Updated: Dec 28, 2022
I’ve had this blog post in mind for months now, I keep coming back around to it, then when I go to write it she suddenly starts sleeping better and I feel like a fraud. That being said however I think perhaps an account of our sleep (or lack of) may be exactly what some parents need to hear right now, so here goes…
If you’ve read my birth story you’ll know I had a pretty straightforward birth with my eldest and was lucky to come home the same day. The first few weeks of her life were as to be expected, frequent wakes, lots of feeding, nothing out of the norm.
About six weeks in, we had a day where she slept pretty much the entire day. I didn’t think anything of it, but that night had instant regret. She was up all night, she would not sleep and was only happy in one of our arms. It was exhausting, so when she slept most of the following day I didn’t have the energy to not let her. We were away that night, ready to visit some family the following day and had another shocker of a night, ending with a 6 am trip to Sainsbury's in my pyjamas.
The following day I could barely function, we had so many people to visit and I just wasn't with it. I could barely think, let alone focus on what anyone was saying. I could have slept where I was standing.
However, with all of the changing of hands and locations it meant she was awake more and low and behold we had a better night, it was a turning point in sleep for us. Suddenly she slept 6 whole hours that night, a quick feed followed by another 6 - I was a new woman.
Not wanting to count my chickens, I didn’t hold my breath for the following night, however, it was the same. As was the night after and the night after that, it was bliss. At this point sleep for us was 2 x 6-hour blocks, she would come to bed at the same time as us, wake for a quick feed around 5/6 am and then sleep until 11 or 12. I was getting good blocks of sleep and able to get up in the morning and have a hot cup of tea and a shower on my own!
The 4-month sleep regression
Then along came the 4-month jabs. I didn't think much about them, after the last 2 lots she’d slept more than normal during the day and still slept fine that night, but these were different. I don’t know why, but these jabs left me with a very upset baby all afternoon and 40-minute wakes through the night, welcome back exhaustion. At the time I held on to hope that it was just the jabs and not the dreaded 4-month sleep regression, but I was very wrong.
The 40-minute wakes continued for weeks. I was exhausted, my partner slept downstairs on weeknights, and I would grab whatever sleep I could. Most nights it was half an hour or so, followed by half an hour of re-settling.
It was a very dark time for me. I found myself regretting ever having a baby, never wanting to go through this experience again, and struggling to keep to the gentle parenting methods I so wanted to practice. If woken at the wrong point of my sleep cycle I would have such a rage and at points even scared myself. I locked myself in the bathroom some nights just to get away. One day after a particularly tough night, we were meeting our NCT friends and I was so exhausted I could barely even look at her, let alone hold her. I basically fed her and handed her back to her Dad.
If you are also going through the throws of sleep deprivation and are worrying about your mental health, remember, that sleep deprivation is also used as an interrogation method! It is normal to hate the world, it is normal to have what feel like un-motherly thoughts about your baby and your partner, it will pass, and you do what you need to to keep yourself safe.
Fellow Blogger, Josie, from Me, Them and the Others, has a fantastic post exploring the long term effects she experienced from sleep deprivation during the newborn days - along with some handy tips of how to manage it.
We took the family decision for my partner to move downstairs on work nights. He had a long commute early each morning, and worked a physical job, if he fell asleep at the wheel or had an accident at work he would be of no use to any of us. It also allowed me to safely implement bedsharing, something he always worried about if he was in the bed also. Of course, we missed him in the night, but it wasn't always all on me, if the screaming was particularly long or loud, he would always come back to our bed to support me. On the nights she just wouldn't settle at all I would bring her downstairs around 4.30 so I could get one solid hour before he had to get ready for work. It worked for us, we were able to muddle through.
Gentle Sleep Methods
Throughout all of this, I was constantly looking for help, for answers. Not willing to use a cry it out or controlled crying method myself, we turned to routine and wake windows. I found routines challenging, she would occasionally sleep in on a morning and there was no way I was waking her (or myself!), and breastfeeding on demand made any feeding routine null and void - this all coupled with the fact I’m a terrible routine keeper myself (now realising that I likely have undiagnosed ADHD, this makes so much sense). Then I came across the Care it Out sleep consultant, she had a zero-cry method with a focus on wake windows, there was never talk of where a nap should be or for how long.
With Kerry’s method, every nap counted; on you, in the car, in the sling, in the pram, a nap was a nap. From the end of each sleep, you started counting with an aim for the next sleep to start within a certain window depending on your child’s age. It wasn’t the magic solution for us, she was still a nightmare to get to go to sleep so we often overshot these windows, and she only ever slept for 30 minutes at a time during the day. However, slowly sleep extended overnight from 40 minutes to 2 hours.
This continued for months, when I went back to work she was still waking regularly, that was hard. Sleep did stretch but we were still going in multiple times per night, the main difference was she was at least becoming easier to re-settle so you didn’t always have to fully wake up. It was better.
Slowly (around 18 months) she started extending her naps, what a blessing, on my days off I was finally getting some downtime. Shortly after, she started extending her sleep. We had the odd through the night but never consistently and no more than you could count on one hand. If I’m honest, we just got used to it, I didn’t need as much sleep to function any longer.
At 27 months sleep was still hit and miss. She'd dropped the nap completely, unless we happen to drive somewhere around 1 pm, but it was OK because she was at least consistently asleep by 7 pm most nights. We had a few more full nights, but still no more consistent than a handful in a row. She occasionally came into our bed, but more often than not will spend the entire night in her own room.
The main difference for us as she got older was we knew we could handle it. When she woke, most nights it would only be once or twice and she just needed reassuring we were there and will go straight back to sleep. On the odd occasion, we would go in and she would be wide awake and ready to start the day. If i was me seeing to her, I'd just keep insisting it is night and she needs to sleep or say she can sleep in our bed but must sleep. Her Dad is a slightly softer touch and would often take her downstairs to wear her out, knowing it at least means she would likely sleep until 8 or 9 am when she did go back down - that was one area we could count our blessings, she was not an early riser.
All in all - Daddy doesn't sleep through the night at 35 and I'm not the best at falling asleep, so we can't really expect it of her. The only difference between us and her is we can settle ourselves alone and she was still learning how to.
At age four, I am now pleased to confirm that she does in fact sleep through most nights, not only that but we can go through bedtime and say goodnight leaving her in bed alone to go to sleep.
Supporting a friend whose baby doesn't sleep
Finally, you are probably wondering why I have added ‘but thank you for asking’ in the title of this post. During my time doing all of the sleep research I quite often came across articles encouraging people not to ask parents about their child’s sleep, and I don’t quite agree with these. Questions such as “Are they a good baby? Do they sleep?” absolutely have no space in today’s society, as a baby, my child doesn’t possess the ability to not ‘be good’. However, all I ever wanted to do was speak about my baby’s sleep, it consumed all of me and I would talk about it to anyone who would listen.
We need to allow parents to speak openly about their sleep challenges, we need this outlet. Not only do we need this outlet, but we also need to normalise that regular wakings are biologically normal and that sleep isn't linear, we will all have good periods and bad.
If you have a friend who is struggling with their infant's sleep, be there and listen, but be careful not to advise. Unless they directly ask for advice, don't offer any, it’s not what they need. If there is something seemingly obvious they aren’t doing, there is a chance it’s because they have already tried it, or even discounted it as not something which is just not for them. Above all, bring them all of the chocolate, caffeine, wine… whatever it is which gets them through.