This blog series is from one Boldly Glow mama to another, and is an honest and personal look at motherhood. Emma’s honest, helpful and amazing blog is all about sleep and how to cope with a lack of sleep. 

Before I had my daughter, Iris, I had no real idea of how babies slept.  It is a well-known cliché that new parents get very little sleep, so I think I just assumed this would be the case in our household, and indeed all new parents’ households for the first few years of a child’s life. If I hadn’t ever read any websites, blogs or books on sleep, or indeed spoken to any other parents on the subject, I would most likely have carried on shattered but blissfully unaware that Iris’ sleep was (and still is) perhaps slightly more broken that most children of her age.  

I have come to realise that it has never been the lack of sleep that gets me down. It is my personal belief that each child will sleep through the night when they are ready to do so, and I am happy to wait for Iris to do so. But other people’s opinions and ‘advice’ on my situation has, at times, made me feel like something was wrong with my baby or my parenting.

So this post is not a miserable tale about living on very little sleep for the past two years, but actually about ways of coping and how to avoid falling into the trap of feeling bad about it.  Your child is only this age once, after all.  I thought I should include some ideas for ‘do’s and don’ts’ I have found along the way for coping with each stage.

When planning this post, I thought right back to Iris’ first few days and realised that I was slightly obsessed with her sleep even then. She was one of those newborns that cried as soon as she was put down in her crib.

 I learnt and read more about the ‘fourth trimester’ – essentially, because up until the point of birth your baby has only known you – your sounds, tastes, movements, etc., they become understandably frightened after birth when left on their own to sleep – in the dark (or indeed light), with unfamiliar noises and sensations and an awful lot of space, so they want to be held all of the time.  I suppose it is the equivalent of making an adult go and sleep in the middle of a huge field one night – we’d all find that pretty scary.  

What not to do when coping with the ‘fourth trimester’:

• Worry that they will be like this forever and you’ll never sleep again.  

• Think there is something wrong

What to do instead:

• Get friends and relatives to hold baby so you can nap/shower/eat.  Or even better, do the housework for you.

• Wear your baby during the day – you’ll have free hands!

• Find sleep solutions that work for you: such as safe co-sleeping. We bought a side-sleeper crib for Iris and as long as I slept right up against it (comfy!), she was much more settled in there.  

Skip ahead to when Iris was around ten weeks old and she could now be left in the crib for longer stretches but I was still being woken pretty much hourly during the night. I still didn’t realise that my sleep situation was any different to anyone else’s. I remember this as being a particularly low and tired point, and in a moment of weakness I visited a forum on a well-known parenting website and clicked on a thread all about newborn sleep.  I was horrified by what I read.  The mums on there all had babies of a similar age to mine, and many of them claimed that their babies were now sleeping through.  I hadn’t actually realised that was possible!  I remember feeling like this was very unfair – what exactly had I done to deserve such a raw deal? (A question that many well-meaning healthcare workers and friends would gladly answer for me in the following eighteen months or so – but I’ll come to that later). Needless to say, that was the last time I ever visited that website!

What not to do when coping with a lack of sleep during the first three months:

• Look on a parenting forum to compare your situation to those of complete strangers.  It’s definitely better not to know.

• Think there is something wrong.

What to do instead:

• Remember that this will soon pass and that despite the lack of sleep, there are so many lovely things about this fleeting stage of your child’s life.

• Wear your baby during the day.

After a brief spell of better sleep (Iris only woke up twice a night at three months old!  I felt amazing and was sure she’d sleep through by eight months!), the four month sleep regression hit and to be totally honest, things didn’t improve in any real way until she was around a year old (again, if you had told me this at four months, I’d have said “That’s not possible, I’ll die if I don’t get a good night’s sleep soon”). 

 I was distraught that things had actually moved backwards (I don’t think I quite grasped the concept of a ‘regression’). My husband Ben used to remind me that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture, which weirdly made me feel better (and very tough).  It was at this point that I started to worry about HOW Iris was falling asleep.  

The parenting websites were advising that by this age, my baby would be ready to self-settle and so I should have been putting her down ‘drowsy but awake’ (is that a thing?!) and definitely not breastfeeding her to sleep anymore! So of course I started to believe that either there was something wrong with her, or I was doing something wrong.

What not to do when trying to cope with the dreaded sleep regressions:

• Think there is something wrong

• See what advice the ‘experts’ have in their books/on their websites.  They will invariably inform you that your baby should be sleeping better than they are, and that their development will suffer due to a lack of quality sleep.  

• Worry about HOW your baby falls asleep. They need to sleep and you need your sanity.  

• Decide now is a good time to move them into their own room (maybe they keep waking up because they can hear us turning over/getting up for the loo?).  I actually did this during the eight month sleep regression, which coincided with me returning to work. Not one of my brightest ideas.

What to do instead:

• Look up safe co-sleeping/bed-sharing and do it if it is right for you. It has been my saviour.

• Get them to sleep using whatever means necessary.  If they fall asleep in the pram, super. If they fall asleep being rocked, smashing. If they fall asleep breastfeeding, great. If they can self-settle, wow! The Holy Grail of babies!

• If possible, take it in turns with your partner to have a lie-in on days that you are both off work. It’s just a few extra hours sleep a week but it makes a huge difference.

Unfortunately other people will be obsessed with how your baby is sleeping. I can’t understand this myself – do they actually sleep through the night?  I don’t and neither does my husband!  Sometimes we have full conversations in the middle of the night before nodding off again!  

Whenever I went to a toddler group or class, another mum would always ask how Iris was sleeping (or the dreaded “Is she a good baby?”). When I foolishly answered honestly, they would look at me with pity in their eyes and ask one of the following: “Have you tried giving her a dummy?” “Have you tried giving her a bottle before bed?” “Is she in a routine?”.  I remember taking Iris to get weighed when she was eight months old and I told the nursery nurse that Iris was currently waking many times a night. I thought that a childcare professional would know all about sleep regressions (and how to speak to extremely tired parents) and reassure me that this was all normal and that every parent goes through it. However, her response was “It’s because you’re feeding her to sleep.  You’ll need to use sleep training if you want her to stop waking up expecting you to be there”.  I walked back to my car in tears.  

The problem with comments like those listed above is that they imply that as parents, we are getting something wrong.  That if we would only change one thing, our babies would magically change their sleep habits.  They ignore the fact that (I believe) a child’s ability to fall asleep on their own and sleep for long stretches is largely linked to their genetics.  Iris comes from a family of poor sleepers – although I was apparently a dream baby, sleeping through from ten weeks old despite being breastfed to sleep (I actually believe this was because I have a need to please people and hate inconveniencing others, and I probably realised my mum was knackered and decided to let her rest a bit), my younger brother first slept through at two and a half, and my husband was by all accounts a “terrible” sleeper as a child. 

 Iris is very inquisitive and social, and has a constant fear of missing out.  So when she is awake, she is always fighting tiredness.  If I attempted sleep training with her (to each their own), it would be extremely distressing for us both, while other, more chilled out babies might take to it brilliantly (ironically these babies probably wouldn’t need said sleep training in the first place).

What not to do when random people give you unwanted advice on sleep:

• Listen to them

• Think there is something wrong

What to do instead:  

• Nod and smile and remember never to discuss sleep with them again.

• In fact, avoid discussing sleep altogether 

• If they ask if you have a ‘good baby’, interpret that however you wish because let’s face it, it is a meaningless question!  I used to say things like “Yes, she’s very clever/alert/inquisitive/active”.

• Remember you can withstand torture, so could kick these people’s butts if you wanted

• Get your child to sleep using whatever means necessary.  

• Remember that you are doing nothing wrong, you baby is just not ready to sleep through yet.

I wrote previously that things improved when Iris turned one.  That’s not to say that she started sleeping through the night because I’m still waiting for that (any day now, I’m sure of it!), but that we found better ways of coping with the frequent night waking.

I finally gave up on trying to get her to sleep in her own room at this point, which meant not having to GET UP when she woke up, which is definitely the worst part.  I found that from a certain age (I think it was about ten months), I was more able to breastfeed her lying down than I was when she was smaller, so I barely needed to wake up in order to feed her back to sleep.  Since then, some mornings I can’t actually remember Iris waking up the previous night, but knowing that she must have because I put her to sleep on my left and now she is on my right!  It is amazing how much better I feel just for letting her sleep in our bed.  The other thing I have noticed now that Iris is a toddler is that people no longer ask about her sleep because they assume that she MUST be sleeping through. This also makes it so much more bearable.

What not to do when they’re STILL not sleeping through: 

• Think there is something wrong.  Some children just take longer than others

What to do instead:

• Whatever gets you all the most sleep  

To finish, I’ll share the things I have constantly told myself for the last two years.  

  • Even though at times you’ll believe that you can’t cope with the lack of sleep, you will, because you have no other option (you may, however, put your keys in the fridge and stop at green lights occasionally).
  • Enjoy the precious time you have with your little one. 
  • You haven’t done anything wrong; your child just isn’t ready to sleep through yet.
  • Each day is a new day; don’t think about the previous night.

 

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