I have kind of covered this a few times in a mixture of articles but I figure a dedicated article might help collect some ideas and give mothers who are trying to avoid sleep training the breathing space to truly consider their alternatives.
This is not an article telling you how to fix your baby’s sleep and its not an article telling you how to fix your sleep and it’s also not going to tell you what you can and cannot do. I do not have the answers to ‘fix’ these things because a. I don’t think either you nor baby is broken and need fixing and b. One size fits all doesn’t work and c. You have the power to take control of your own situation and you are the one who will work out what works for you, your baby and your family to make it through this weary season in your life. You don’t need yet another stranger telling you one more thing you are doing wrong. What you really need is room to breathe. Room to think and room to open your mind to the true options you have or could have in your unique situation.
I am not an expert. I repeat, I am not an expert.
I am a mama who has been where you are though and I know your desperation, your exhaustion and the feeling that no one else truly gets it.
I also fully understand and respect your instincts that sleep training is not for you.
So here’s my first suggestion.
Completely take Sleep Training off the table. Stop thinking of it like some dark cloud at the back of your mind that feels like it is ever looming larger as your last resort. The inevitable. It isn’t inevitable. Many families of extremely wakeful babies have made it through this season WITHOUT sleep training at all or having failed sleep training and been forced to come at their life with a new angle. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.
So now we’ve removed that ‘choice’ you have been thoroughly avoiding, where to now?
Well now, this is where you take over. I’ll float some ideas but they are not definitive. The idea is to get YOU thinking and problem solving. The idea is to open your mind to what could be an option that may have been something you either hadn’t considered or did not previously wish to consider.
Food for thought number 1:
• What is your goal? Is it realistic? Do you understand normal infant sleep patterns and that waking and nursing frequently throughout the first year and beyond is normal? If you wonder about your expectations and feel that they may be a too high for your baby or toddler, then reading up on the topic may help you review your expectations down a little. Having realistic expectations is so important. It alleviates many worries parents have about their little one’s sleep and the effect it may be having on them. Knowing your little one is okay, takes a big chunk of the desperation out of the process for many parents. It is very reassuring to know that while you may be exhausted, your baby is not abnormal and is in fact behaving like many other human infants.
Food for thought number 2:
• If you still feel your little one’s waking is of concern, then trust your gut and investigate possible things that may be exacerbating the wakefulness. Things like reflux, allergies, intolerances, tongue and lip ties and birth trauma a few to consider.
• If you investigate these things and it turns out there is nothing else at play, it’s okay to feel a little conflicted. I had a perfectly healthy sleep thief and while I’ll be forever grateful he was, you can’t help but feel a little deflated that it wasn’t ‘something’ that could be fixed and sleep may have returned.
Food for thought number 3:
• Don’t be afraid to experiment a little but keep it within the realms of what feels right and listen to your baby- they are by far and away the best gauge for when something is right and when it something isn’t for them. Pinky McKay offers an awesome framework to help you decide if a technique or idea is worth a try- Is it safe? Is it respectful? Does it feel right? If the answer is yes, give it a crack. If it doesn’t work out, you didn’t fail and your baby isn’t being difficult.
• Pinky McKay and Sarah Ockwell Smith both have some great suggestions on the ‘sleep environment’ which also may be worth a gander. Trying a darker room, white noise, making the room a bit cooler etc … does make a difference to some babies. But, and it’s a big BUT… it doesn’t matter diddly squat to many others. Which leads me to my key thought for this section-
• Do you find yourself obsessing and stressing about nothing but sleep and how tired you are? If you do, it’s okay to let it go. It’s okay to stop focussing on the weariness. It took me by surprise how much less tired I felt when I stopped focussing on how tired I should be. Yes, you are living on stuff all sleep but if you’ve been doing it a while, I bet, like me, you are surprisingly still kicking goals most days. Your body does adjust to little and broken sleep. Some days it’ll still get you but most days, if you simply get on and up without the focus on you tiredness, you’ll instantly feel better.
• If you are obsessing about awake times and how long until your baby wakes … give it a break. The wheels won’t fall off and the earth won’t stop turning if you simply let all of it fade into the background. It’s time to shift focus for both you and your baby onto things that make you happy. Time outside, catch ups with friends, gardening, parks … anything. Get them off to sleep when they seem weary, resettle if you want to and stop if it doesn’t seem to be working and get on with it. At night, ditch the clock. Stop calculating how much sleep you’ve had, how long until the next wake up, how long you’ve been awake … it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help.
• If you’ve tried all you wish to try and your baby is still super wakeful, then it’s okay to accept that this is just them. They simply need the extra comfort, help and closeness that they demand and it’s okay to just go with it. It’s okay to accept that it’s normal.
• If your baby’s sleep is ‘normal’ and doesn’t require fixing, then perhaps the problem truly lies with your sleep deprivation, not theirs. If we take the focus off babe and shift it to you, take some time to think on your lifestyle and where the lack of sleep actually stems.
• My example to get you thinking- For me, a lot of my severe sleep deprivation came down to me insisting on getting up and keeping my baby in his cot. Me insisting that he didn’t need a feed and persisting with resettling instead of just nursing him and getting him straight back to sleep with no fuss. The resettling also had a compound effect where my baby was losing more sleep than he needed to and I was so razzed up from the lengthy crying and fussing that even once I did finally ‘give in’ and nurse him (resettling had a zero % success rate in our house), I took FOREVER to wind back down to sleep myself and sometimes I’d take so long, that my anxiety would kick up a notch panicking that I wouldn’t even get back to sleep at all or if I’d just fall asleep and he’d wake up again (which was often the case). My quality of sleep was dismal. I lived in a warped state of falling asleep to wake back up… for a while there, I actually doubt I EVER hit a deep sleep. Not even momentarily. I was forever in the drifting off … BAM baby crying and awake. It was fucked. It was unhealthy. This was actually post sleep school using their techniques that were meant to ‘fix’ the waking.
• What does YOUR sleep look like right now? It may be similar to mine or poles apart. Doesn’t matter. Try not to focus on quantity. Quantity can be elusive and uncontrollable. Quality on the other hand … you can work on that.
• For me, to get better quality sleep, I needed to work out how I could stay relaxed and drowsy while tending to my baby. The waking right up and taking forever to wind back down was making me way more sleep deprived than the wake ups in themselves. I solved this for me by no longer trying to resettle and taking baby to bed with me once he woke after I went to bed. I could not believe how much more rested I felt simply by no longer physically having to get up and no longer needing to wind back down after hearing my baby cry. It was seriously the biggest game changer for me.
• I know not all families can safely bedshare but if you can, then please investigate it and consider it. It’s not always pretty and can be mighty uncomfortable but it still got me way better quality sleep than the alternative.
• If you can’t safely bedshare, could you side car the cot or at least put it next to the bed? Could you lay a mattress next to the cot so you don’t have to go far? Are there any other physical changes you could make to limit the amount of time you spend having to stay awake to tend to your baby?
• Could your partner take on some of the nighttime load or can they take the morning shift once babe wakes so you can get some more sleep in then? Even if it’s not every day? My husband helps with the morning shift when he can because both of our babies have been all about the boob lady through the night. He tried very hard with our first to do his ‘fair share’ but it backfired horribly and ended up with all 3 of us being even more sleep deprived. It’s okay to accept that your baby will only settle for the boobs at night, but your partner can help with the sleep deprivation during the day (obviously around work schedules).
• Your own health may be contributing to your struggle and not just because you are sleep deprived.
• I blamed my PND so much on being sleep deprived and yet I made a full recovery while my baby still woke at least 1-2hourly around the clock. My point is, while being sleep deprived can impact on your health, it may be masking something else that is going on. It’s important to look further to find what is really at play.
• Having tests done to check your thyroid function, iron levels etc. are particularly important as they can really effect your energy levels.
• Pre existing mental and physical health conditions may be exacerbated during this highly stressful time in your life. Have you been attending to them as well as you could to make sure you are in the best health you can be, or have they slipped a little with baby in the focus? Your health, is so vitally important during this weary season. Work out how to meet your health needs so you can keep up with your baby.
• Pre existing or even undiagnosed sleep disorders of your own may mean you are losing more of your own sleep even while your baby sleeps. ‘Mumsomnia’ is not technically a condition but I found when I was almost totally GaGa with sleep deprivation, I suffered terrible insomnia. I also had it while pregnant. It definitely made the wakeful baby of mine harder to deal with but it was MY poor sleep that made it even more challenging. I started reading a familiar novel before bed or listening to meditation music and gradually got over the insomnia.
Food for thought number 6
• Exercise and self care are supremely important. What are you doing to keep your body and mind well?
• With these incredibly intense babies it can be so very difficult to find time for you but it is ever so I important that you do. It doesn’t have to be much. I am no gym junky but I found great joy in going for evening walks with my husband and baby after we’d had dinner and babe was bathed. The peace of night, the conversation with my husband, the calming effect of walking on my baby, the light exercise for my weary body all helped me feel better in myself.
• Other mamas find the crèche at gyms a great way to have a break (even if you skip the workout for a long luxurious shower and wash your hair and shave your legs) or there are many options out there for exercise with your baby such as mum and bub Pilates or KangaTraining classes.
• What would work for you? What makes you feel good? How are you keeping yourself moving?
Food for thought number 7
• How can you work more rest into your day?
• Note, I did not say ‘sleep’ but instead rest. Sleep is not always possible but if it is … go ahead and take it.
• If it’s not though, how can you give those weary bones of yours a break? One way I got more rest, was to purposely let babe hang out on the boob and sleep on my chest while I chilled on the recliner. It was the perfect excuse to just stop still and relax for a while. The ‘to do list’ in my head just had to shut up as I was already doing the most important work- getting my baby and I the rest we needed to make it through this season. I still do it now when I can, especially while my big boy is at daycare. I also write and have a cuppa, read a book … whatever. But I make sure I stop and relax when my baby’s sleep and do the chores etc when they wake. I have prioritised rest over chores for a long time now and sometimes (more often than I care to admit), the chores miss out. I do what is absolutely necessary and the rest can wait.
• If you work, is there a way to work a rest period into your day? Even if it is just 15 minutes chilling in your car listening to some music?
• Your rest may not come each and every day as our unpredictable babies keep us on our toes along with other children and life but try to make rest a priority whenever you can.
Food for thought number 8
• Your support network can make or break any new mum. It can take a while to work out who is actually ‘supportive’ and who is anything but. Put your feelers out for those special people in your life who build you up, support you and encourage you to mother the way you wish to mother. Not everyone will fit the bill and that’s okay.
• Support for a mother of a wakeful child comes both emotionally and practically.
• It can feel very isolating mothering a baby who doesn’t behave the way our society says they should behave and often mothers feel embarrassed or even ashamed as though they have done something to make their child this way. Thing is, you are absolutely not alone and mother’s all over the world have mothered, are currently mothering, or will mother in the future a baby that is every bit as perfect, sensationally adorable and downright challenging as your baby is now. You may be lucky enough to have people in your direct support network who have had the pleasure of mothering one of these beauties and can offer you all the reassurance and connection you need, but if not, fear not, there are many groups online these days to help you connect with other mothers of little sparklers and they do a wonderful job of filling your confidence right back up when the doubts creep in.
• Who are your support crew for your emotional well being? If you don’t have anyone, consider reaching out today. Mother’s groups, Australian Breastfeeding Association meet ups, La Leche League groups, playgroups and libraries can be great places to meet other mothers.
• Practical support comes in many shapes and forms, from hiring a cleaner to borrowing an au pair for a couple of hours a week … the options are boundless. Whatever budget you are on, there are ways for you to ask for and accept help when you need it. It may surprise you just how much people enjoy helping you. I was astonished to find how many people jumped to my aid when I put a call out when I was reaching the end of my tether. Meals were dropped to my door, friends stacked and unstacked my dishwasher while making me a cuppa, laundry was hung and taken off … a friend even hired a guy to mow my lawn so my husband could spend extra time with babe that weekend instead of tending to the forest outside…
• I have since returned the favour and paid that kindness forward and it has forever changed my view on reaching out and showing vulnerability. For all my pride and worry that people would think I wasn’t coping, I wasted so much time and energy unnecessarily suffering. People love helping. It feels good in your soul. Don’t think that by reaching out you have somehow failed … you haven’t. This job was never meant to done alone and what you are in fact doing is opening the door to those who are helping you to one day respond in kind and call on you in their time of need.
• Your practical support may be regular, such as a weekly clean or sporadic, such as an occasional baby sitter on a weekend morning so you can have coffee with your partner. It may be emergency, such as flying in family or moving in with grandma temporarily to offer more intense assistance or your partner taking a day or even a week’s leave to allow you to get back on board and able to keep on keeping on.
• What practical support do you think would help you in your situation with your budget, how can you make it happen? You may need to think creatively.
• Your load and expectations of yourself may be making this season even more weighty than it needs to be.
• Are you saying, ‘yes’ to things that could otherwise be done by someone else or wait until you have made it through this season? You CAN have everything and CAN do everything in this life, just not necessarily all at one time. It’s okay to accept that now is not the time for some endeavours.
• What expectations do you hold of yourself that may be making it harder to accept your baby’s sleep or the way life is right now? It’s worth reviewing what we expect of ourselves by projecting onto a beloved friend in our life. Would you expect the same of them in the same circumstances? If the answer, is no, then it is okay to give yourself the grace to lower your expectations even if it is only for this season. Surrendering to the here and now is not forever.
So where do you find yourself now, mama? Hopefully this has planted some seeds of thought, hope and discussions to be had for you and your family. If there are other key factors at play that I haven’t mentioned, don’t ignore them. Consider them and work with them to unravel the pieces of YOUR puzzle.
If you are simply not in the headspace to think this through on your own, some experts who will not ask you to sleep train your baby, may be your next port of call as they can help you see your way through in your setting.
Here are some I know of who offer Skype consults-
Tracy Cassels Phd (Evolutionary Parenting)
This list isn’t definitive but a place to start. If you do access a provider and what they suggest to you doesn’t feel right, it is okay to walk away and seek an alternative. Never feel trapped into having do something. You are your baby’s biggest advocate and you know them best.
I know it can be utterly demoralising not being able to see a light at the end of this ridiculously sleep deprived tunnel. No matter what you do or how positive your mind set, some days you will feel defeated. You will wonder what you did in another life to deserve this. You will once again doubt yourself and your baby. This is normal. All of the mothers who have lived or are living this experience feel this from time to time. But, it’s at times like this that you need to know just how incredible you are and despite your struggle, your baby is every bit as wonderful as they are because of you. Your time, your patience, your unconditional love is not in vain. YOU are your baby’s whole world and they love every inch of you. They truly would sleep better if they could and when they can, they will. They need you ever so intensely right now, but it WILL end. One day, they will be too big for boob, they will be too big to sleep on your chest, they’ll be too big to pick up, they’ll be too big for your singing and humming, too big for your stories. Right now it feels like a distant pipe dream but the sad truth of life is that time slows for no one. The intensity and rawness of now will soften and fade into memories but the impact you have had on your growing baby’s brain will last a lifetime.
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