I have always been a night owl – as a child I would read by torch light once my parents told me it was lights out. Often under the covers because the sleep police would patrol the hallway on the lookout. As a student my dissertation came together piece by piece in the early hours of the morning. Going to bed at 3am was nothing out of the ordinary – and it had nothing to do with living the student life. After a few health issues, and the small detail of marrying an early bird, I started going to bed at a reasonable hour and getting the recommended 8 hours. This began to deteriorate, of course, during the third trimester of pregnancy when I couldn’t get comfortable, and fell apart entirely when my bundle of joy arrived…and refused to sleep most nights beyond 3am until his first nap of the day. This went on for around five months. The sleep Gods were torturing me with my old habits, but in reverse. This experience taught me so much about myself, but mostly about sleep.
Baby-induced sleep deprivation
No book in the world can prepare you for a baby that won’t sleep. You cannot make a baby sleep if they don’t want to and often it’s just one of those things; some sleep well, some don’t. Yes you can optimise sleep with a sense of a routine, perfect their sleep environment, try new techniques, gentle sleep training, but none of these things are guaranteed to work. Sometimes it is just a matter of waiting it out, which is excruciatingly hard when you’re at breaking point. So much of baby sleep is down to your specific child’s temperament, their alertness, what development phase they’re going through, whether they’re slightly ill, or cutting a tooth and whether or not they’re on the move yet. And no, weaning doesn’t really help, despite what people tell you. For us, our son began to sleep more when he started to move more, and crucially when he could roll and sleep on his stomach. Despite always refusing a dummy, he did finally take to a comforter which he clutches like his life depends on it on a nightly basis. I was always so concerned about his sleep – what was I doing wrong? Fretting that his ‘awake windows’ were all off, whether he had a ‘sleep crutch’, whether he was feeding to sleep. I spent hours of my life trying to piece together what conditions meant he slept well, and what changed when he didn’t. It was like a horrific algebra equation – and if you know me you know how much I hate maths. He was of course, totally fine, and the real worry was actually my sleep, and probably my sheer focus on sleep. I don’t think I’ve ever obsessed about anything as much – and the anxiety born from obsessing over sleep, combined with my utter sleep deprivation, sent me on a downward spiral like nothing I’ve known before. The loneliness I felt when I thought it was just my baby doing this (and often it did seem to be that way), the hours spent awake when the rest of the world slept. It all taught me that sleep is vital to good mental health; that chronic loss of shut eye could do strange things to otherwise sane human beings. My 3am alarm clock gave me a wave of sheer dread, every single day. I felt physically sick. And for some bizarre reason for months I blamed myself for it. As though it was somehow my fault and that I was doing something wrong.
I have never believed so vehemently in my entire life that the sleepless nights would never stop, I believed we had destined ourselves to a life of sleep torture. Of course, when it finally did stop* I then still couldn’t sleep because my baby had sleep trained me. To wake for the day, every day, at 3am. His cries were replaced by panic; he must be dead, there’s no other explanation for this silence. I would lie awake listening intently for any little noise to prove to me he was ok. Pregnancy and being a new mum weren’t the first times I’d experienced sleep difficulty though. I have an anxious mind, and I’m on screens a lot, and the two things, both together and apart, really aren’t conducive to a restful night.
So here are my top tips for when sleep hits the pits:
- Read a book before sleep. Delving into another world is a sure-fire way of creating distance between today’s woes and the zzz’s you desperately need to catch. I also found that if I read before bed it was much easier to then get back to sleep if I woke (or was woken up) in the night
- Use Lavender. It really helps relax you. My Lavender and Frankincense pillow spray is my go to when I’m struggling. It helps set the scene.
- Eye masks and blackout blinds. In summer the darker the room the better, this can really help you drift off to the land of nod. And even when they don’t, being under total blackness when you’re exhausted is strangely comforting.
- Get out of bed. If you’ve been lying there awake for hours sometimes it’s better to just get up. Get a drink. Get a change of scenery – try the spare room, the sofa under a cosy blanket. Sometimes just throwing off the duvet, and all of the frustration that’s been simmering underneath it, can help.
- Use Headspace, or any of the similar apps. The Sleep Casts are basically bedtime stories for grown-ups (Lazing Lagoon and Sleeper Mountain are my favourite). Even if I reach the end of the story and I’m still not asleep it still helps me relax. Using the meditation audios is also helpful – meditation at the end of the day can help clear your mind.
- Stay away from screens. Don’t scroll before bed, don’t put the TV on. It rarely helps and often hinders.
- Don’t look at the clock. It doesn’t matter what time it is or how many hours you’ve got. It will only make you angrier. For the love of God if you have a baby do not track their sleep. I tortured myself for a while with a tracker. All it did was highlight how little sleep we were all getting. Be blissfully ignorant, I beg you!
- Focus on your breathing. Take long, deep breaths. It will help relax you.
- Send your snoring partner to the spare room or sofa. No really, if you’re struggling to sleep and they can sleep pretty much anywhere then be selfish, take the bed for the night.
- Try a nap. If you’re exhausted, try a nap during the day if you can fit it in at any point. For new parents – I will never say sleep when the baby sleeps because quite frankly there’s also the laundry, cleaning, cooking and trying to steal a crumb of time to do something for you to cram in, but if you’re really REALLY tired, sometimes stopping and having a quick snooze is the most productive thing you can do.
- Get a shoulder rub – Ask your partner to give you a massage before bed. Or rub some coconut oil mixed with a few lavender drops on your own shoulders.
- Get cozy. Take a warm bath before bed, or take a hot water bottle or wheat bag up with you in winter – these can really help you feel snug.
- Try a weighted blanket. I hear these are really great, and one day I will verify this! Santa…are you reading?!
- Try herbal remedies – Kalms Nighttime with valerian root is a good option, and there are a number of herbal teas designed to help promote sleep, from camomile to bedtime tea.
- Consider alternative therapies – acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, massage. All great for relaxation and depending on the type of treatment and the therapist you’ll be actively encouraged to catch up on a few zzz’s, and you’ll likely be relaxed enough to do so.
- Get support. Depending on the main issue, talk about it. Reach out. To a GP, if you think sleeping pills might a good support, or if you think something medical might be causing your sleeplessness. To your mum if you just need one night without the screaming baby. To your partner or friend, if you’re sitting on something that’s really stressing you out and you need to lighten the load. Don’t suffer in silence.
- Know that it won’t always be this way. The baby will finally sleep. You will get on top of your anxiety. Your hormones will settle down again. You will find equilibrium again and you won’t always feel this frustrated, exhausted, or at your wits end.
Finally, a note for new mums. You are doing a cracking job. There is so much information out there that it can be hugely overwhelming. Sleep consultants who claim to fix your child’s sleep are not worth the money. For useful sleep tips and help the following Instagram accounts and professionals ARE helpful:
Out of desperation we did try some cry it out, and for us it didn’t work. Some people swear by it, and I firmly believe you have to do what feels right for you, but it certainly is not the ‘fix’ it is often presented as.
*Disclaimer: He often still doesn’t sleep through. And neither do I. Mostly because we’re human beings, not robots. No one is honest about this.