When I told my husband I was going to write about baby sleep, he looked at me like I was crazy. If you’ve come here looking for the Holy Grail of how to get your baby to sleep through the night, then I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. My youngest is not a good sleeper, and after a year of broken nights I am probably the last person you would go to for sleep advice. I’m no expert in PUPD or gradual retreat, and ‘Ferberizing’ sounds like some new green-smoothie style detox, but what I have learned (after far too much experience!) is how to survive chronic sleep deprivation.
So whether you’re 12 weeks or 12 months into sleepless nights, here are my top tips to get you through:
1. Know your limits
There’s a reason why sleep is essential for human existence, and if you’re not getting any then you need to be realistic about what you can and can’t achieve. You’ll be surprised how well you can function on minimal sleep, particularly if you were always an ‘8 hours a night’ gal before, but it’s important not to overload yourself.
The key is to prioritise activities and use your time wisely. Obviously sleep is a major priority, but getting those extra zzzz during the daytime ain’t easy. I think we all know that anyone who tells you to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is a complete moron, who has no concept of what is means to actually own a sleep-refuser. Leo’s night time defiance is replicated by day and he often doesn’t nap unless in the car (when I’m driving) or pushchair (when I’m walking). I can hardly get some shut eye during those times can I?
You need to adjust your expectations about what life on 4 hours a night looks like. Now is not the time to start learning Italian and, unless your married to Anthea Turner, chances your house isn’t likely to make the cover of Ideal Home magazine any time soon. Even if your child does bless you with a cheeky daytime cot-nap, do not embark on non-essential tasks which you are unlikely to complete (like clearing out the garage). Instead, check off a few essentials (phone the bank, put a wash on, take a shower) and try to put your feet up.
2. Find time to relax
Ok, so what you really need is a LONG uninterrupted sleep, but putting that (pipe) dream to one side, it’s so important that you try and find ways to relax and unwind. Listening to music or podcasts (my personal favourites are Dirty Mother Pukka, Scummy Mummies and My Dad Wrote a Porno) is a great way to help you switch off on those long nap-inducing laps of the park; like reading, except they require much less active participation (in the depths of chronic sleep deprivation I can barely read road signs, let alone size 10 font!)
Regular spa treatments as a sure-fire way to release the tension in your neck and shoulders, caused by repeatedly dragging yourself out of bed three of four times each night. Sadly, days at the spa are a little beyond me in terms of both time and finances, but I do like to indulge in a bit of at home pampering. For me, this usually involves a hot bubble bath, an eye mask and lighting one of my gorgeous aromatherapy Soul Candles (Uplift is my favourite, or maybe Relax. Or Soothe…ok, I love them all!)
3. Get (and accept) help
I am terrible at this. We are fortunate to have family and friends close by who are more than happy to step in and give us a break – if I’d only ask. I’ve spent much of the last year desperately trying to prove to everyone (myself included) that I can cope; that I can care for a baby, clean the house, keep do the laundry, walk the dog, go to the classes & playgroups, cook, shower, visit Findlay’s grave, respond to text messages, post cute pictures on Instagram…the lot. Except that I can’t, not when I’ve spent two-thirds of the night pacing up and down the landing to Ewan the Dream Sheep’s dulcet tones, rocking a 15lb baby.
For me, the pressure to ‘do it all myself’ stems from feelings of failure and inadequacy which are tied up in my grief for Findlay, and if I could only embrace my inner Elsa and ‘let it go’ I know things would have been easier. So accept your mother in law’s offer to watch the baby whilst you take a shower (or a nap); say yes when Lesley from no.32 asks if you’d like her to bring you over some Shepherd’s Pie and don’t allow access to any visitors unless they bring cake.
After the first few months, people assume that things have eased off and you’re starting to get your shit back together. At this point, the offers of help may begin to dry up (as will the hoards of visitors, many of whom seem less keen on cuddling a dribbly 5 month old than a squishy newborn). For those who are still in drowning in the depths of sleep deprivation, it’s time to stop being so British and actually ask for help. Whether that’s roping in family and friends or calling in the professionals, it’s time to get serious.
There are many services out there which can help make life that bit easier, and it won’t necessarily cost the earth. If you can’t afford the luxury of a regular cleaner (the dream!) then why not get someone in for a one off? Prices start from around £50 (depending on the size & location of your house) and you’d be amazed the difference a spruce up can make to your general sense of well being and calm. It’s one less thing to think about (thinking takes up too much space in the sleep deprived brain) and as they say – clean home, clean mind.
4. Get outdoors
Nothing helps to clear a foggy head like a breath of fresh air, so no matter how many times you saw the clock last night (or how tempting it is to recruit Mr Tumble for an afternoon’s babysitting) a day spent cooped up inside is not the answer. Having a dog means that we get out every day and I do always feel so much better for it. Even if it’s just a quick walk around the park, it does everyone good to get out of the house: remember the days when mother’s used to leave their prams in the garden, or outside shops? I’m not encouraging this specifically, but there are undoubtedly health benefits (soaking up some Vitamin D for example) for baby as well as exhausted parents to being in the great outdoors.
It’s vital that you don’t cut yourselves off from ‘the outside world’ and what better way to immerse yourself than by stepping out? So switch off CBeebies, grab your coat, or sun hat if Mother Nature is playing ball, and hit the road, or park, or beach, or whatever. You never know – a good blast a sea air might be just what little one needs to drop that 11pm wake up…
5. Stay hydrated
Often I would wake up after a particularly gruelling night feeling like I’d been knocking back triple vodkas and Irn-Bru at Corporation on a Wednesday night (University of Sheffield alumni – you know what I’m sayin’) I realised that despite being up for the majority of the night, not one drop of fluid had passed my lips. It seemed like a waste of time: drink = need to pee = further disruption to sleep. I quickly realised this was ridiculous, especially as Leo was still feeding A LOT in the night, and I was doing nothing to replenish the fluid he was (literally) sucking out of me. No wonder my head was pounding; if you cut my head open you’d probably find a shrivelled up prune where my brain once was!
Now I always head up to bed armed with a large bottle of water, and whenever I hear Leo on the baby monitor (like a badger snorting through the undergrowth searching for worms) I take a big gulp before going in.
Same rule applies in the day. Drink more, drink often.
6. Stay connected
Family and friends are your lifeline – no matter how exhausted (or antisocial) you’re feeling you must make sure you don’t retreat from life or you’ll wind up feeling isolated and overwhelmed. I’m not saying you should sign up to every baby group in town or attempt to play hostess with the mostess to half your neighbourhood, but make time each week to catch up with other adults – preferably in real life rather than just online.
Play dates are great because mum friends often sympathise with your sleep struggles more than childless friends; they provide an extra pair of hands to pass the wipes or intercede attempts to dive head first from any raised surface; plus they are usually fuelled by caffeine and cake, both of which are prominent features in the sleep-deprived mama’s diet. Ideally, get someone else to host (or head out somewhere!) so you don’t have to deal with the clean up either.
7. Have faith
One day this will all be a distant memory. Even if you decide, like us, to forego sleep training (I don’t have a problem with the theory, but the guilt which stems from Findlay’s death means the execution of any method – even so-called ‘no tears’ – is beyond me) eventually your child will, of their own accord, start to sleep longer. It is this belief which I have clung to over the last 12 months, the knowledge that I will once again know the sweet joy of a solid 8 hours unbroken sleep.
And three weeks ago, completely out of the blue, we got our first taste of life on the other side when Leo slept through the night. I was in such a state of shock that not only did I wake every hour to check he was still breathing, but I seriously wondered if I was inadvertently staring in my own Z-movie version of Sliding Doors. But I wasn’t – he actually did it. Since then, Leo has reliably slept through the night, or only woken once (briefly) for a drink of water, 6/7 nights a week. I’m not going to say that we’ve cracked it (that has jinx written ALL over it!) but I can now say with confidence that Leo is capable of sleeping for 10 hours.
And after 12 months of sub 4 hours – that’s pretty awesome.