Honouring your instincts and mothering the way that feels right for you is extremely challenging in today’s society that values styles of parenting that are very ‘textbook’ and focus heavily on setting boundaries, routines and limits on responsiveness right from the very early days of a baby’s life. Anyone who has opted to follow their baby’s lead when it comes to nursing and sleep will tell you it can be a lonely path to take and it is hard not to doubt yourself and your baby as you make your way through this season in life with all the twists, turns and challenges it naturally takes. I’d like shed some light on a subgroup of mothers who face even heavier challenges … the mother of the high end needs baby.
I was just at the park with my kids and I was standing with a group of mums when one mum asked the other if she was getting any more sleep as she’d looked shattered the previous day. The mum says, ‘oh my gosh, I’m just so exhausted! My little guy (about 6 months) has started waking twice overnight and my big guy woke for a drink and has done for a few nights in a row. The baby seems hungry but oh my god, I’m exhausted!’
Now I’m not claiming she wasn’t exhausted. In her experience, she most likely is.
But, I swear to god, if I’d heard that same conversation a couple of years ago while I mothered my first high needs baby, I would have-
a. Wanted to slap her across the face
b. Burst into tears and shaken her while I screamed, ‘exhausted? I’ll show you f#%^ing exhausted!’ then run away and gone home with my little sleep thief feeling even more shit and alone because no one else seemed to get it.
c. Or most likely, just walked away with my baby quickly to hide my tears and gone home feeling desperately alone.
Now, I realise that most people who already follow their baby’s sleep lead would know that 2 wake ups a night at 6 months freaking rocks and is absolutely normal BUT for the mother who is following her wakeful little firecracker’s lead, two wake ups can sound like the ultimate luxurious dream as she wakes for the 6+ time that night.
It’s not just that it’s hard for this mother to feel as though she is understood (because let’s face it, she’s largely not), what’s even harder is for this mother to be able to keep any faith in herself and her baby and what they are doing as a pair when everyone around them seems to experience this infant sleep business in such a different way.
Why can’t my baby sleep like that? Why does my baby wake so excessively? Is there something wrong with them? Have I created this mess? Maybe it’s because I breastfeed to sleep? Maybe I do have to teach my baby to self soothe so they can link sleep cycles? Maybe it’s because I’m drinking a coffee a day now? Maybe it’s because I am misunderstanding my baby’s early sleep cues and missing their window? Maybe it’s because I let my baby catnap during the day? Maybe I need to start solids? Maybe a bedtime bottle of formula? Maybe it’s because we bedshare? Maybe I should try the cot again?
I can safely say as a person on the outside who once lived inside this confusing, disheartening, sleep deprived, muddled haze, that provided your baby has been checked out for any underlying health issues that may be exacerbating their normal wakeful behaviour, you have not done a single thing to cause this waking. Your little person just happens to have an intense need for parenting both day and night. It is normal for a baby to wake and nurse back to sleep frequently at night. It is physiologically impossible for an infant or toddler to soothe themselves from a place of distress and therefore, self soothing is not something you can teach your baby.
This may feel like cold comfort to the mother in the thick of living and loving their high needs person but I can tell you now, the first time I heard this, I felt like an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders …
It was no longer MY fault.
It was no longer my BABY’s fault.
And, it felt almost heavenly to know I was not alone.
And still, the weight would grow heavier and heavier and heavier over time as the relentless waking, the relentless weariness, the relentless need for comfort day after night after day after day after night …
I would cycle through patches of extreme vulnerability so frequently and all of the beauty that a gentler approach to parenting would become tainted by my exhaustion. The questions and doubts would creep on in and heaven forbid I showed it to anyone for I’d be swooped on by pitying faces and sleep training promises and told my baby was manipulating me and all about the good old rod I’d created and how abnormal he was and how unnecessary breastfeeding at night was.
It may be seen as super judgemental for a gentle parent to propose that maybe a mainstream parenting technique like sleep training is inappropriate but my goodness, in my experience it’s a bloody free for all when it comes to advice coming from the other way.
My gentle ways that felt so right even if I was shattered and brought my baby so much comfort were routinely ripped to shreds which in effect, ripped me and my extraordinary efforts to shreds, too. Society held so little value for the huge amount of blood, sweat and tears I poured into that baby of mine. I was treated as though I was a bit crazy, a bit of an alternative hippy and once people learned of my complete distaste for sleep training (even if they knew what we had gone through), they so often gave me that pitiful shrug and head tilt, of ‘oh well, if you aren’t willing to do it then I guess you’ll just have to stay tired.’
So little empathy.
No true understanding.
It was a truly lonely journey.
I had to cling to little things to get me through. I had to tell myself and my baby frequently that we were a team and we’d get through this together. Posts on The Milk Meg that normalised night waking and boobin all night became a lifeline. Pinky McKay’s reassuring articles about breastfeeding and soothing a baby to sleep helped me gain more confidence in why it felt right to help my baby so. The 12 Features of the High Needs Baby by Dr William Sears saw me in tears … for the first time, someone seemed to ‘get’ my baby. Evolutionary Parenting and Sarah Ockwell Smith helped me better understand why sleep training is not something any baby needs but why it is so popular. I found the amazing books Sweet Sleep by La Leche League and The Discontented Little Baby Book by Dr Pamela Douglas and learned so much about normal infant sleep patterns.
I looked, learned and reached out and you know what I found in all of this … I was so far from alone.
My baby was not a freak.
And I most certainly was not the only mother sitting by herself crying over the fact that her friends thought that 2 wake ups at night was something they’d call a ‘bad night’.
To those who have less intense little people, I know how many times you would have experienced doubt and worry on your gentle journey but I ask you to really think of those mothers in both your real and virtual communities who have an extra added layer of ‘hard’ that they are battling through and take time to show them you see them and their incredible efforts and the way they continue on despite the heavy weight of societal pressure telling them they are wrong every chance it gets.
Next time you read a, ‘I never wanted to sleep train but I honestly can’t do this anymore!’ plea, please, I beg you to stop, reflect and then respond. The whole, ‘I could never do that, how could you consider…’ comments are by far the worst.
Talk with this mama. Fill her confidence in mothering with her instincts back up. She needs you to have her back when she’s vulnerable. She needs to know she can do this incredibly hard thing but may need to ask help to keep doing it. She needs your practical help and a little empathy never went astray.
To those mamas with intense little ones, I salute you. You are the unsung heroes of the mothering world and your wee one will forever benefit from the incredible commitment of love, time and patience you have given them. Your efforts are not in vain. You are doing incredibly important work, never doubt it.
I sincerely hope to see the day where it is normal to nurture your baby and meet them at their point of need regardless of how intense those needs may be. Until then, I will continue to speak of the biological norm and shine a light on the wonderful work being done by gentle mothers the world over that deserves to be revered instead of ridiculed.
I dream of the day we can say we have truly moved beyond the sleep training culture.
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