Reflections on motherhood #4: the horrors of sleep deprivation

This post is the fourth in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

It has taken me a long time to get round to writing this post. Why? Because this one is the hardest to write about. Because sleep deprivation feels like the lens through which I view the rest of parenting and indeed life. I was waiting because I was hoping I could write the post from the position of being in a better place sleep-wise, but I now realize this is one area where I am going to have to accept the way things are and adjust my expectations once more. And I want other people to know they are not alone. People often expect a baby under one to sleep poorly, or if they don’t expect it, they know that it is true of some babies. Yes, it was sometimes tiresome to explain to people when they asked back then that I was chronically sleep deprived, and it was hard work to deflect their often well-meaning but unhelpful parenting advice, but now, well into my daughter’s second year, no one asks about sleep any more. Everyone assumes you’ve got it sussed. Well I haven’t, and this is me ‘fessing up.

Shortly after my daughter was born, we bought this book called ‘The Wonder Weeks’, which usefully explains the developmental leaps that babies go through at key stages of their development (and provides parents with an explanation for why their baby is going through a particularly difficult phase). I remember being stunned by how many times I came across a little box in which something along the lines of ‘Remember: never shake your baby!’ was written followed by a description of how much damage shaking a baby can do to them. My husband and I wondered who on earth would ever want to shake their baby and why this advice was included so frequently throughout the book. Well, I can now understand why people feel so desperate that they might feel they want to shake their baby. Because sleep deprivation can be that bad.

My daughter’s sleep seems to have got progressively worse as she has got older, but I think, on reflection, it’s always been this hard, it’s just that it has been such a long old slog now, and I am weary of it. On a ‘normal’ night, she wakes 4-6 times over a 12 hour period. By ‘normal’, I mean there is no other external factor bothering her, like teething, a cold, a developmental leap, bad reflux, a food she’s disagreed with, or hot weather. It might sound crazy, but I can usually totally deal with 4-6 wakings and get enough sleep, because we bed-share, and once she wakes up, she nurses for about 10 minutes and then goes back to sleep (on a ‘normal’ night, of course). Often our sleep cycles are in sync, and so I’m not woken from a deep sleep. I don’t have to move. I wake up, but stay dozy. Once she’s dozed back off, so do I. On a ‘normal’ night.

The problem is, it feels like there are so few ‘normal’ nights. There always seems to be something that makes her more needy of me than normal, but the truth is (and this is the especially hard truth), she is only half the problem. The other problem is … me. Since being pregnant I have had bouts of terrible insomnia, partly to do with anxiety, and partly (I have discovered) because I sleep less well when I am fighting off an infection. I know how horrendous it is when your child is awake in the middle of the night and you are also awake attending to their needs. But believe me, it is far, far worse, when your child is sleeping peacefully and you are lying awake next to them unable to sleep. It generally comes in bouts, and improved a lot when we started bed-sharing (it seems I unconsciously needed to know she was ok and have her right next to me), but I still have really bad patches, and when one of them coincides with a toddler needy patch, the result is awful.

My insomnia and the build up of the year and a half of being needed 24/7 means that I spend most of my days feeling like a wreck. It’s true, sometimes there are a couple of weeks here and there where we have predominantly ‘normal’ nights, I don’t lie awake for whatever reason, and I feel like a new woman. But most of the time, I feel like I am limping from one day to the next. I never had any antibiotics before I had my daughter. Since then, it has felt like I have been on and off them constantly as my immune system is so low because I’m so run down. It got so bad before we started bed-sharing that I ended up in hospital having emergency surgery under general anaesthetic for a tooth infection that no dentist had managed to identify. Lack of sleep and illness lead me to feelings of depression and anxiety, which lead to insomnia … and so the cycle goes round and round.

It is not all doom and gloom. The bad patches are so terribly hard when you’re in the thick of it, but they do pass. It hasn’t ever got a lot better, but it always eases. You get a string of maybe five ‘normal’ nights on the trot. It’s a weekend, so you can have a lie in. Your parents are coming to visit that day. A church friend offers to take your toddler away for a couple of hours. All these things allow you some respite, and I am so grateful for them.

To help to cope with it all, I hang out with other sleep deprived mothers at various gentle-parenting groups. My daughter, who is now very nearly 18 months, is normal. Knowing this helps a lot. If you don’t believe me, have a look here, an evidence-based infant sleep resource run by the University of Durham, and you’ll see what is ‘normal’ for infant sleep. Sure, there are babies and toddlers who are less needy at night by her age, but that doesn’t mean she has a sleep problem. Fine, you say, but you’re chronically sleep deprived, so why don’t you try to ‘do’ something about it?

My answer to that is: I do. I bed-share and breastfeed. What else allows you to simultaneously comfort, entertain and provide nutrition for your infant while lying down? Some find that night-weaning and/or stopping bed-sharing reduces the amount of night wakings of their nursling. I have toyed with this idea for a while, but have decided against it for now, for a few reasons. Firstly, getting my daughter to sleep ‘better’ does not necessarily mean I will sleep better, and I know that my insomnia was much worse when we weren’t bed-sharing. Secondly, I know that I find it hard to get back to sleep if I know I will need to physically get up to attend to a child, and even if her night wakings reduce to once or twice I will still have to get up. Thirdly, nursing her releases sleepy hormones in me, too, and that often helps me go back to sleep (it’s designed that way, you see, clever, huh?) And fourthly (most importantly?), it’s what she needs. She will rarely settle for her Dad. Most of the time, she needs milk. Why? This is also something I have wondered often. Why does my daughter wake up so often? And why does she still need milk?

There are so many possible reasons babies and toddlers wake at night, and I can’t speak for others’ experiences, but I know I am an expert on my own child and I have managed to narrow down the reasons for her night-waking a little. I know from the way she wakes up (crying, as if in pain, thrashing around), that she does not want to wake up. I know that she is not craving proximity to me or her father because she wakes just as many times when sleeping in bed with us as she does when sleeping in her own cot. I know it is often reflux-related, because I can hear her gulping and swallowing and see her arching her back (she used to have terrible reflux until 12 months or so. It is a lot better in the day now, but about the same at night). I suspect she also has some teething pain. I can anticipate your next question. It is so kind and well-meaning when people suggest things that they think we might not have thought of because they want to help. But the truth is, we have thought of it all. Have we tried medicating it? Gaviscon? Teething gel? Ranitidine? Paracetamol? Giving lots of solid food? No fruit before bed time? All these and more we have considered, tried, and found more taxing and stressful than just dealing with the night-wakings and breastfeeding back to sleep. Milk seems to sort her reflux out in the short term and comfort her from the distress. It works for us, and I’m not keen to lose that. Meanwhile, we are wondering whether there are food intolerances that could be contributing to her reflux and/or night waking. It’s just another idea, so we’re going through a list of food groups to avoid. We’re currently cutting out dairy, though we keep having set backs when we forget (or when well-meaning people give her a biscuit, like happened the other day at church *rage*). I’m not holding out for a miracle, but I think it would be wise to rule something like this out. By the time we’ve sussed it out, she’ll have probably grown out of whatever it was anyway.

The hardest suggestion to respond to is the most pervasive one once your child reaches the 12 month mark, and it comes in various guises:

‘You’ll have to leave her to cry, she’ll never learn otherwise.’

‘You need to put your needs first, and you desperately need sleep, so try some sleep-training.’

‘You’ll be a better parent if you had a decent break from her, just leave her in her cot at bed time, it only takes a few days, she’ll get the hang of it.’

‘She’ll be in your bed till she’s 6 years old if you’re not careful!’

‘She doesn’t need milk at night, she’s just using you because it’s there.’

‘Sleep training’ appears to me to be a massive euphemism for what is essentially leaving your child to cry themselves to sleep. Every Christian fibre in my body recoils at the idea and no matter how it is dressed up or down, I find it abhorrent. As Christians we are called to stand up for the weak and vulnerable, and deliberately leaving a distressed child to teach them a lesson is exactly the opposite of that to my mind, regardless of the circumstance (indeed it is a great source of sadness to me that many Christians seem to advocate leaving your child to cry as a viable ‘parenting choice’). In the psychological literature it is covered by the term extinction techniques, but it goes by various names in common parlance, such as Cry it out or the milder form Controlled Crying, Self-Soothing, and so on. But just because it is given a fancy name and books have been written about it by impressive sounding people, indeed just because it seems like everybody does it, doesn’t mean it is a good thing, especially when there are gentle alternatives to coping with disruptive nights. It strikes me as odd that if a child were left in a room by themselves in a daycare setting and left to cry to teach them a lesson, we would call it neglect, and yet it is apparently not neglectful (in fact many ‘sleep experts’ would tell you it is necessary) to do this at night time at home in order to teach a child to sleep. The sad thing is, it doesn’t teach a child to sleep, it just breaks the bond between carer and infant and teaches them that their cries for comfort are not answered. Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone that a child reaches when she is ready (or indeed, not at all. After all, I have never slept through the whole night without waking. Have you?) If you don’t believe me, see here and here. Several experts of different scientific backgrounds came together in this article to encourage parents not to engage in extinction technique type sleep training. We do not live in a perfect world, however, and we are all learning and make decisions we regret. This is a useful article for moving on from extinction technique sleep training if you have done it and regret it.

No, I am unwilling to leave my child to cry alone in order to get an undisturbed night’s rest, yes, even if it ‘only’ takes fifteen minutes, and it’s not because I’m a super-mummy or a martyr or whatever. Believe me, I can see why it seems like a potential option at times, and it is particularly hard if close family members are putting pressure on you to do it (fortunately mine do not). Something of course has to give when you reach rock bottom, but while I of course can never know everyone’s individual circumstances, I find it unlikely that ‘sleep training’ is ever the only option left. But it is a lonely old world out there when your child is over one and you won’t entertain the idea of sleep training, because sadly most people seem to have done some version of it. People (usually people who are no longer parenting young children) often make off-hand comments like the above (which can shatter confidence when your mental health is fragile anyway) and then basically act like it’s your own doing that you are sleep-deprived. Not going to lie, it’s tough. I just don’t tell many people day-to-day how I really am, unless they genuinely seem to care.

The last few nights have been bad ones, and I’m writing this in a tough patch. I know things will seem less bleak when I’ve had a few nights’ ‘normal’ sleep, but I wanted to write this in a bad patch because I want other mothers who wish to be responsive to their child(ren) to know they are not alone, and that the dark thoughts can be terribly overpowering. When I lie awake unable to get to sleep, usually after my daughter has woken me up and long since dozed off again, the same old thoughts go swirling round my mind: It’s just a bad night. Perhaps tomorrow will be better. But I could take a bad night like this one if I hadn’t had a string of bad nights recently. And I could take a string of bad nights if I hadn’t had a month of Phoebe having a cold and me fighting off various infections. And I could probably take a bad month of illnesses if I hadn’t had 18 months of broken sleep and being needed 24/7. At some point I usually try to calculate how many hours’ sleep I’ve had – always a danger, because it often just makes me feel worse. And I know deep down that quality of sleep is so much more important than quantity. But I look at the clock nonetheless. Maybe other mothers are superhuman, I wonder? I only have *one* child, some people have five! Or maybe I am just rubbish at dealing with life. How do I get through the day? Should I try to go back to sleep now, or will I just waste life and drive myself crazy by lying awake and running over all my anxieties? How will I get my brain in gear to be able to attempt some PhD work today? Do I go to church/toddler group/town tomorrow, or can I not face telling people how I really am because I will collapse in tears at their reaction? Because I know that this lack of sleep and the intense neediness of having a child has pushed me to my limits and that I spend at least a third of my existence hovering perilously close to the edge of a massive pit that I risk falling into if I’m not careful.

I know there are many mums who feel the same: I can see it in their eyes at toddler groups. It helps to know I’m not alone. And I am painfully aware that there are many mothers going through what I am going through but who are also fleeing violence, or war, or famine, or battling illness, and I am overwhelmed with gratefulness that my child has shelter and is safe and healthy. Sometimes it is hard to find God in it all, I stare at the ceiling and ask him whether he really cares about my sleep deprivation and the fact that I feel I have almost nothing left of myself to give to my daughter, let alone my husband, family or friends, whether he cares that it is often a battle just to fill the day until my husband comes home from work. And yet I know he does. When I feel I have nothing left and want to give up, I remember that my father in Heaven did not abandon me to the grave, but sent me a Saviour. And recalling his sacrifice, I somehow find a scrap of energy to attend to whatever my daughter needs. When I feel like Phoebe’s demands are too much and too frequent of me, I remember that I am never forsaken. And so I will never abandon my child. When I feel that I have no life of my own, I recall that he lay down his life so that I might live. So I must lay down my life for another. Having my daughter has taught me much about unconditional love, but having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ has taught me more.

A few nights ago I was reading Psalm 32, and I stumbled at verse 7. I am so tired that reading is hard work at the moment, and the summation of my Bible reading is a verse here and a verse there. And this one stuck with me, and I turned it over again and again in my mind.

You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

This image of being hidden by God and surrounded with songs of deliverance resonates so deeply with me and keeps me going. My yoke is easy and my burden is light… Surely I am with you, until the very end of the age… The old order of things will pass away… And the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings …

And he surrounds me with songs of a different nature too: The older lady who noticed I wasn’t in church yesterday and telephoned to see if I was ok. The local mum acquaintance who shared with me that she, too, ‘still’ nursed and bed-shared with her 18 month old. La Leche League leaders who lend a listening ear and an open heart. Committed family members who never stop caring. A dear friend who suffers from awful depression but prays for me every day and with whom I laugh, share and cry about the wonderful and dreadful world we live in. A husband who calls at lunch time just to make sure I’m coping. A darling daughter who I love so very much and who plants a kiss on my lips first thing in the morning when she wakes up.

Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who housed Jews during the Second World War, called her most famous book The Hiding Place. It is a book full of suffering and loss, yet underpinned by the joy and hope of trusting in God for deliverance. An extract from the book is written in the front of my diary, and it goes like this:

“Today I know that memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”

Somehow, God will use these horrendous few years of sleep deprivation for good. I know not how. But I trust that he will. He doesn’t promise that life won’t be hard. But he does promise that he will be with us, and that it will pass. And I know that this, too, shall pass.