I talk about sleep a lot on the blog and on Instagram. It's usually a topic of concern for parents. If you've read anything of mine, you'll know I am passionate about supporting parents to understand and cope with the realities of normal infant sleep.
Often, I imagine people read these pieces of my writing and picture a woman on the couch with her cup of tea, babe peacefully asleep in their bed where they will stay all night. "What does she know? She couldn't possibly imagine what I'm going through right now."
Usually, I'm writing on my phone, in bed, with my babe on the breast - practicing acceptance of this time being the way that it is. And I use the word "practice" mindfully because even with all the education in the world, our society isn't set up to support biologically normal infant sleep. This makes it easy to get caught up in some negative thinking about what's happening.
But let's back up a bit.
It's 2016. I expected that my child would be sleeping through the night by now. She's now 11 months old. She's not sleeping through. She's not even sleeping longer than an hour at a time. She's only settled by an elaborate coordinated dance of rocking and feeding. She briefly went through a phase where she would only settle for Brad but she'd scream the entire time. She was in a cot on the other side of the house and I was getting up each time to settle her before returning to my own bed. We were feeling a bit broken.
I was depressed. I had many triggers and I was in therapy but I was convinced that if she slept through the night, the postnatal depression would go away. I would be free of this dark mood and exhaustion I was experiencing. I was obsessing about sleep. It didn't help that every professional I sought for support was also focused on sleep. It's hard to know what came first - my obsessive thoughts or the services fuelling them.
I'd wake up in the morning and Brad would take Cadence so that I could go back to bed for half an hour. Then I'd get up for the day and it was like a dark cloud entered the kitchen. I would give Brad a blow-by-blow account of what happened in the night - justifying the sleep in. How many times she woke, for how long, what I did to settle her, how tired I feel. I'm pretty sure I even had an app on my phone for a while there to track each wake up. Brad would nod sympathetically. "What are we going to do?" we would say. Brad would leave for work and I'd often still be in my pyjamas - too exhausted to shower.
I tried everything. I've always felt in my heart that sleep training wasn't right for us after dabbling in a bit of controlled crying that was definitely not controlled crying according to the book. But that didn't stop me from investigating gentle methods. I also had the sleep inducing smoothies to be given at a certain time of the day, a spoonful of coconut oil which is supposed to keep a breastfed baby full overnight, magnesium oil on the calves before bed - you name it, I've probably tried it.
I was also quite often convinced something was wrong. Everyone was always asking me about whether I'd investigated silent reflux, food intolerances, whether something was wrong with my milk. They just couldn't fathom that she wouldn't "behave".
I read Pinky McKay's Sleeping Like A Baby, got to the end and thought: "but that's just common sense. That doesn't tell me how to do anything?" Ahh, lightbulb moment. That was the lesson right there.
It wasn't until I did a lot of soul searching and practiced a radical acceptance of my child's sleep after learning more about biologically normal behaviour, that I started to feel better. We set up a floor bed, we co-slept safely, I stopped checking the time (eventually - that was the hardest habit to let go of). I would drift off to sleep much more quickly without having to get up again. My child's sleep did not change. But my mood and my symptoms improved dramatically, In a way, sleep was the reason for my depression but not in the way that I expected. What I needed to change was internal; my inner world.
But the biggest shift was the change in the language that I had surrounding sleep; not just out-loud but there was a drastic overhaul of my internal dialogue too.
Now, our conversations in the morning look different:
"How was your night?" he'll ask.
"Normal" I'll say. He knows exactly what that means.
"Did Cadence wake last night?" I'll ask.
"I think so" he'll say.
We are curious. But they either needed us or they didn't. We either responded or we didn't. There is no speculation about what is wrong, what we should we doing or why it's happening. We know it's normal. We know it will pass. We know we don't have to rush anything.
Since having a second child, when we go to the supermarket (or anywhere, really) people will often ask me about sleep.
"How much does she sleep? Is she a good baby?"
"Just normal for her age" is always my reply.
And you'd be surprised by how many people respond with "so, not a lot then?"
I just smile.
It's through these interactions that we come to know that this is common knowledge: all babies wake. And this means we know that all babies cannot be born broken. Yet we all seem to suppress this because it's easier than the alternative of shifting our belief system to support the biological norm as opposed to socially constructed ideals. We are just not in acceptance.
This does nothing for our little ones who need nothing more than our presence. Even if it feels like a lot to give at times. I would argue that babies are not broken and do not need to be taught how to sleep. I would argue that we struggle to adjust.
Of course I get tired. Of course I fantasise about a time where I put them to bed, they stay there, I sleep a full-night in my own bed and wake in the morning to the sound of happy children getting their own breakfast. It's only natural due to the social conditioning. We are sold this daily. The cot sells it, the sleep books sell it, the sleep "experts" sell it.
This may be years away, years that will surely pass - but they are years I don't want to wish away. I don't want to long for a future time where my children are different people. I want to love them right now - as they are. I choose to love this time - as it is. I am in a space where I'm told daily by society that it's the wrong place to be and I am choosing to stay here. That is radical acceptance to me.
I have a challenge for you.
Challenge the way you think and talk about sleep. Instead of giving a fellow mum at the park a blow-by-blow of your night each time you see her, rise above and remain matter of fact. You can be authentic without hiding behind a coffee meme and a negative tone tarnishing your truth. You can be tired and honour this without feeling like you're going to explode if you don't offload. You can find your "normal" hard whilst supporting yourself with a knowing that everyone goes through this because it is indeed normal.
You can change your entire experience of parenting with a knowing that night-waking, night-feeding, separation anxiety and a biological need for your presence is normal, common and not something to be changed. When you think about the idea of "training" your child to not want you at nighttime anymore, with a knowing that they are wired to want you, it sounds a bit impossible and a bit tiresome. To me, it's kind of like training them to not want food. We need to let go.
Imagine the weight lifted from your shoulders as you stop fighting it. Let go of the struggle - especially the internal one. Surrender.
And know this - you might think you're alone. But you are not alone tonight. And normal or not - you deserve love and support. Come find me on Instagram for tips and inspiration on thriving in motherhood. No sleep training required.
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