So it has been quite a while since I wrote a blog post. This has mainly been because my baby son has been waking every 1 to 2 hours in some kind of sleep torture scenario, rendering me on the verge of being able to function, let alone write. A phrase I have heard used to describe such an infant is "guantanamo baby"! He has had this sleep pattern for a year now (with occasional brief moments of hope) and our older daughter has always kept us from that amazing cure, the lie-in. So why did this suddenly mean things ground to a halt in the last few weeks?
The reason is simple - suffering is bearable while you think it is temporary. My baby's rapidly approaching first birthday, that great milestone of parental achievement as baby has somehow survived early infancy, was the moment that I assumed he would be sleeping longer than a newborn and life would start to go back to normal. The realisation that we had made no sleep progress whatsoever in that year brought home to me that this could on for weeks, months, years more. There might never be an end. I would never, ever get any sleep. My husband and I would never lose that haggard look, never regain our joie de vivre. Never get a full 8 hours in our own bed, just us.
Often it can feel like it's your fault. You should have been stricter from the start. You should have left them to cry. You should have...you should have...But of course, as Dr Stoppard points out, there are just some "wakeful babies"*. And there can often be a hidden medical reason for babies who wake up screaming - as a paediatric nurse, I learnt that it's not safe to leave a baby who is sick or in pain to cry it out. As a parent (and a feminist mum) I have also learnt not to judge - you just have to do what works for your baby and for your situation.
Sleep deprivation is not necessarily visible to the outside world. Yes, you look a bit tired and seem overly reliant on caffeine and sugar. But for someone who hasn't experienced it, the constant rousing from sleep, is pretty much unimaginable. And so, I don't really get much sympathy. Members of my family regularly complain to me about their tiredness - my Dad often wakes in the early hours, forced to read for a couple of hours before he can go back to sleep. My sister woke up at 7am the other day, on the weekend. I know, it's tough for them. But really!?
Sleep deprivation with our first child definitely affected my performance at work - in a job where you have to be 100% on it, being a bit slow or forgetful or having problems concentrating is a serious hazard. If your co-workers don't realise the reason, tiredness can affect your career chances. My sleep situation has definitely affected my confidence - is it worth going to an interview or taking a refresher driving lesson if I am not functioning at full mental capacity? As a mum and a woman, I know I am not realising my potential.
I am pretty masochistic when it comes to parenting. I will sacrifice myself at the alter of motherhood with little complaint. My children deserve everything I can give them for the best start in life whether it be breastfeeding till I just can't hack it anymore, reading Topsy and Tim again and again till I feel suicidal or refusing to leave them to cry. But the sleep thing has really had me stumped. A couple of weeks ago I felt at breaking point. It hardly seemed worth going to bed. Constant waking is not healthy for the baby, the parents or siblings and starts to impact on family life, work and leisure. You end up becoming irritable, snappy, even aggressive.
Quite often I see a parent being unnecessarily harsh with a small child be it snapping at them, pulling them roughly or just totally losing it. No longer do I judge. Even I, self-appointed Queen of Patience, am not a very nice person when pushed to the limit. Add tiredness to stress, anxiety, hunger, worry or illness and you have a cocktail of disaster for a young family. Coping becomes very difficult. You don't like yourself and every method you try seems to fail. You feel ill and overwhelmed all day every day. You just need someone to give you a magic wand.
Instead, you drink more caffeine and indulge in more sweet treats to keep going. In 'How to be a woman', Caitlin Moran argues that food is the addiction of people with responsibilities. You can't do drink or drugs if you actually need to function at 5 in the morning be it as a parent or a carer. But you can stuff yourself full of cakes and biscuits to just get through the day and make yourself feel better. And sweet, calorific nibbles are widely available, cheap and offered at every playgroup or coffee morning you go to.
So, yes, I am pretty amazed that I am not 2 stone heavier and in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Finding fellow sufferers helps; sharing horror stories, ideas, mantras - repeat "this is only a phase". Recently, Gaviscon at bed time and another approach I found on a desperate google search** seem to be making a difference. He slept for 4 hours straight last night. Yeah baby, progress! And that's all you need, just a little bit of hope. And swapping biscuits for oatcakes.
* Stoppard, Miriam (2006) Complete Baby and Child Care