My first daughter was always a terrible sleeper. She hit every “sleep regression” known to man and I spent most evenings laying on the floor beside her cot waiting for her to fall asleep before I would sneak away. She would wake at least once a night and sometimes she would wake and then be up for hours, only to fall asleep just as my alarm for work would go off. Sometimes I would go to work for a 12-hour shift with only 2 hours of sleep under my belt, do the bare minimum to keep my job and then go home to bed. Things only got worse when my husband and I bought a house and moved an hour away from where we were living. It was around a week later we found out I was pregnant with our second child. I was now in the thick of the first trimester fatigue, waking and leaving home an hour earlier and then driving at least 45 minutes to work.
After two years of awful sleep, something had to give and we decided to sleep train her around her second birthday and it was a success; we were finally getting some sleep… until two months later and she decided she hated her cot and screamed and cried every time it was bedtime saying “please, mummy no”. That’s when we decided to bring her into our bed and just let her sleep with us. For the rest of my pregnancy my husband slept soundly with lots of room on his side of the bed, while my daughter took comfort in using my neck as a pillow. Occasionally my husband would get a few kicks in his back and would subsequently sleep on a mattress on the floor, but for the most part, we slept uncomfortably in our queen-sized bed while my belly grew, my bladder weakened and my ability to roll over became almost impossible.
As a gift to my daughter for all of the big transitions and huge life changing transition heading her way, we set up her “big girl room” and it is a pinterest dream (on a budget). I thought the big bed and amount of love in her room would be enough to get her to sleep in her own bed, however that too, did not work in our favour.
Once my second daughter was born, I moved into our spare room with the bassinet in order to prevent my toddler waking every 3 hours. I would like to acknowledge my privilege here. I am a white woman in Australia with a husband in fulltime work and myself employed and on paid maternity leave. It is a privilege I do not take lightly. The fact we have a spare room has been very handy and worked well for the first month after my daughter was born. My eldest ended up transitioning into her big girl bed, but that entails my husband and I laying in bed with her until she falls asleep, which some nights can take up to 2 hours AND she still wakes in the night and climbs into bed with my husband, who I have shafted to the spare room to deal with her night wakes, while I deal with the frequent night wakes from babe.
Going into having my second child, I always knew I was going to be up at least every 3 hours, but nothing prepared me for the 1 to 2 hourly wakes that went on up until she was 3 and a half months. I thought to myself “if we do hit the dreaded 4 month sleep regression, at least it wont be that bad because she settles herself to sleep for naps and bedtime and she already sleeps awfully”. I was wrong. I was so totally wrong.
The 4-month sleep regression came at us hard. It knocked at my door, like a Jehovah’s witness, threw the bible at my head and just won’t fucking leave. I started to record how my days were going in my notes and voice memos, but by day 2 I was totally consumed with this regression and the lack of sleep on top of the lack of sleep made my mental ability and mental health sink to an all time low. On the first day alone I tried everything to get her to take a nap and by midday, we had already had 3 naps. I tried rocking, a dummy, my bed, dancing, self-settling, breast-feeding and praying to anyone and anything, including my daughter’s fairy garden fairies. It would take me up to an hour and half to get her to go to sleep, only for her to wake 15 minutes later. On day two I recorded an update that went as followed “captains log, day two. Our baby was up every 10 minutes from about 7 o’clock last night until about 10pm so we succumbed to co sleeping, which was actually okay, managed to get maybe 6 hours of broken sleep, not bad; probably one of our personal bests. This morning, her first nap was taken in the carrier on the way to playgroup with the toddler. Second nap, unfortunately took longer. Would not settle by herself in the bassinet, would not take the dummy, has since come off the dummy, would not settle on the breast, would not settle in my arms, would not settle. Suddenly became over tired and eventually after an hour of trying, the baby fell asleep in my arms [and I transferred her to the bassinet] only for me to turn around and scream, as the toddler was behind me, wearing two pairs of sunglasses and then I couldn’t help but laugh. Baby awake. Took another 15 minutes to settle. Will report back soon”. I did not report back soon.
Usually 4 month olds are awake for 90-120 minutes and I would spend 90-120 minutes of that time completely dreading putting her to sleep. I was away from my poor toddler trying to put the baby to sleep and in turn my toddler’s behaviour then took a turn too. She became so hungry for my attention, that she would do anything to get it, even if it ended with me yelling and then us both crying. To make matters worse, my baby started to roll, which meant it was time to move out of the snuggly bassinet and into her big cot and from her little swaddle cocoon into a sleep suit with arms out. This made going to sleep even harder because she was starting to figure out her arms and going to sleep as a whacky, inflatable, arm flailing tube man would startle her when she was so close to sleep.
Most lifestyle or health professionals would say that the key to a healthy lifestyle and good mental health would consist of a balanced diet, movement and regular sleep pattern. I had already anticipated at least 20 years being scrubbed from my lifespan doing shift work as a nurse, but throw in parenting as well and I think I need to start thinking about funeral insurance. The thing about this ideal healthy lifestyle is there is absolutely no fucking way I am going to be able to eat a balanced diet or move my body when I am not getting any sleep. I know there are some people out there, that when they are super tired they want to get the day moving and go outside for a walk, however the first thing I want to do in the morning is drink my weight in coffee and resemble mashed potato on the lounge and slowly start mentally preparing to sort my life out. Once I find 1 energy, I make my way back to the kitchen to prepare my toddler a smorgasbord of food that she will not eat. She wants oats, I make oats, she doesn’t want oats, she wants toast, I make toast, she doesn’t eat toast, she wants weetbix, I make weetbix, she doesn’t want weetbix and so on and so forth until she just has her usual yogurt pouch and frozen berries. My breakfast usually consists of the toddler left overs or toast that I forgot about from two hours prior that has been sitting in the toaster with no spread OR a choc chip oat bar, basically cake. Movement for me these days is walking around the garden watering the plants with the toddler 5 times a day, dancing to the same song on repeat or rocking my baby to sleep, which usually involves a few squats. We can just throw any kind of sleep pattern out of the window. The hourly wake ups alone have brought my mental health to an all time low. I do want to get into this spiral in further detail, so I will save that for another time, but for now lets discuss sleep and the three methods I have been using in my almost 3 years of parenting.
The “I’ll sleep when I am dead” method: This one I used with my first-born. It basically consists of following every rule in the rule book of sleep; following wake windows to the point that even going 5 minutes over a wake window causes extreme anxiety and prevents you from trusting anyone to put your kids to sleep but yourself. My bedtime routine was and is absolutely flawless with an early dinner, bath, book and bed and the baby/toddler dressed perfectly for the temperature of the room. I refused to co sleep and sleep train, so every single time the baby woke, I would settle and put back to sleep, which most nights was at least once. If your baby is a good sleeper, it should hopefully work out perfectly, but sadly neither of my children are good sleepers, so this method will only work for someone like me if you can survive off broken sleep. Since having a second baby, I have found that following wake windows to a T is very time consuming and being so hyper focused on nap times make it harder to connect with either child and causes too much anxiety. I have also learned that over tiredness in a baby is not as scary as I once imagined it. I now just use the wake windows as a guide and hope for the best.
The “absolutely not” method: will I let my child get in the way of my sleep? Absolutely not (also known as sleep training). Sleep training is something I put off for almost 2 years due to my people pleasing nature and hearing about how awful it is for children and scarring them for life. In doing some research and talking to sleep consultants, I have since learned that it is not harmful to teach your children how to self settle and will not damage your children. There are more extreme versions of sleep training, which include crying it out and other methods that allow you to still be there with your baby as they figure out how to settle themselves to sleep and back to sleep if they wake up. After almost two years of broken sleep, my husband decided enough is enough and went through a sleep consultant who used controlled crying. It was not as bad as I thought and it took two nights of a few tears from both my toddler and me before she was sleeping through the night and basically putting herself to sleep. On nights she did wake, it was actually kind of cute hearing her talk to herself at 2 in the morning until she went back to sleep. This lasted for about 2 months. Young toddles got a nasty couple of viruses and subsequently had some difficulty breathing, which landed us in hospital for a night for monitoring and intravenous antibiotics. Seems pretty straight forward, HOWEVER 2 doctors and 2 nurses had to hold this poor child down and wrap her up to put in a cannula and the screams that came out of this poor thing will haunt me forever. It is almost impossible to stay strong when your baby has no idea what is going on and strangers in masks, goggles and gowns are forcing her down against her will and inflicting pain on her. Safe to say, once we came home, she did not want to go to sleep on her own and her cot felt scary. Although I love sleeping in my big bed with just my husband, I was not going to force my child to cry on her own while absolutely terrified. Sleep training was then off the cards for this lass.
And finally the “okay you win Mother Nature” method: one week into this sleep regression my anxiety was at an all time high. I felt so low and did not want to leave the house or see anyone. I knew every naptime was going to take me away from my toddler for sometimes up to an hour and half for only 15 minutes of time together before the baby was awake and we had to start the wake window and put down time again. My toddler and I were detached, which made her behaviour so much harder to deal with, which made me resent her and the baby. I decided to give in to what the baby wanted and needed and what my body was literally telling me to do- keep her close. Nap times now involve me using a carrier, an absolute genius invention, which gives you two hands to hold things like alcohol; cheers!
People say not to form bad sleep habits with babies, but I can assure you that no child’s sleep is linear. As someone who tried all three methods, I can say that I wouldn’t have had to try all three methods if my kids actually slept consistently. There is no good and bad habits when trying to sleep. I use a dummy, rocking, cuddles and feeding to sleep most days. I tried so hard not to feed my eldest daughter to sleep, but with my youngest if that little voice comes into my head telling me my baby should be self settling, or sleeping through the night, I just allow it to come and go because whatever works to help get her to sleep, is bloody fine by me.
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