The bain of my life in motherhood so far has been the sleep challenge. I'm aware that this is is a universal problem affecting many mums and I'm also aware that on the scheme of things compared to say a baby with a disability and poverty stricken families this problem is a small one. It is however a destructive one. It heightens stress levels both in you and your baby if not addressed. It can turn a good day into a dismal one. It can be the straw that breaks your back just when you thought you were just managing to keep your head above water. It cannot be underestimated as the challenge of all challenges.
My battle with getting little miss to sleep has been a lengthy one. I wrote about the screaming sessions and then about the breakthrough we had, but the journey has not been an easy one and nor is the journey over. As our little miss grows and goes through developmental changes so does her sleep pattern and it's almost like we need to start again and adjust our approach as the goal posts have moved.
Back in May when I was on redial to the lifeline of advice, the maternal health line, I was calmly told that it was normal for my 3 week old baby to scream for up to 2.5 hours EVERY night when we went to put her to bed. Apparently it's developmental and putting her in a bath did not soothe her as the re-dressing only aggravated her more. Rocking her to sleep did not give her any sense of calm, nor did lullabyes or gently holding her in a dark room. We tried everything. Eventually we learnt to put up with it and it slowly lessened to about an hour of screaming before her night-time sleep despite the brilliant self-settling she'd do during all her day naps.
Fast forward to the 4-month mark and the normal 12 week unsettled screamfest was still with us. We were dreading the month long trip to the UK and Singapore purely because we did not want to put our visitors through the hell we experienced every evening without fail. The night before we left, just to prove she was not too old for continuous screaming, my mum and I were attempting to calm her down for 3 hrs - a record attempt - and a very short sleep was fitted in before the long haul flight.
Ironically she slept for decent blocks during the flight and had no tears during take-off or landing despite not being breastfed. As soon as we got to the UK she was thrown straight into pre-wedding preparation and was amongst the hustle bustle while coping with an apparent lack of jetlag and from the first night onwards we had a little baby who went to sleep in the pram amongst all the chaos and then re-settled without a hint of trouble when moved to the port-a-cot. For the first time in 4 months we were making breakthroughs. Maybe she's a Northern Hemisphere baby we thought...maybe she's just a social extrovert and hates the separation...maybe she's so exhausted after meeting a plethora of new faces during the day over in the UK that she's so exhausted she actually welcomes sleep...maybe maybe maybe.
Arriving home at the 5 month mark heralded the start of solids and a return to the cot after a month in the port-a-cot. To our absolute horror the screaming returned. Endless stressful starts to otherwise calm and happy evenings which snowballed our moods and stress levels into a tense hurricane of terse words, angry snapping and inpatient dinners as one would eat while the other attempted settling.
Finally we cracked. Admitting we couldn't nail this sleep thing and calling in a sleep consultant was the best thing we did. It returned the faith in our parenting skills. It also reassured us there was no silent aggression causing her to cry in the racking sobs that she'd been accustomed to. This however is not the end of the story. Despite my best intentions and living a daily schedule to embrace the rules of sleep in her life it hasn't been smooth sailing. We do sometimes have repeats of screaming but they are not regular and life has improved 100% since those early months. So in an effort to share with you my breakthroughs after consulting an expert and seeing what works for me here are the things I now know:
* sleep promotes sleep - ironically the less sleep she has during the day the worse she will settle in the evening. Babies defy logic. After thinking she won't be able to sleep with napping for 2 hours directly before dinner, most times when she sleeps the full 2 hours her head will hit that pillow heavier than if she'd missed an hour's sleep in that cycle. At 4-6 mths she needed a full 2 hrs in the morn and a full 2 hrs in the afternoon with a half hour nap before dinner at 6pm! Unbelievable.
* the room needs to be dark. We covered up our skylight. We put a curtain over the doorway - note we did not have a door to the nursery, and now that we've moved her to the main room and she has a door not alerting her to small sudden noises in the kitchen and loungeroom she's slept VERY well.
* the less social interaction we have with her when placing her in the cot the better. It totally goes against my instincts but I don't make eye contact. I tuck all the sheets and a blanket firmly over her little bag (note all are light weight so they help hold her in place in the cot). I say 'sleepytime' and I walk straight out of the room and close the door.
*I have aimed for the full 2 hr sleep session in the morn and afternoon however I have learnt not to beat myself up if it's only 1.5 hrs. This shorter length of time does not seem to dramatically effect her night time sleep and we still seem to have less trouble putting her to sleep than we used to despite this shorter length of time. I do however attempt resettling by patting her on her side if it's only a one hour sleep and she's only had a one hour sleep in the morning - as despite the protest crying I have learnt that 2 x 1 hour sleeps during the day makes for a very angry, sleep deprived baby at night.
* embrace routine. I started off on this motherhood track being led by her. I wanted to respond to her needs, be a relaxed parent and let her sleep when she wanted and accept the fact it was not an exact science. I have since changed my mind completely. I have found our stress levels and her moods are greatly improved by a routine. I attempt to stick to the awake length of hours when I can and I refuse offers of catch-ups or appointments whenever possible, when a clash occurs - despite the value they add to my mental health. I know the short term missing out will bring long term tranquility which is more important for the well being of this family.
The things that got me through the tough times:
* talk about it. Share the problem with your mother's group, with your friends, with your parents. Although there's a wealth of advice out there, sometimes you just need a shoulder to cry on. Whether it's the exhaustion, the stress or the unpredictability of it all that's breaking you - it just made me feel good to talk about it. Even if not all your listeners have experienced the heights of restlessness you may have experienced most will know a friend who has gone through a similar problem and will be able to empathise.
* repeat to yourself "this is temporary". I constantly imagined myself in 8 years time chatting to a talkative, confident little girl and reliving tales of her sleeping behaviour. Of course I'm completely aware when they get older there will probably be different sleep challenges, however they will not be the unexplainable random screaming matches that are common at this young age. I keep telling myself I will get through this and this is only a stage.
* if you have a bad night it doesn't mean the pattern has returned for good. I've panicked quite a few times when the evening screaming session has returned without reason. We've had a good day, I haven't had any different schedule when compared to the previous day and yet it's all gone belly up and we find ourselves staring hopelessly at the door to her room, while waiting 1 minute before we will return for another go at settling our angry little screamer.
*Look for patterns. I started to email myself my daily routine to watch for trends and for reassurance. I titled my emails "sleepless nights" and I emailed myself what the day was like - how long the naps were - and what result the night-time session had. When I then look back on these emails I notice that 7/10 nights were brilliant and it reassures me that the 2-3 nights a month are random and could be due to circumstances outside of my control.
They also showed me patterns. They showed me that 1 hr sleep in the morn and 1 hr sleep in the afternoon was NOT enough and was sure to result in a hellish evening. I also started to see a pattern with chocolate. I am not a chocoholic but every so often I may feel like a taste for it. So a few times a month I will eat a couple of lines of Lindt chocolate. Without fail those nights have been pure pain (noting that I'm still breastfeeding).
So now here I sit with little miss sleeping soundly this afternoon. She self-settled and I'm not sure what type of night I have but I know she's had a sound sleep this morning and she's at least clocked the 1 hour nap mark this afternoon, so I'm out of the danger zone today. Of course it's no guarantee but it's a work in progress. The more reassured I get, the more relaxed I get and the more I see a regular pattern developing.
This sleeping saga has unsettled me. It has rocked my confidence. Tested my endurance. Resulted in a breakdown in tears late at night around 3am when my coping mechanisms have entirely deserted me. Gradually I'm learning to celebrate the overall positive result. Generally she sleeps through the entire night. Most nights nowadays we are able to eat dinner together after a relatively small settling time in her room, one of us taking about 15minutes to pat her to stop her crying as she generally chatters herself to sleep.
So my message to anyone encountering similar problems is hang in there. It is worth attempting to help your baby into some type of routine. It's not the end of the world if they don't follow it EVERY day, but it does help to persevere as I believe she is learning and continues to relax into the schedule even if at times she gets a bit lost, she tends to return more often than not to a routine.
It's not easy being a parent, but that's why they pay us the big bucks (?!) (love)