What to Do When You Can't Get Your Baby to Sleep
It seems ironic to write an article about sleep when my daughter resisted it from midnight until 4am this morning. But given I'm here to share my story, which involves many other nights just like that, I guess it's rather fitting.
When I was pregnant with my now 20-month-old daughter, I made a very deliberate choice not to read anything about how to get one's child to sleep. There were many reasons for that decision but it was one that was reaffirmed time and time again by all of the "expert advice" shoved at me while I was growing my little human. The advice was conflicting, confusing, and to be honest, terrifying. Every second person will ask you how your baby sleeps, or offer their opinion on how to get them to do so. I find it odd that so few people fail to acknowledge that this brand-new human is learning hundreds of more important things every single day—like how to breathe.
The Reality is…
It just so happens some babies sleep through the night from a very early age and others take a long time. Mine was one of the latter. As a newborn, she could be awake for five or six hours at a time. She wasn't upset, she wasn't irritated or cranky, she wasn't hungry, wet or even uncomfortable. She was just awake. I tried everything to get her to sleep, but none of it worked. After driving myself crazy by obsessing over what she should be doing, I accepted that my daughter had her own agenda and I needed to go with it.
Days were often spent out walking with Sunny in a front pack, doing the Bondi to Bronte walk (up to four times sometimes) just to get her to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time. Nights were harder. Sunny woke every two to three hours for 10 entire months. In that time, my husband and I were both working and juggling days with our little girl. Then early one morning, after taking turns for hours on end to get Sunny back to sleep, I walked into the kitchen to find my husband bent over the sink in tears—exhausted, defeated, and helpless. Someone once told me "it's not a problem until it's a problem" and in that moment, I knew we had a problem.
What feels right for one person most certainly won't feel right for another. More than anything, people suggested I leave her to "cry it out", but my natural reaction to my child was to respond to her. The thing that did make a real difference in our household was changing the way we got her to sleep. As a tired mum, it had become all too easy to simply offer a feed as this was comforting, quick, and meant we all got back to sleep swiftly. But 10 months in, the only way Sunny knew how to get back to sleep, was to be breastfed. Once we made this change, the two or three hourly wake-ups stretched out to four or five, which in itself was life changing.
realising the signs…
We then explored the idea of a sleep consultant. I emailed about four of them but didn't ever follow up. As fate would have it, I came across The Sleep Mama. Her approach to parenting didn't seem too unlike ours—she promoted mindfulness, independence, and daily adventures, all things that resonated with us—so we decided to give it a try. For me, The Sleep Mama was a great reminder to be consistent. Don't get me wrong, it's damn hard to be consistent when you haven't slept properly for 285 days, but once we employed the suggested techniques, things improved significantly.
The quest for sleep takes commitment. Borderline obsession. And we didn't want our days to be focused solely around sleep, the lack of it or how to get it. That in itself is exhausting. So our approach was to keep pushing forward, to make changes when we needed to and to celebrate small wins. I'm not saying that these things won't work for you. They just might. So, in a bid to save the sanity of any sleep-deprived parent I can, here are some of the other things that worked for us.
Share the Load
It's archaic to think that raising a child also means solely running a household. No disrespect if that's your personal choice, but in our home, my husband looked after me so that I could look after our daughter or vice versa.
There's No "I" in Team
The all-important "me' time" for a parent doesn't only extend to the mother. There are two of you in this parenting gig so it's super important to give your baby daddy some space to himself too. While he might not be home with a non-sleeping baby all day, he is trying to function at work, then likely rushing home to offer his share at night. Point being, you both need time out every now and then.
Ask For Help
My childless friends, while in complete adoration of Sunny, only ever wanted to visit when she was fed, changed, bathed, awake, and looking cute. What I really needed was someone to take her for a walk so I could nap for 20 minutes,; or for someone to fold my washing or vacuum. We don't all have family close by so it's important to honestly and openly, no matter how hard or awkward it is, to ask your friends for help. I'll do this next time.
Being a new parent can be incredibly lonely. You are often at home for hours on end with a small human who needs you to survive—the attachment can be both overwhelming and debilitating at times and when you're tired, those feelings can escalate. I made it my mission to get outside at least once a day.
Fuel Your Body
Eating well and exercising will give you more energy—and while it might be easier to reach for a pre-packaged meal (or peanut butter toast in my case), take the time once a week to prep your meals.
Acknowledge the Problem
Everyone is different and we all have different thresholds—some will simply ride the wave and others will strive for better sleep however possible. Just know that your journey is yours and despite what others may say there is no right or wrong way. And remember, it's not a problem until it's a problem.
Just Do You
It doesn't matter what anyone else tells you—swaddle your baby, co-sleep, / don't co-sleep, don't put them on their side or back, make sure the room is silent or noisy—just do what feels right for you.
Soak It In
Babies are only babies for such a short amount of time. I feel like I blinked and Sunny was a walking, talking toddler. I look back at our struggles and while I felt like it would never end when I was in the moment, I barely remember the extent of it now. They won't always need you and when that time comes, I'm guessing more than anything you'll be wishing that time back. Don't become so fixated on the negative that you forget to enjoy the greatness of that first year (and the years after that).
after it all…
I honestly think if we could end the obsession with "'good babies"' and "'sleeping through the night"', new parents would feel much less stressed about sleep deprivation. And I learnt that your attitude is your greatest asset, (which I also spoke about here on MyDomaine Australia). Don't worry; I'm not entirely delusional, I know that surviving sleep deprivation can't solely depend on a positive attitude. It's very real that you often feel run down, forgetful, anxious, emotional and bad-tempered when you are exhausted. A positive attitude is only one part of the puzzle. I've also heard several people say that sleep for a parent is not a luxury but a necessity. Once you surrender to getting much less sleep than you're used to, you'll surprise yourself at how much is possible. And I promise you, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It might not be tomorrow, or the next day or even a year after that, but you will sleep again.
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