This week alone, we have had conversations about babies who wake every 45 minutes through the night, babies who are waking “just for a chat and some craic” for 3 hours every night, a health professional telling a breastfeeding Mum that her 5-month old baby “should be sleeping through the night” and Mums whose babies are sleeping through the night feeling “guilty” to admit it to their sleep deprived class mates.
The topic of sleep is one of those subjects that will always be relevant for new Mums and I feel as if I spend a lot of time busting myths for new Mums. There has been much written about our great “sleep obsession” (link to article in resources), and somewhere along the way, it has been assumed that “good” babies will start to sleep through the night from a young age; full tummies, a good routine & bingo – great sleep for everyone!
The problem with this assumption is that it just isn’t correct. Babies have tiny tummies which can only take on small amounts of milk, so frequent feeding is necessary to keep them satisfied, and to meet their calorie requirements. Babies’ circadian rhythm takes several weeks or months to develop too – this is what tells us night from day and babies can be a bit mixed up for a while, breastfed babies are usually “programmed” to feed at night as certain hormones are highest at this time and it is great for Mum’s milk supply, and frequent waking / feeding is one of the things that can help to prevent SIDS.
We are bombarded with mainstream media programmes about baby routines, “experts” (who are often childless) telling us what our babies should be doing, and well meaning friends & family also giving unsolicited advice. The net result is that we expect our babies to sleep through the night and feel like we are failing when they don’t.
What I have learned in nearly 4 years of being a Mum and 3 years of teaching baby classes, is that some babies sleep really well, and some babies don’t. I have come to realise that how baby is fed (breast or formula, purees or baby led weaning), how baby is parented (baby led or parent led routines), however many other little ones there are in the family, where baby sleeps, what baby’s bedtime routine is, has little bearing on how many times baby wakes up during the night and needs help to go back to sleep. All babies have short sleep cycles; some will fall asleep again without even letting their parent know they have woken up, and others will need help to get them back to sleep during each sleep cycle! If I knew what made each baby different and what made them sleep, I’d be making millions!
I am happy to admit that my nearly 4-year-old has rarely slept through the night by himself; for the first few weeks of his life, he would have long feeds, followed by long stretches of sleep – I honestly wondered what all the fuss about sleep deprivation was all about! When we got to around 14 weeks, he started to wake through the night – many, many, many times. He would be happily snoozing away having had a good feed, and the instant I put him down, he would be wide awake and fussing until I picked him up and fed him again. This cycle could repeat itself 20 times over with him waking every 30 to 45 minutes. I was beside myself when this carried on for a few nights; I knew he was well, he wasn’t in pain, he was clean, warm, dry and fed. What could possibly be the problem? I turned to the internet for solutions; the solutions appeared to be the following – stop breastfeeding and give him formula (or add a bottle of formula before bed), start giving him solid food (he must be hungry) or stop responding to his cries and let him cry it out until he “learns” to sleep. In all the research I did, nothing suggested that what I was experiencing was “normal”. None of the “solutions” offered to me seemed to be very appealing – breastfeeding was working well for us (plus I was too lazy to want to bother with the hassle of bottles), he wasn’t ready for solid food by a long way, and every time he fussed, every motherly instinct in me wanted to comfort him.
Through my sleep deprived fog, I turned to the Daisy online forum I was a member of, and asked for sleep solutions. I had a few people suggest what google had already told me, but I had one fellow Mummy who simply said “It’s normal, it will pass, do what you can to survive through it” and she shared an article about sleep regression; where baby’s development is so overwhelming that it can really disturb their sleep. Part of me was devastated that there was no “quick fix” but another part of me was so relieved that it wasn’t something I was doing wrong!!
Around the same time, my husband went away for the weekend, and without him in bed, I found there was plenty of room for my baby! I had fallen asleep while feeding him in bed a number of times such was the level of my sleep deprivation, and I knew this was a really dangerous practice. A fellow Mummy told me about safe bedsharing. I had no risk factors – I am a non-smoker, don’t take prescription or recreational drugs, I was breastfeeding and he was born at full term with a good birth weight, and I didn’t drink alcohol if we were going to be sharing a bed. I removed the pillows and duvet from my bed and mastered the art of feeding while lying down. What a revelation! I could doze while he was feeding, and as we both grew more comfortable getting used to our new sleeping arrangements, the fog began to lift and I felt vaguely human again. My husband would start the night in bed with me, and when baby woke after his first stretch of sleep (usually the longest), my husband would change him, hand him to me and then he headed to the spare room while I snuggled with baby – feeding and dozing, feeding and dozing, feeding and dozing. In the morning, my husband would come in, take baby downstairs for an hour or so while I either had a snooze or a shower in peace.
Although it sounds dreamy now, looking back, I remember crying with frustration, with tiredness, with wondering what on earth was wrong with my baby. When he was going through growth spurts, or developmental “leaps” and it was less simple than just feeding him back to sleep – he wanted to play & chat, it felt like the night would never end, and it felt like the loneliest place in the world, and I felt that I would never make it through the day. But I did – every day. Some days were better than others. Some days I could be pragmatic and smile, and think this won’t last forever. Other days when I met a Mum whose baby slept all night, I wanted to physically hurt her! And as each “milestone” passed which brought the promise of sleep – when he is on solids, when he masters crawling, when he masters walking, when he can talk, when he is 2, when he is 3 and so on, it still didn’t happen! A long time ago, I accepted that he sleeps like he sleeps and I have found a way for my family to get the most sleep we can, but others still judge. I’m happy to admit that my little one still sleeps with us, and that it is physiologically normal for him to wake, and I’m so proud and happy that he finds comfort with his Mum & Dad! We are one of the few mammals who routinely sleep on a different surface from our children, and in many cultures around the world, family bed sharing is the norm!
I recognise that our sleeping arrangements may not work for everyone, and it is especially important to look at the safety elements of bed sharing, but I urge new Mums to find a way to get as much rest as possible in a way that works for them! Here are my top tips:
- 1. Manage your expectations on what is “normal”
- The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell Smith is a good guide to what is physiologically & developmentally normal for your baby. She also gives hints & tips on ways to gently help your baby to sleep; all of her information supports either breastfed or formula fed babies
- 2. Get as much rest as you can
- It’s ok to lie in, it’s ok to go to bed and have a nap with your baby (following safe sleep guidelines), it’s ok to call in a favour and have your partner / friend / parent take baby out in the pram for an hour to let you rest. It’s ok to spend a few hours in bed and have baby brought to you to be fed and then taken away again to be looked after while you sleep
- 3. Ignore the chores
- So often, when baby is sleeping, we push ourselves to get a wash on, cook something, tidy up. While those things may still need to happen, prioritise rest above all else, and then call in favours to help you with the other things. No mother ever looks back wishing she had cleaned more, but resting and helping your sanity may well be one of the things you look back on and feel pleased about (some of my loveliest naps were with my beautiful boy on my chest)
- 4. Find solace with other Mums
- Find a sleep deprived buddy, eat cake, cry and laugh about how horrific sleep deprivation is
- 5. Know that it will pass
- Although it won’t feel like it at the time, it will pass, it won’t last forever and you will find a way to get through it
- 6. Ask for help
- If you feel that your mental health is at risk, and you are struggling, please speak to your health visitor about any support that can be put in place
- 7. Look into safe bed sharing
- Safe bed sharing may give you more rest. Please don’t worry about “making a rod for your back”, creating “bad” habits and the like, if it helps to get you through a leap or a growth spurt or just the demands of being a new Mummy, if you feel that safe bed sharing is for you, it is a safer option than accidentally falling asleep with your baby when you are very sleep deprived. You can find more information here: http://www.lullabytrust.org.uk/bedsharing
- 8. Celebrate any progress
- Baby has slept a longer stretch than usual – celebrate it! Put it on social media! Enjoy it for what it is and hope that it will last! Try not to become too fixated on making it happen again (after a decent stretch one night I fastidiously replicated every element of the previous day, desperate for a repeat performance – epic fail!)
- 9. Be aware that sleep cycles can change frequently
- So many things change in the first few months and years of baby’s life. Teething, developmental leaps, growth spurts, pain, illness, change of scenery are all things that could “upset” your baby’s sleep pattern – remember they are temporary.
Lullaby Trust – Safer Sleep for Babies: http://www.lullabytrust.org.uk/LThome
Sarah Ockwell Smith – The Great Sleep Obsession Blog: https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2013/09/30/the-great-sleep-obsession-the-problem-of-modern-day-life-versus-the-primitive-infant/
Daisy Foundation Inform my choice – sleeping: http://thedaisyfoundation.com/inform-my-choice/sleeping-2/
The Wonder Weeks (Developmental Leaps): https://www.thewonderweeks.com/