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The Issue of Sleep

I was living in a block of units, with my new baby.

He was a cat napper, waking after only 30 minutes of sleeping.

He seemed to be sensitive to sound and so I did my best to make everything quiet, even though I had been told to get my baby used to noise while sleeping. I had just gotten him to sleep after what felt like two hours, and then it started. The sound of a jackhammer, coming from upstairs in a unit where they were replacing their tiles – and drilling to get the old tiles out. My baby woke, and I was beside myself. After all that work, I only got a ten-minute break.

Fast forward eleven years and I had a new baby, my fourth son. Waking up after a night of broken sleep, to three other children who needed to get to school. The baby is asleep, and the boys are ready to go. Without a second thought, the baby is woken up to get into the car seat, and off we go for a thirty-minute drive to school, picking up two more children on the way. No stress, (well perhaps a little, when Jacob couldn’t find his shoes again.) Not a second thought about my baby’s sleep.

What has happened in those 11 years?

A gradual, sometimes painful, process of surrendering to the ‘what is.’

Surrendering to the moment, a moment you cannot control. You cannot make your baby sleep. You CAN create the right conditions, and learn some fundamentals about baby’s sleep but ultimately you cannot make a baby sleep or force a baby to stay asleep. Frustrating as that is – it’s just the plain truth. Just like you cannot make yourself sleep, you can allow yourself to sleep, but even then, sleep can remain elusive. It’s a mysterious thing, but I recognised long ago, you can fight that or get on board with it, and surrender. Just learn to be ok with this moment, here and now. Some days I was good at it, in fact I often didn’t have the energy to fight it. Other days I would fight and resist the reality I was facing, but over time I became better at surrendering to the moment.

Sleep training versus sleep learning

The biggest moments of learning I had with my first baby were tired signs, and wake windows. When I learned to recognize what Sam was communicating to me through his face, his cry, his body movements. I gradually became more attuned to him. I could read him. Wake windows helped too, because they reminded me of how long he had been awake, and he might be getting to the end of his capacity to stay awake. That then helped me to pay attention to his tired signs more closely, and then I would wrap him and go somewhere quiet, reducing the outside stimulation. I learnt that there was a rhythm emerging, but it was a long way from any type of routine. I also learned that wrapping seemed to sooth him and encouraged him to stay asleep. I learned that over time he stretched out some sleeps quite naturally, like his body was telling him he needed more sleep. I learnt to get on board with what Sam’s system of sleep was telling me. I surrendered.

Sleep training assumes you know better than the baby’s internal system of sleep, and you are trying to overlay a routine of sleep onto your baby. It might work in the short term, but your baby is growing and changing at a rate that will counteract any routine you might have established. It is unrealistic in the first year to be able to establish any sort of rigid routine for most babies. At best, you will start to see a rhythm emerge.

Another big learning, I had about sleep, was sometimes babies just need to cry in order to be able to go to sleep. It doesn’t mean I am doing something wrong, in fact it is healthy for you and the baby to be able to surrender to this need. A baby needs to be held without too much fuss, like rocking and patting, with a calm parent who can hold space for the release of nervous tension in the body. 

Every baby is different – get on board with who your baby is. Every baby I had came with a different journey of learning to support their sleep. Each time, I had to learn their language, who they were and what they responded to. Every baby taught me to surrender that little bit more.

A word on the mental health of the parent.

I’ve heard many times; I need to get a sleep trainer for my baby for my own mental health.

I get it, that is so true, sleep deprivation is a form of mental and physical torture. I had it with my third son who was waking every hour to feed. I’ve been there too.

In situations where you have the needs of the baby overtaking and crushing the needs of a parent, then a delicate dance of survival is unravelling. When things get to this point, then support is crucial. It is never just the baby’s sleep that is the issue. It is a complex interplay between the needs of both baby and parents, which can be teased out with the support of a sleep specialist who is skilled enough to help you become clear on what needs to change in the dynamic of the family. When we just make it the fault of the baby – if the baby would sleep then everything would be alright – we miss the opportunity to explore what is going on within the parent, or family that also needs to change. Sometimes as new parents, we are resisting the reality of life with a new baby. We are trying to bring back the control we had in our former life. What if this situation is inviting you to surrender to the fact that you are not in control? It is a time ripe for growth, after all, you know what they say – your children are your greatest teachers.

In our community, we have some great sleep consultants.

Check them out HERE

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