What I learned from two years with a baby who wouldn’t sleep

Posted in Sleeping.

I have two kids. The first was a brilliant sleeper. The second was tortuous. What did I do differently? Nothing.

Two kids, two ways

When my first child slept through the night for eight whole hours at the tender age of six weeks, I thought I had the sleep thing nailed. I secretly congratulated myself for reading all of those sleep books and putting everything I’d learned into practice. This actually wasn’t so hard. And lucky for me, my wonderful little sleeper continued to sleep right through the night. Life was good.

And then I had my daughter. And as soon as she hit four weeks old, I knew something was different. She wouldn’t settle. She screamed and screamed and screamed.

Nothing was physically wrong with her, but when I tried all the old tricks I’d used with my first, she just … screamed. This was confusing. I poured over the sleep books again, and nothing worked. Things didn’t get better for two years.

Baby in onesie in cot looking on hands and knees - feature

Don’t mention the s-word

Was it karma? Probably. Living with a restless, wakeful baby (otherwise known as a parent-killer) completely humbled me. It also made me realise a few of the grim realities parents have to face when they have a bad sleeper. These were realities I had completely missed first time around. Back then, I would complain if I only got seven hours sleep. Seven hours!

Yes, I was that annoying mother with the perfect-sleeping baby, and worse, I didn’t even know it. Meanwhile the mother next to me was probably struggling through her sixth month of bone-rattling sleep deprivation. She must have hated me.

This all clicked when I, finally, became that bone-rattled, sleep-deprived mother. One day I was sitting in a noisy food court with my baby daughter. Perhaps I’d clocked three hours the night before. A well-meaning grandmother with a similarly aged baby in her arms leaned over and told me her clever granddaughter had slept eight hours the night before. My eyes fogged over. The world was getting me back.

Of course, I got through the next two years with my bad sleeper. And I know that term is controversial, but I haven’t yet found a better one. My daughter wasn’t bad, but the situation felt pretty bad to me, because there’s nothing good about severe sleep deprivation.

Now, I have the deepest compassion for all the parents stumbling out of their beds two, three times a night. And I’ve also come to the realisation that there are some truths the sleep books don’t tell us:

Bad Sleeper Truth 1: It’s no one’s fault

Just like I’d mistakenly thought I was the world’s best mother when my firstborn slept through, I also mistakenly thought I was the world’s worst mother when my second wouldn’t give me a break for two years. Sleep is no competition. It’s not worth bragging about, or feeling down about. And when we do see a fragile, sleep-deprived parent, let’s give them compassion rather than advice.

Bad Sleeper Truth 2: Sometimes, there is no answer

I do believe that a lot of the sleep techniques out there work. But sometimes they don’t. There are also lots of potential health and family issues that can impact a baby’s sleep. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, you just have a high energy, low-sleep-need type of child who will suck the life out of you. And there’s no answer to that one, except time and patience. 

Bad Sleeper Truth 3: Things get better

Everyone says it, and it’s true. One night, your bad sleeper will surprise you and just decide to sleep through. You’ll still wake up some time around 3am in a cold sweat, but then they’ll do it again the next night, then the next, almost as if they’ve known how to do it all along. Your life, finally, turns a corner.

Hang in there mum, and get help whenever you can.

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