Sleep deprivation is not what I had imagined. Before having a child I was pretty sure I knew was tiredness felt like .. I’d partied, and run half-marathons, and taken double long-haul flights. Turns out this assumption is just another to add to a list I like to call, “Things I Was Wrong About Before I Had A Baby.”
The unrelenting, insidious, consuming reality of baby-induced sleep deprivation is quite unrelated to ‘tiredness.’ It’s another beast altogether.
It is never, ever resting.
It is ending a busy day shift with a needy baby or a busy toddler – exhausted and ready to collapse, only to start the dreaded Night Shift.
It is spending every evening whispering, tip-toeing and on edge, waiting for your child to wake.
It is watching the clock for the ‘end of the hour’ so you’re mentally prepared to get up and settle the baby.
It is going to bed with the anxiety of not knowing if you will have 2 seconds of rest, or 4 hours before you have to force your eyes open and drag yourself out of your warm horizontal heaven to deal with the needs of another human, who cannot tell you why they are not asleep and who may be awake for 5 minutes or 2 hours.
It is whisper-fighting with your partner about who’s turn it is, how much noise they’re making, the light, the temperature, who is in more desperate need of sleep, that time they accidentally flushed the toilet.
It is knowing exactly how many hours of sleep you have had, because for 14 months you have spent every night counting the hours – knowing that if you have less than 4 you will have to cancel everything but more than 5 and you can have a reasonable day if you drink enough coffee.
It is exhausted, murderous thoughts in the middle of the night – not the kind that you could actually do, but the, “oh, the baby’s face is getting close to that pillow, I’d better move it… well at least it would shut her up and I could go to the fuck to sleep,” *moves pillow* kind.
It is lying awake when the baby actually sleeps because, 1. you’re worried they’ll wake, 2. you’re worried they won’t wake and it probably means they’re dead, 3. you’re worried about climate change.
Yes, this is the ‘natural parenting way’ and yes, we chose to have a child and no, parenthood is not a daytime-only thing, and apparently we’re not the only parents in the world that aren’t sleeping even though it usually feels like it, and it’s temporary and blah blah blah.
But here’s the plot twist – I wish we’d trained. I wish we’d cried-it-the-fuck-out. Maybe not at 6 months but 10 months for sure. By then the baby mostly cried from habit and displeasure rather than actual issues. But we don’t let our baby cry. What kind of monster does that? Friends would tell us about holding each other down to stop them from attending to their screaming baby and honestly, that sounded sick to us.
So we let the madness continue, and then she was 14 months old and I had not slept one entire night since her birth. I was getting 5-6 hours of broken sleep per night. I couldn’t work effectively, or even follow long conversations. Our whole family was suffering. And worst of all, my daughter was exhausted, constantly overtired. Her 1 year old sleep regression had stretched into 4 months of extra sleeplessness, with 2-3 unsettled hours per night, regardless of cuddling, rocking, feeding, co-sleeping. I watched as she desperately wanted to fall back to sleep but was unable to. She cried and grizzled and tossed and turned. She would fall asleep only to wake again after 10 minutes. Until the day I reached my ‘natural parenting’ limit.
My husband was at work. My daughter had woken three times in the two hours since I’d put her to bed and I knew she was ramping up for a long unsettled period so I wouldn’t get any downtime that evening. I heard her stir…and I.just.didn’t.move. I couldn’t. I could not spend one more second leaning over her cot with my back throbbing in pain. I could not shhh or pat or cuddle or feed for 1 second more. I just couldn’t. So she cried. And I listened. It wasn’t blood-curdling as I’d feared. It was complaining. It was grizzling and then it was pissed off. And I sat and listened – my heart breaking but my mind firm. After 15 minutes I went in. I gave her a quick cuddle, explained that she was now old enough to fall asleep alone, I told her I loved her and she was safe, I tucked her in and walked back out of the room. And after two more visits, one nappy change, a very large glass of wine, a lot of second-guessing, encouraging self-talk, and intellectualizing, she stopped crying. She fell asleep on her own for the very first time.
That was almost a month ago and she has slept for 11-12 hours per night ever since. Just that one hour of crying and our lives have completely changed.
I recognise my face again. I’m nicer, and so is my toddler. I care about the problems of my friends again. I like my husband again.
I spent so long believing that it can’t be kind parenting to let your baby cry because it goes against your instincts, but the problem is ‘instinct’ is one hell of a fuzzy concept. What can feel like instinct is sometimes closer to emotion (especially when you’re tired AF), and emotions are not the same as instincts.
The truth is, because I let my child suffer for one hour, we have both suffered FAR LESS since. She cries a fraction of the amount that she used to. At some point in her first year we decided we had a ‘bad sleeper.’ We did every single gentle training technique. We bought shushers and Lulla Dolls, we co-slept, but she would not sleep. That was our family’s karma, and would be our life for as long as it took. And yet here she is – sleeping. Sleeping like a ‘good sleeper.’ And we are free from zombie-parenting, back-crunching, co-sleeping-from-2am Hell.
So yes, it turns out, we do let our baby cry. We are those monsters. It seems so obvious (now that I can string a thought together) that kind parenting can and must include teaching important, difficult lessons (at appropriate stages).
One of the truest things I heard when I was pregnant is that you don’t know what kind of parent you’ll be until you are one. It seems to be a lesson I need to learn over and over again – that listening to my own gut and paying attention to my own child is far more useful than any article, myth, study, mum’s group or blog. I only hope that the next time my daughter needs me to be a hard-arse for her own good, I can ‘woman-up.’ I’m sure this new toddler phase will offer an opportunity or two…