Hands up who has ever felt like this?
Pick me! Pick me! I was an extreme serial offender with my first who while being the most superb human ever made was an extraordinarily high needs baby who had me at my very wits end.
I went into motherhood with what I felt like were fairly realistic expectations around feeding and sleep. Unfortunately, what I thought was realistic was really restricted to babies who are actually super relaxed, super flexible and ‘textbook’ in that they progress in a straight line (gradually drop feeds and gradually add sleep time without waking). I didn’t realise and western society did not allow the possibility that our little humans are far more complex than that and progress is actually much more cyclical and irregular. Just when you’re sure your baby only ‘needs’ two feeds a night they’ll change it up and feed hourly for a fortnight and then give you one ‘Good’ night before waking every 20-40 mins the next. Day sleeps are just as unpredictable.
After coming from my previous life as a teacher where structure, routine and predictability ruled my day, I was left feeling lost in my new world that appeared to have no rhyme nor reason. This feeling of bewilderment was swiftly tainted by feelings of envy and jealousy when I would meet up with a friend or acquaintance who would boast, ‘oh, my little darling is letting me sleep now … 12 hours straight, 7 til 7. Is your baby sleeping through?’
My stinging sleep deprived eyes would well up as I detailed my baby’s wakeful habits and I’d cop the standard lines of, ‘have you tried swaddling’, ‘putting him down drowsy but awake’, ‘bedtime routine’, ‘listen for his protest cry it’s different to his emotional cry’, ‘it’s because you’re still feeding him’, ‘you need to not hold him, you’ve built a rod for your own back’ … I could go on and on but you get the picture.
Initially, I walked away and thought that maybe there was some weight to what they said and I practically tore myself in two trying every technique suggested by every friend, child health nurse, relative and bloody sleep whisperer known to man. With each attempt that failed, a little of my mummy confidence (already fragile as a first time mum and with sleep deprivation) chipped away. With each attempt I caught myself looking at my baby thinking ‘why can’t you just go to sleep like (insert name)? What more do you want from me?’ I became anal about awake time and early tired signs, I tried feeding timelines and resettling timelines too. Things grew more and more intense as I tried harder and harder.
Things really came to a head when I was told by a douche bag child health nurse that my child was ‘chronically sleep deprived and it would be affecting his brain development’. This was too much. I was extremely sleep deprived myself and struggling but at no point had I thought my baby was actually at risk (he was after all the most beautifully healthy, happy four month old who just hated sleep and was super cuddly and sensitive). This declaration from someone who I considered at the time to be a knowledgeable person sent me in a spin. It was one thing for me to be struggling but not my baby, no this had to stop… I must get this baby to learn to sleep for his own well being! I booked us in to attend a private sleep school for two weeks later, the public wait was over a month and there was no way I could let my poor baby ‘suffer’ that long.
Two weeks later we flew to Brisbane for our 5 day residential stay. I sobbed my heart out at the initial meeting with the head nurse telling her how much of a failure I was and how I never wanted to be this kind of mother – one who had to listen to her sweet baby cry while he ‘learned’ to sleep out of my arms. She reassured me that while he would cry it would only be because he was angry with the change and that the ‘responsive settling’ techniques would still comfort him while allowing him to learn the ‘essential’ skill of self settling. I had my doubts but out of sheer desperation for both of us I decided to commit.
The first 24 hours were horrific. It is testament to how crushed I was within myself that I did not trust the motherly instinct inside me that shrieked from every nerve in my body to take my baby and run. I am ashamed to say I stayed. I sat in the hall and sobbed and rocked in a ball as nurse after nurse tried and failed to implement the hands off settling techniques that were supposedly appropriate for 4 and a half month old. Each one of them ended up rocking my sweating, hysterical, exhausted baby to sleep. Not one of them believed me as we stood at the door shushing my babe that he was firing warning shots (apparently protesting) and that these warning shots were taking him further and further from sleep and that left for longer will lead to hysteria. Each one had to see for themselves. Each one would then comment that ‘we just need to persevere and be consistent and he would learn.’ And so it went for 24 hours. When my mum came to visit the next day she was shocked at how pale my baby looked and commented that he looked sad. I broke down at this and poured my heart out to her. I decided that if no one listened to me that day then we’d leave that evening. That afternoon I started packing our bag. I cried the whole time. What was I to do now? This was meant to work? Where to now? I felt defeated. At this stage a nurse walked in and asked me what I had expected from this stay. She actually listened and told me she’d support me on the next settle and let me go to my baby when I thought was the key point and stroke him. It worked. I felt elated and the success continued for the rest of the stay although babe did start to get harder on the last day. The take home message was to stay consistent and persistent and keep life as routine as possible for the following two weeks and we should be on track.
I left feeling empowered and confident with my new skills. I was determined to be consistent and persistent for all of our sakes. I got my husband on board and wasn’t too phased as babe tested us out for the first few days (settling in period). I started to worry as it extended from there and babe got harder and harder to get down. I rang the sleep school for some tips and reassurance but was greeted very unhappily. I would be getting a two week follow up call and they weren’t staffed to field more calls. I cried in desperation and the nurse asked me if I was going to be stronger than my baby or not and that to keep being consistent and persistent and we’d get there. I was crushed but with nothing more I could do I stuck at it. The two week call came and I was a wreck. We were up for 2 hour battles at a time to try and stretch babe to his 4 hour minimum for feeds. My husband was trying to resettle for me to keep babe away from the boobs so he was shattered. My baby was a wreck. The two week call nurse had a little more empathy but no further practical advice other than that god damn catch cry ‘consistent and persistent’.
We continued on for 3 further torturous weeks until I ended up in a ball sobbing in the lounge while my baby screamed in his cot.
I realised I had plunged into PND. I booked into speak with my GP. She spoke to me about my options for treatment and decided that counselling would be the best first step. For some reason just being diagnosed was the start of my recovery … It was the start of my surrender. The first step in letting go and learning to forgive myself and my baby for not being what I’d imagined. On the same day, I had a phone call from my darling midwife at the Women’s Health Queensland Wide who I have spoken to since I found out I was pregnant. She was her usual great self but also really made me stop and think … I had gotten myself so caught up in all the things I SHOULD be doing for my baby to ‘fix’ all the things I had done wrong to have created such poor sleep habits that I had lost my ability to listen and respond to MY baby. All the noise in my head was telling me was that if I rock my baby, feed him to sleep, don’t resettle him YADAYADAYADA had gotten so loud. Especially after having been to sleep school. I thought if I just stuck at it and at it and at it, it would eventually work … Well it didn’t. 5 weeks after sleep school we were no closer to having a better sleeper and my baby was getting more and more frustrated and upset with me and everyone around him not listening to what he was very clearly trying to communicate. As he grew more unsettled, the more I grew frustrated and upset too. Hence the breakdown.
Turns out, my baby isn’t a textbook one (not that any are). From day dot, I chose to go with my baby’s flow, follow his cues, feed on demand etc. He was always good at communicating his wants and needs to me but I had a deliberately stopped listening (as you are told to when sleep training). Lucky for me in many ways, my guy didn’t give up on me. He kept on getting louder and louder until I was forced to pull back and listen. At breaking point, I felt like the only way to get better would be to get more sleep and speak to a professional who could tell me how to deal with my problems. But, my midwife sent me the latest research article on infant sleep. A very interesting read. It proposed the idea that infant sleep is as individual as the baby and sleep training is an inappropriate intervention for something that is only a ‘problem’ due to culture and society. It focussed on the idea that mothers need to be helped to maximise the quality of their own sleep rather than aiming for the ever elusive ‘more’ sleep. Quality over quantity.
At the same time, I had been getting right into Pinky McKay – books, Facebook page, blog. I felt like she spoke to my heart. Her motto, ‘gently and with love’ is how I always wanted to mother. Not this crazy lady who watched the clock and let my baby grizzle, cry and whinge wanting me to help him to sleep in my arms but insisting on breaking this habit as he would never learn to self settle. I also started focusing on putting myself in my baby’s shoes and empathising more. I would hate for my husband or mother or friend to constantly compare my abilities with anothers and remind me regularly I’m lacking and yet that is what we do as we ‘wish’ our baby was something they’re not. I’d be thinking, ‘aren’t I enough?’ ‘Why can’t I do what (name) can do? And my self esteem would slowly chip away. That is not acceptable to me for myself and it is certainly not acceptable for my baby.
As I reflected back on those 6 months I also realised that for all my bitching and moaning about not sleeping enough and being tired … I was fine. I was fit as a fiddle, I was active and had well and truly adjusted to life on little sleep. I caught 20-30 mins each time bub napped/ catnapped in the day and I was fine. . I chose to talk about other things with people when they ask how babe is going. No more wallowing, no more whinging. This too shall pass and it passed a lot less painfully when I stopped dwelling on something that I tried so very hard to fix. My baby didn’t need fixing. He needed his mum to understand that this is where he was at and one day down the track, he wouldn’t need me so much but he will always know that I will be there waiting for him should he ever need me that much again.
So mums and dads here’s our challenge … To accept our perfectly imperfect little person/ people for exactly who they are. Because just as jealousy and envy are toxic in any other relationship, so they are with our precious wee people who deserve nothing but unconditional love from their mum and dad.
Self reflection and growth is such an important part of parenthood. I look back on that time now with kind eyes for both myself and my baby. We were learning to be. And here we are today. So in love and so trusting. Ever growing and learning with each other.