As Mini approaches her 2nd birthday, I’ve been pondering upon the all-consuming topic of infant sleep. Or, to be more accurate, non-sleep. It’s a topic that many a new mum will find themselves obsessing over, trawling the internet in tears at 3am for ‘sleep cures’ that don’t exist and veering wildly between implementing a military Gina Ford style routine or embracing a go-with-the-flow co-sleeping way of life.
Mini is not a great sleeper. Her night-waking habits were quite random in her first year of life, but from the age of about 1 she has at least had the decency to be consistently shit at sleeping. She sleeps through about once every few months, which rather than being enjoyable and refreshing is always rather unsettling as I either spend the entire night lying awake wondering why she hasn’t woken up, or wake up in the morning in a blind panic convinced that she has been abducted. If you’re anything like me, you may also convince yourself that you unwittingly did something miraculous the day before that must’ve contributed to this epic event and set about PRECISELY reenacting the previous day’s activities to achieve sleeping through once again. I once clung desperately onto the belief that Mini eating a certain number of peas for dinner combined with a slightly later bedtime of 7.03pm was the reason she slept through the night and tried to administer exactly 17 peas into her gob the following evening. It didn’t work. But that gives you some idea as to the levels of crazy a sleep-deprived mother can become accustomed to.
Sleep deprivation quite simply is the single most fucked up thing about having a baby. For me personally, the process of adapting to this New Way of Life has been a long and arduous one with many obstacles. And whilst I am now used to being up anywhere from 2 to 5 times a night, and my body has adapted by ageing 10 years in the last 2 and becoming morbidly obese with imminent threat of heart attack, the mere thought of another child makes my fanny quiver in fear and PCF’s balls retract instantly into his bum-hole (I’m aware that this is probably not medically correct, but for the sake of illustrating one’s point, I’m sure you catch my drift).
You can just never be prepared for this aspect of parenting. Ok yeah we’ve all been on a bender and stayed up until 4am… but not for 2 years in a fucking row. Pregnancy sort of prepares you for the impending sleep deprivation and general loss of your faculties to a certain extent. At the later stage it’s obviously impossible to sleep with an almost fully grown human being inside you, poking around your insides and kicking you in the spleen whenever a bit of foetal-acrobatics takes their fancy. And as someone who already needs to pee alarmingly often even under normal circumstances, I pretty much just spent the last trimester sleeping on the toilet and pissing continuously. I’m sure I could’ve powered some sort of energy turbine with my jet streams.
Aside from the sleep disturbances, you also go intermittently insane from all of those pesky mind-altering hormones that are swirling around your brain. Poor old PCF had to suffer through my unpredictable mental breakdowns on a fairly regular basis. On one occasion, as we were tucking into a curry something about the way in which PCF was nibbling on his naan bread struck me as the most hilarious thing I had ever seen in my entire, adult life. I was gripped by uncontrollable and inexplicable hysteria and just couldn’t stop laughing. I’m fairly certain I came close to suffocation on numerous occasions, but I needn’t have worried as soon enough the laughter abruptly turned into strangled sobs.
At this point PCF has stopped chewing and is peering over his naan bread at me with a perplexed, amused and fearful expression on his face.
PCF: “I really don’t understand what is happening here”
ME: *sobs now punctuated with maniacal laughter* I DON’T KNOOWWWWW!!!! *sobbity laugh*.. MAYBE WE SHOULD CALL AN AMBULANCE?!?!?
Quite rightly, he hid in the kitchen for the rest of the evening while I continued to lie on the sofa laughing and crying sporadically for no reason whatsoever. Even now, I have a little chuckle to myself when I think about The Naan Bread Incident. Aaaah, pregnancy. Such a magical time!
But despite these periods of lunacy, we all know that pregnancy is the easy part. The relative calm before the storm. And soon you will be in the throes of chaos.
The first stage in the Adapting to Sleep Deprivation Process is, of course:
The sort of shock you would experience should you receive an unexpected fly-kick to the jugular by an innocent looking pensioner who was trundling down the street. It’s all a bit:
You previously lived as a normal human who slept for as many hours in a row as your little heart desired without having to wake up regularly to administer milk to a tiny but extremely frightening blob. Initial contact with blob is sort of wonderfully surreal because you’ve probably been in labour for days, may be somewhat off your nut on a variety of drugs and you are undoubtedly very, very tired. Have you noticed how women rarely give birth at a nice, civilised time like 1pm? I’ts always some ungodly hour! Mini landed on Planet Earth at 3.46am precisely. Which was about my 3rd night in a row of no sleep as she had spent the previous two days and nights doing an Irish jig in the womb in preparation for her dramatic entry into the world.
So you’ve got extreme exhaustion combined with whatever hideous birth-giving aftermath you were left to deal with, which in my case was fanny-obliteration and a total loss of leg function on account of the epidural (don’t fucking judge me, one did attempt to ‘breathe through the contraction envisaging golden light passing through my womb ‘ but I was too busy DYING and shitting myself to pull that off successfully). All in all a pretty bizarre situation. You are already exhausted to your very core before you’ve even begun the hard part! Mother nature really is a bit of a piss-taker isn’t she?
From the vague scraps that I am able to salvage from my memory, the first 2-3 months were just a continuation of this shock. Jesus. If I thought I was emotional while pregnant, post-natal Sophie was a whole different ball game of loopy! I wondered around somewhat gingerly like a comatose penguin – and cried on a daily if not hourly basis. Over everything. Running out of cornflakes. Not being able to find my shoe. An advert about washing liquid. It was all VERY upsetting.
Mini slept beside me in the moses basket but I’d wake up EVERY night without fail in a blind panic, wildly patting the bed convinced that I had fallen asleep with her and she had now been usurped into the duvet. Sleep deprivation at this delicate stage is quite the mind-fuck and it’s a bit like being on a pretty bad hallucinogenic trip for a few months. Who needs acid when you could just have a baby?
Then something weird happened around the 3 month mark. Mini started to sleep rather well! Which of course lulls you into the short-lived:
False Sense of Security
Around this time, Mini fell into a lovely routine and started going to bed at 7ish and staying asleep for hours at a time. Often until about 2 or 3am. It was absolute bliss and I foolishly thought to myself ‘Well that wasn’t so bad! Maybe I’m one of those lucky ones with a good sleeper’ (hahahaha.. please excuse me while I piss my pants with laughter). Little did I know this was just a cruel form of trickery on her part and wasn’t to last for more than about a month. As of course you are now about to encounter a never-ending series of sleep regressions, developmental leaps, teething episodes, snot episodes, puking episodes and just general bollocks for the next 2 years.
No sooner than the period of blissful sleep has begun does it come to an abrupt and bitter end. The Four Month Sleep Regression is looming and you’re in for a rude awakening (pun intended). Suddenly, your baby just will not sleep. Even the act of putting them in their cot becomes a fretful 2 hour process of picking up, putting down, pacing, rocking, lowering incrementally, then trying to remove your arm from under the baby without awakening the beast. Should you succeed in actually getting them into the cot, you are now faced with Phase 2: trying to leave the room. After months of honing, you develop the ability to almost float soundlessly out of the room like a silent ninja. A really fat, silent ninja.
You often find yourself trapped under your sleeping baby, but you daren’t move as it took 3 hours of diagonal lunging whilst singing ‘Could it be Magic’ (the Take That version) to achieve. At some point during these Sleeping Baby Hostage Situations you will find yourself needing the loo – and so briefly consider shitting yourself rather than waking them up. Then you locate the last remaining scrap of your dignity, and conclude that rather than soil yourself – you can simply take the sleeping baby to the toilet with you. Needs must!
It’s around this time that you are likely to start going full throttle with the research and find yourself completely overwhelmed by the vast array of conflicting advice and information on the subject. Over the course of the next few months you will implement all sorts of bizarre practices in an effort to get your child to sleep better, as you are of course convinced that this current living hell is just a ‘blip’. And so begins the long and ridiculous period of DENIAL.
I had a stack of baby books that I would dip in and out of, in addition to the entire Internet… and looking back I honestly wish I hadn’t bothered! But at the time, it felt necessary to try and ‘solve’ this problem.
According to one of my many books, babies prefer to be swung rapidly from side to side rather than rocked back and forth as it mimicks the motion of the womb. Lots of stuff is about mimicking the womb. So you try to create a womb-like environment. I read that the room needs to be pitch black (like the womb) so I become consumed with trying to eliminate each and every shard of light slicing through her room like sleep-repelling beacons. I’m frantically and unsuccessfully trying to suction the bastard gro-blind to the window and become like a woman possessed, screaming “WHY WON’T IT STICK?!? WHY, LORD, WWHHYYYYYY??”.
The womb is apparently also very noisy, so we introduce white noise – but there’s also pink noise, brown noise, violet noise, waves, crashing waves, wind, rain, light rain, wind AND rain.. etc etc etc. I try to google ‘what type of white noise sounds most like the womb’ and become even more confused. I briefly consider purchasing someone’s womb and wrapping her in it like a fajita, and google ‘is it possible to buy a womb’. You do google quite a lot of weird shit during this time, let me tell ya! (and it turns out that you can, in fact, buy a womb – as per image below).
Unsurprisingly, none of these measures make much difference to Mini’s sleep habits.
You abandon operation Recreate Giant Womb.
As Mini got older. I became aware that sleep training was a popular and seemingly successful method of regaining one’s sanity. When implementing sleep training, it is absolutely imperative that you put your baby down in their cot ‘drowsy but awake’ (hideously annoying phrase number 1). We’ve all read this. Many times. The thought of it filled me with terror to be honest as I had always strictly adhered to putting her down ‘completely unconscious’ – but at the time 7 months of sleep-deprivation felt like a lifetime (laughable, I know) and I was desperate. So Mini was placed in her cot ‘drowsy but awake’ and visited at 2 minute intervals. She wasn’t particularly impressed by this new bedtime routine and made it known by projectile vomiting in my face on a couple of occasions. Cleaning puke out of one’s ear in the small hours didn’t seem like progress to be perfectly honest, and it was pretty clear I had a child that probably wasn’t going to respond well to this method.
You abandon sleep-training.
Back to the baby books! The importance of napping is now becoming more apparent. Perhaps if she NAPPED better in the day she would sleep better at night! Because apparently ‘sleep breeds sleep’ (hideously annoying phrase number 2). The thing with naps is that you do have to implement them at exactly the right time, harnessing precisely the correct amount of sleepiness. Not sleepy enough? You’re in for a pretty stressful 2 hours of trying to coerce a wide-eyed and increasingly energetic baby to sleep. Too sleepy? Well you’re totally fucked. Don’t even bother. An overtired baby is a demon-posessed baby. The books also stipulate that as your child gets older they should start to have a longer afternoon nap of about 2 hours. Oh! Brilliant! She should be having a two hour nap! Why did no fucker tell me this? Yes please – sign me up for the two hour nap! *SARCASTIC EYE ROLL*
If however your baby hasn’t read the baby books and doesn’t just naturally sleep for 2 hours of their own accord, you should be prepared to almost kill yourself trying to ensure that they do. If they wake up after 45 minutes, spend the next 7 hours trying to get them back to sleep AT ANY COST!! If you don’t’ achieve this you have failed completely in your role as a mother and should probably throw yourself into a river.
On account of the importance of naps and the endless efforts you put into ensuring they take place at 3-hourly intervals to avoid the much-feared onset of overtiredness, you take on the persona of a wild animal – a rabid wildebeast if you will – should anything or anyone disturb the fucking nap. You will find yourself fully prepared to ruthlessly murder the postman should he dare to knock on the door too vigorously ever again. And you inform him of this with a look of barely-concealed rage on your face when you fling open the door with your no-longer-sleeping baby on your hip. You thrust the baby at the postman while shrieking at him: “YOU MEAN TO TELL ME, THIS FUCKING PARCEL IS NOT EVEN FOR ME???!!”.
This whole nap thing is actually starting to push you to the brink.
You give up on the 2 hour nap.
You read about and give co-sleeping a go. Which I’m sure is great if you possess the ability to actually sleep with what is the equivalent of a giant wild ferret. For me personally, as a light and restless sleeper with incessant peeing-requirements, this was a special kind of hell on earth and resulted in even less sleep than usual. Trying to actually drift into unconsciousness with a small thrashing, moaning, farting creature beside me just wasn’t working out, so we gave up on that too.
Someone suggests you feed your child something like a potato before bed. She only has about 4 teeth, but you briefly consider the possibility of handing her a whole potato after bath time and seeing how she gets on. Then there’s the vast array of ‘night time’ or ‘hungry baby’ milks available on the market – with pictures of blissfully sleeping babies on the box suggesting that this magical elixir will be the answer to all of your prayers. You mix up a bottle of it and find that your child unsurprisingly struggles to suck it’s cement-like consistency through a teat. Instead I hand her a banana and she proceeds to whacks me over the head with it as if to say “Mother, PLEASE. Don’t PATRONISE me. Do you really think this banana is going to achieve anything other than you having to clean up regurgitated banana? Get a grip you silly bint”.
You abandon cement-milk and other associated food items.
I meet up with one of my friends who has a similarly dreadful sleeper and she shows me an article about placing a fake hand on your baby’s back to trick them into thinking you are in the room, and thus sleeping through the night. However, our little ones are not in fact dim enough to fall for such an unsophisticated ruse as they are approaching Toddlerhood and are in possession of functioning eyes and brains. We consider other possibilities – perhaps we could buy life-sized inflatable dolls and place them BESIDE the babies!! We decide against googling this and Operation Inflatable Mummy is abandoned before it’s even had a chance to fail.
The list of things to try was rapidly dwindling before my very eyes and I was getting angry! I had to express my anger and rage about the injustice of it all – so I took to Netmums. And Mumsnet. And Facebook. And the Sainsbury’s cashier. And pretty much anyone who would listen.
One of the most infuriating things about posting for help on social media for advice is the following scenario –
You write a long post about your terrible sleeper and someone, and there’s always one, replies with something along the lines of:
“Oh poor you. Semolina (or some other stupid fucking name) slept through the night from 12 weeks old so we’ve been VERY lucky. She did once wake up for 4 minutes at 3am on a Thursday in July which was really very tough – but we managed to power through this difficult time and she’s been an absolute ANGEL ever since. Have you tried sleep training / white noise / a potato before bed?”
You private message Semolina’s mum saying “If I ever see you in the street I WILL CUT YOU!!!”.
And of course every other mum you ever encounter informs you how wonderfully well their child sleeps. 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night and a 3 hour afternoon nap is apparently the norm. Sure. In fact some of them appear to be asleep for about 20 out of every 24 hours. I react very maturely by saying something like:
“Have you considered the possibility that your child may be narcoleptic? Yeah.. I hear there’s a new strain of air-bourne narcolepsy going around the nurseries. You better get him checked out asap”
Eventually you get the anger out of your system, hopefully without murdering anyone and consigning yourself to a lifetime in prison, and move on to the final phase of the process….
Grief and Acceptance
So Mini is well over a year old by now, and after trying all of the above plus a few more that I probably can’t recall – I finally just do what I should’ve done at the beginning. I give up. I find a way of getting just enough sleep to remain compos mentis which is by putting a mattress on Mini’s bedroom floor next to her bed and sleeping there from her first waking. I’m told that “you’re making a rod for your back” (the ULTIMATE hideously annoying phrase of all time) and my response is.. “Oh, really? No shit. My arsehole has in fact been impaled on this rod you speak of since my child was born. The rod ain’t going anywhere! So I’ve decided to become at one with the rod. Now kindly fuck off”.
My first mistake was thinking there was a problem to fix in the first place. Though you would be forgiven for doing so, as everything you read suggests that most babies ‘are capable of’ or ‘should be’ sleeping through the night by about 6 months. Personally I know very few people who have experienced this. I do however know a hell of a lot of people who have toddlers that are up through the night. And for some bizarre reason, nobody really sits you down and tells you the truth! Instead they say things like ‘oh she’ll probably sleep through when she goes onto solids / stops drinking milk at night / starts crawling / starts walking / starts going to play groups’, and so on and so forth. Well, I’m here to put a stop to these filthy lies!! Yes. Some people do get lucky on the sleep front. It does happen. But a fairly large proportion of kids DO NOT SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT FOR AT LEAST A COUPLE OF YEARS. And that’s ok! Well it’s not ok… its total dogshit. But it doesn’t mean that you are a crappy, failure of a mum. It just means you have a normal child. And if you can find a way to live with it, and laugh about it, then you’re doing great.
As I approach the 2 year mark, I have pretty much stopped noticing it. I no longer make any attempt to get Mini to sleep through and just live in hope that she will sort her shit out one day and leave me the fuck alone. But as it stands – she currently likes to recite animal noises to her mummy at 3am and who am I to stand in the way of these important nocturnal chats?
I’m sure it will all be fine in the end! But don’t take my word for it.. I’m not an expert, and I have a rubbish sleeper, after all 😉