This Diary of Motherhood is a series of weekly letters to my first baby, my little son who I call Baby Bird. I know not everyone wants to read about the highs and lows of motherhood so you can read non-baby related posts about travel, writing, freelancing or Amsterdam instead. Alternatively read one of my short stories or check out some book reviews and recommendations.
Dear Baby Bird,
The last few months have seen a real upward streak in your increased abilities. From learning to entertain us to mastering a new movement almost every day (this week you've learned to go from sitting to standing), it makes my head spin how much you are achieving and how the pace at which you do so is speeding-up exponentially. I'm not yet at the stage where I want to yell "SLOW DOWN!" because I love watching you thrive, and grow, and become the person you are meant to be. I have also wanted to encourage it because it has also been helping the one consistent problem you (and therefore I) have had: sleep.
I have made several references to your lack of interest in sleep in previous diary entries, so much so it actually got to the point where I stopped mentioning it as I feared the diary would be dominated by this issue, which I really didn't want. It was around this time that I also made some effort to stop it also dominating our lives. Your dad and I figured out a shift system that enables us to both get enough sleep to function the next day, and I tried not to mentally dwell on the bad nights as much as I was definitely making it more of a problem than it was and I feared my stress and anxiety about this was in turn affecting you and ipso facto, not helping you relax and sleep. We also actively sought help - an extra day of daycare for you, anti-anxiety meds for me - and your father and I researched sleep training until we both knew more about it than we ever imagined possible.
In order to summarise here, your problem has never really been going to sleep though you have an impressive record of fighting daytime naps, which once you succumbed to were rarely longer than 30 minutes. Our main issue was night wakings. Despite having a solid bedtime routine and being fantastic at putting yourself to sleep around 7pm each night, from around six weeks to 6 or 7 months of age, you would wake anywhere between three and ten times a night, possibly more (but I refuse to count in double figures!).
Faced with this, you can maybe understand why we were considering sleep training, however, we never actually went down that road. I could say it was because of the conflicting information, or perhaps I would come off better if I said it was because phrases like "cry it out" and "extinction" all sounded too cruel, but actually the reason we didn't go ahead with a specific sleep training plan was because we couldn't agree on one that we were both comfortable with, and all of them say that both parents need to be committed and consistent in order for anything to stick. I hope that one day I'll forget which plan we each wanted to pursue, or not pursue, because neither sounded very pleasant to me at the time, but one thing we did both agree to was to not go running so quickly to you at night if you started whimpering, and we also decided to make you wait longer for your night feedings because we knew after four months, maybe even less, you don't need these for nurture, you were just wanting them for comfort. Yes, this involved a little crying, but actually we were surprised how quickly you adapted to just having two feeds by night and by the time you were around eight and a half months you were routinely only waking for these two feeds (one at around midnight and one around three o'clock). You also vastly improved how well you went down for naps (we're rarely get a cry from you now) and I would say that two out of three naps are now longer than 30 minutes - yay!
And then, two weeks ago, you amazed us both by only waking once in the night, and therefore only having one feed. I think I texted everybody in my phone book when this happened. I was in a happy state of shock for days, even when it didn't happen again the following night.
Of course, I jinxed it in doing so because it's never happened again since. But it didn't really matter. The point is you did, so you can, and that means you probably will again.
So that takes us up to this week.
This week we went on holiday to stay with some friends in the south of France. Because you'd been so steady in these regular two wakings I didn't even think about the change of scenery affecting your sleep, and I'm still not sure if it was the lack of familiar surroundings or being in a travel cot, or maybe you were teething, or a combination of it all, but affected you were. You woke several times each night while we were away, the worst being the second to last night where I was up and feeding you back to sleep no fewer than six times between the hours of 9:30pm and 6:30am.
Other parents will be screaming at me for "giving in" and using nursing as a method to get you back to sleep but when you're staying in someone else's home (and they have to get up and go to work the following day) and you yourself are exhausted and simply want to go back to sleep as soon a possible for fear that staying awake too long will knock all drowsiness out of you, then using a tried and tested solution is an easy win.
But of course, as these same screaming parents will be nodding sagely at, we suffered for it, because you just kept waking up wanting boob so I kept having to wake up to give it to you. I spent most of our time away feeling jet-lagged with tiredness, and one evening, I had a mild panic attack one night before going to bed, foregoing a delicious meal cooked by our hosts. But my personal low point on that trip was when I reluctantly picked you up one morning and realised your pyjamas and sleep sack were wet through after your nappy had leaked (because of course you were drinking more!). I placed a towel on the bed I was sleeping in next to you so I could change you, got you out of your wet clothes and nappy and put you in dry clothes. I then handed you over to daddy who was sleeping in another room - where I also should have been sleeping but didn't because of these sleep problems - and my shift being over, I went back to bed... lying on top of your wet sleep sack and pyjamas. Just as I was miraculously drifting off to sleep I felt the damp spread through my pyjamas... but do you know what? I didn't care. I just fell asleep on your urine-soaked clothes and my last thought before slumber wasn't, "eww this is gross" but "please, please, please let me sleep for a long time". It reminded me only too clearly of how desperate and distraught, sleep deprivation in those early months left me, and I have zero doubt that it was a contributing factor to my post-partum depression and anxiety.
I'm happy to say that a week and a bit after returning home, you've gone back to most nights featuring only two wake-ups and we're now actively reducing the amount or time we give you during those feeds in hope that you drop these completely. My fatigue and anxiety about sleep (or the potential lack thereof) has drastically improved compared with four or five months ago. And we have maximised the luxury of the flexibility we have seeing that your father and I both work for ourselves so we can do so at odd times of the night (your father) or some weeks not very much at all (me) depending on how much sleep was or wasn't had.
It's an ongoing challenge, but already the whole experience of having a baby who doesn't sleep through the night has taught me some important lessons.
It's taught me that while you can do a lot to encourage, enable and empower a baby to sleep, it is really pot luck whether they will, how long for and if they will stay asleep. It's not you, it's them.
However, it's also taught me that too often people equate babies who sleep through the night as "good babies" and therefore it follows that babies who don't are "bad or naughty babies". This is something I used to do until I realised how much extra pressure that piled on us both, how much it was impacting my relationship with you, and frankly how ridiculous this is when many adults have problems sleeping all night long. You are not a bad or naughty baby; you just need more time than many to get used to sleeping all night long.
It's taught me that as parents we have to make decisions we are both comfortable with regardless of what anyone else is doing or saying, and hold fast to that comfort.
It's taught me that sleep is crucial to our physical, mental and emotional well-being and people who dismiss this with "sleep when you're dead" or "I'm too busy to sleep" type attitudes are doing themselves and others a great disservice.
It's also, strangely and conversely, taught me that there are some peculiar bonuses to having a baby that still wakes in the night. Almost every night between the hours of three and four, I now sit with you in my arms and get a special, if tired, moment to be alone with you. The busyness of our days doesn't always allow this, so in the silence of the night, while I'm still hopefully in a dream-like state, fuelled by the oxytocin rush of feeding you, I treasure the fleeting minutes and let myself be bowled over by the enormity of my love for you.
Of course, this doesn't happen every night - some nights it's just a huge inconvenience and annoyance - and I still look eagerly ahead to the time when you will sleep all the way through till morning, because then I can go to bed later than 9pm and your dad won't have to stay up until the early hours every night. But I don't think I'll look back on this experience and regret still nursing you once or twice during the night at 10 months of age, because honestly, and yes, perhaps stupidly, I think a part of me will look back on this whole experience and really, really miss those night wakings.
Your clearly-oxytocin-drunk, wouldn't-sleep-in-anyone-else's-pee, here's-hoping-you-don't-regress-when-we're-away-again-in-a-few-weeks, crazy-in-love mother x