled up in a blanket in the moses basket whilst I ate / washed the pots / stared at her.  Dean had 2 weeks with us and we fumbled nonchalantly through the days, happily making it up as we went along. The 2 hourly night feeds didn’t phase me, I had spirit and energy and spent the nights gazing at my creation.  ‘We are nailing this!’ we chirped, as I simultaneously nursed Ray and hung out the washing.  I felt like supermum, riding on oxytocin and being fed and passed things by an equally chuffed team mate.  I was brave, we went out for strolls around the park, the summer sun was beaming and isn’t everything just so much easier with soft weather? If Ray was crying it was for a feed or because I had cruelly pulled a vest over her head to dress her or dared to wash her with wet cotton wool, either way she was easily soothed and most likely asleep again in a matter of minutes.  Motherhood felt nothing but easy and ethereal.

Week 3 saw Dean return to work.  I imagined myself at a loss of what to do, but the continued roll call of visitors broke up my days and I began to drift into a simple daily routine.  Sometimes Ray cried and I didn’t know why, but I loved the idea that we were getting to know each other and I played detective.  I spent a lot of time staring at her, lost in her little creation.  The nights were long and littered with two hourly feeds, but I enjoyed our special secret time together on the nursery rocking chair when it felt like the whole world was asleep except for us. 

By week 4, however, the exhaustion began to set in.  Whilst I still was – and still am – ripe with devotion, my body was beginning to feel flushed with aches and I struggled more and more with resettling Ray after feeds.  Her arms and legs seemed to get even wigglier than before and she often startled herself awake.  I would spend hours in the dark nursing, burping, swaddling, soothing, only to lay her down and watch devastated as her arms flung up and her eyes pinged open.  I told Dean it was like writing a whole novel only to set it on fire.  Never did she particularly wail in the night, but the sad murmurs marked another round of settling, and I adhered with eyes half open.  Dean was always adamant I wake him if I struggled, and he absolutely supported me if ever I did, but as I was breastfeeding there seemed no real need, and I am aware that he is working long days to keep us clothed, fed and housed and so I chose to troop on alone and keep little Winter in my heart for extra patience and energy.  But now the nights were shifting from harmonious mother and daughter moments to lonely, exhausted slogs.  The days were still filled with precious moments, and don’t get me wrong I was happy and thriving in many other ways, but I found myself desperate for sleep and dreading nighttime.

Colic arrived around weeks 5 and 6.  For anyone wondering how this experience plays out… it is essentially hours of continuous screaming baby every evening.  Raven was simply inconsolable.  Aside from Winters death, I can honestly say it was the most emotionally challenging thing I have ever been through.  I was heartbroken as I found myself incapable of soothing my baby with her wide pleading eyes.  Her endless cries translated to me as HELP ME HELP ME, and I could not help.  The evenings were slowly getting dark earlier, on more than one occasion I stood at the window in my lounge with a thrashing baby in my arms just waiting for Dean to walk around the corner on his way home.  Ray cried, I cried.  A sense of failure, it wasn’t the fairytale I had been imagining, I wasn’t the mother who could solve all the problems.  Help was on hand, I’m lucky to have friends and family ready available to help.  My sister in law took some washing home for me,  I text my mum and asked for help and her presence was like a weight from my shoulders, my brother came over one evening in the midst of Rays meltdown and washed the pots.  After 2 weeks of trying Infacol and various google tactics, we went to the doctors and I came out wondering why we hadn’t been sooner.  Colief, an improved feeding latch and no spicy foods pretty much solved our problem and the change in Raven was dreamy.

The colic and exhaustion impacted on my confidence.  Winters second birthday was fast approaching and my grief drowned me.  I suddenly felt very incapable and worried that I wasn’t ever going to find my groove again.  What had begun as a smooth slip into motherhood, suddenly felt very fumbly.  I could barely juggle feeding myself let alone preparing a nice evening dinner. A rather ambitious full family day out ended rather abruptly as an already frazzled and unhappy Raven was moved from wrap to car seat to arms to car seat to arms to post poonami full body change and back to carseat… I abandoned the day and took myself and baby back home to the sofa.  It was a far cry from my early days of exploration and I wondered why I was going backwards. I realised that I wasn’t able to settle her with ease at times, and I began to worry about being out in public, flustered with a screaming baby.  Hungry?  Windy?  Tired?  Bored? I felt as though I didn’t have the answers and I couldn’t manage if she blew out whilst I strolled around Sainsbury’s. In hindsight, weeks 5 and 6 were our hardest yet and it came at a time when Ray was transitioning from sleepy newborn to more awake and aware newborn, and I was just learning how to transition with her.  A few weeks later and we had emerged so vividly from the fog of colic and sleepless nights that we had adventurously taken on a trip to London, an effort I would have never imagined possible when I was stood by that window waiting for Dean.

By week 7 we were co-sleeping.  Given the long nights previous it was only a matter of time before I gave in to biology.  It’s a controversial subject, but all I will say is that I followed safe practices – no pillows or blankets nearby, baby cupped under my arm laying flat on her back etc – it was a beautiful experience and we all slept exceptionally well.  After a few successful nights together, I began to place Ray into her Snuzpod with me lay right up close as if we were still in bed together, and over time I was able to move further back into my bed.  By week 9 Raven is now happily asleep in her Snuzpod for 8 hours at a time through the night.  Of course that could all change again, but it’s a far cry from the nights where I panicked that my baby would never sleep for longer than two hours at a time.  Here we are refreshed and colic free.  I rediscovered my groove.

As we step into week 10, I can reflect candidly on the early weeks.  The brave naivety of the beginning days, the confusing changes, the emotional trauma of colic and the slog of sleep deprivation.  I can say that I’m proud to have taken it all in my stride, and reasonably stress free.  Motherhood for me is so far both harder and easier than I had expected.  I’ve learnt to juggle a baby on my boob and signing for a delivery, I’m really good at picking things up with my toes, and my diet is mainly soup and cereal based.  As Ray learns to play and nap elsewhere than my arms, I find I am able to prepare a half decent dinner, half empty that laundry basket or type up half a blog post.  But really, I love the naptimes in my arms and I’m not in a rush to tidy the house rather than soak up my baby.  We’ve survived post immunisation fever, colic, sleep deprivation and nappy rash.  These days Raven is smiling more than ever and over time I have learnt to distinguish between her cries and cues and so I’m able to settle her faster and with greater confidence.  I feel braver again, I understand her little routines – she poops right after a feed, she’s hungry as soon as she wakes, she wants ‘comfort boob’ in the evening, she like to be held in a certain position, she sleeps well in the baby carrier in the morning, try and get her sleepy before she’s put in the carseat – simple understandings that have gifted us a softer flow in the day.  She’s on the cusp of giggles now and last night she shrieked in delight as she kicked around in the bath.  We celebrated Winters birthday together and I held her especially close as I felt his loss so monumentaly.  Her presence reminded me to enjoy the journey, even the fumbly parts.

The biggest lesson for me is that motherhood is what we make of it.  I’ve realised I don’t need a huge bag of supplies to go out – a few nappies, wipes and a change of clothes is all I need for a tiny baby – and a train down to London and back IS possible… why not?  Just with foreplanning and working around baby’s needs.  And yes, some days baby’s needs are a sofa and play mat day with no humping around.  No doubt when I (hopefully) have future babies I will have to bend around more than one need and life will be a little more complicated, but for now I’ve realised that whether we get out of bed and dressed at 10am or manage an early morning baby wearing stroll, we can do whatever the hell we want.  Isn’t that what life is about after all, ever changing, going with the flow.  Even as adults our moods and wants shift daily.  I’m letting go of Instagram perfection and ideal parenting and instead I’m embracing my own personal journey of motherhood, one where I realise that every day is different and I’ll never stop learning how to care for my child.  My baby is happy and loved and I’m peaceful with that, through the easy breezy times and those trickier times, I’m holding onto that truth.