At around four months Ben gave up on sleep.
I’m not sure what triggered it (although as his mother it’s my job to eternally obsess over what I might have done wrong), but all of a sudden he just gave up on sleeping for longer than about two hours at a time.
There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a means of torture. I’m a chronic insomniac myself but even I was not prepared for the mental, emotional, and physical toll that being up most of the night nursing, soothing, and settling a baby can take. Over and over again, night after night. Once you emerge from your cave of zero sleep you have to brace yourself for another day taking care of a tiny human being who is entirely dependent on you for their very existence.
I would love to be able to suggest passing the baby (and all other children/dependents/pets) off to the nearest available adult, or vaguely responsible person, and diving beneath the surface of a restorative bubble bath. But this is completely unrealistic for 99.9% of all people. The last time I attempted to have an indulgent bath, Ben woke up as soon as I turned the hot tap on. So rather than big, time consuming ideas that are really out of the question, what I’m going to suggest are little changes and practices that can help make you feel a bit more human every day.
The only rule here is be kind to yourself.
Have your own bedtime routine
Thousands of words have been written on the benefits of a regular bedtime routine for babies. But as a parent having your own bedtime routine and implementing some simple sleep hygiene practices can be enormously helpful for getting you off to sleep and maximising those precious hours of shut eye.
Simple things like leaving your phone to charge in another room, slathering on a bit of moisturiser or a fancy face cream, or even wearing your favourite pyjamas can help get you in the right frame of mind for sleep. The phone is a big one for me, as it is so easy to fall into hours of Instagram scrolling when actually a few pages of a book would have me snoozing in minutes.
If you have to get up for work or a commitment in the morning, I can definitely recommend not checking the time whenever your baby wakes you up at night! Spare yourself the endless panicked calculations about how much sleep you haven’t had, or how much sleep you’re going to miss out on as the night slips away.
And I hope it goes without saying that if you are able to get an early night, then grab the opportunity with both hands! For the first three months of Ben’s life I went to bed when he did at 8:30pm. Even now that his bedtime is at 6:30pm instead, I will still start thinking about bed at 9pm. Even if you don’t immediately fall asleep, just allowing your body to relax and your mind to rest will make a huge difference to how you feel.
Eat well and stay hydrated
I was torn about including ‘eat well’, simply because I think this should be shortened to simply ‘eat’. In the first few weeks of motherhood I was so focussed on getting the baby feeding right that I kind of forgot about me, and my blood sugar level would regularly crash through the floor. My amazing health visitor pointed out there is a reason why, on an aircraft, you are directed to put your own oxygen mask on first before attending to others. I needed to prioritise my own nourishment and physical health, which I did by stashing emergency Hobnobs around the house.
Try to eat proper meals, including breakfast, every day. Don’t be afraid of snacking. If you are hungry, eat. Do not let the dreaded D-I-E-T word cross your mind. Be kind to your postpartum body; for nine months it was the only home your baby knew. And right now, it really wants Hobnobs.
The same goes for hydration. I see lots of clued-up parents carrying water bottles around with them during the day. Or you can be like me and just leave a succession of handy mugs and glasses around the house, containing water of different vintages. I do also try to remember to take a canteen with me when I go out.
Don’t be afraid to say no, and don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you need to cancel, then cancel. If you really need some support, be brave and ask for it. Be honest with yourself about what you need to make it through the next half hour, two hours, afternoon, twenty four hours. I was surprised, and very grateful, to discover how understanding people are even now Ben is no longer a newborn.
I am very fortunate to have a parent partner in the form of my husband Chris and a support network of family living nearby, which I am very aware is not the case for everyone. Outside of my family circle one of the best sources of practical parenting support that I have found were my local Children’s Centres. They offer a range of (often) free courses for new parents that are basically a good excuse to meet other adults going through the same experiences. I was a regular visitor at my local Baby Cafe, a weekly get together run by the Children’s Centre in partnership with the local Health Visitors and the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) to support women through issues with baby feeding. During my first visit an amazing woman who had been a breastfeeding consultant most of her career sat with me and Ben for a whole hour to work out a comfortable position for us. You can find your local Children’s Centre here.
Before Ben was born Chris and I took NCT’s Signature Antenatal Class series, designed to prepare you for the ins and outs of labour and delivery, and give you some rudimentary infant wrangling skills. The course was ok, but the real benefit of taking those classes was the people I met. My mummy gang. Being able to send out a message at 4am to see if anyone else is awake… and get three responses within minutes all sharing similar tales of exhaustion is a big morale booster. Outside of antenatal classes I have found a large number of mum and baby type groups and classes in my local area, from Baby Yoga and Pilates to Sensory classes and even a drop in class at my local gymnastics club.
Your eye bags may be too large to take on to an aircraft as carry on luggage, but believe me when I say that you are not alone. There is a village out there for you.
Embrace a new definition of ‘normal’
“Getting back to normal” is often seen as the big goal for any postpartum woman. Slipping back into the rhythms and routines of her pre-baby life as easily as she fits back into her old jeans (hah).
I’ve found this extremely hard. I don’t really recognise my body any more and getting reacquainted is proving a slow, sometimes frustrating process. One made doubly difficult by lack of sleep. Since Ben was born I have had to prioritise slowness in my life, form routines that care for me as much as they care for him, and let go of many features of my ‘old’ life that simply don’t fit any more. I’ve had to embrace a completely new definition of normal, one that involves less sleep, less time for myself, less red wine, less rock climbing, less spontaneity. Becoming Ben’s mother is worth every piece of my old self that I’ve discarded in the process, but I still catch myself mourning its loss every now and again.
What I’m trying to say is don’t beat yourself up with a yardstick based on your pre-baby life. My normal is now very early mornings, milky cuddles at all times of the day and night, endless iterations of ‘Row, row, row your boat’, and the occasional hour or two to spend on myself, if I’m very lucky. Whatever your new normal looks like, try to embrace it.
What helps you to cope with sleep deprivation?
I’m aware that parents don’t have a monopoly on sleep-deprivation. At some point we will all experience a sleepless night or two. Or fifty. So do get in touch and let me know what practices, tips, and tricks you have for feeling a little less run down.