Thursday, 1 January 2015

What I have learnt about SLEEP...

My son is finally starting to sleep through. In his own bed. HURRAY. HALLELUJAH. AND THANK GOD (and I'm not even religious). I am allowing myself to be smug about this. He is not 6 weeks old. I am not looking around at other parents of newborns with a self-satisfied air that my tiny infant has somehow defied the laws of nature and has taken to 12 hours straight as though they were born to it. No, my son is two and half. Yep, YEARS, not months.

OK so I know there are people out there who have had it worse. The 9 year old who won't sleep alone. But this has seemed like FOREVER to us. Bearing in mind this is the second child who is supposed to a BETTER sleeper than your first, right? WRONG. The seemingly endless hourly wake-ups were slowly killing us. This sleep torture is well-documented here: On that controversial topic SLEEP written about 18 months ago. Sometimes it is a massive blessing not to know how long this pain is set to continue. If I had known then that we had 18 months more sleep deprivation and general family dysfunction, I may well have just given up there and then.

Quality of sleep, hours of sleep, just getting some/any, has profound effects on your ability to function, career prospects, happiness. Just read a non-parenting magazine and they will say helpful things like the key to wealth, happiness, self esteem, weight loss, concentration, eternal youth etc is a "good night's sleep". By contrast, I remember an article with a father describing life with a newborn as like a tour of Nam. Yep bye bye wealth, happiness, self esteem, concentration and anything resembling youth. Hello caffeine and sugar, and arguing with your partner over who is the tiredest.

So having heard most sleeping tips on the planet I thought I would share what I have tried. Some stuff worked, some didn't. We now have a complicated magic formula for our son that seems to have finally done the trick. It was all trial and error...and usually we were too exhausted to keep trying something new. But hope, the eternal hope, that one day he would sleep through kept us going. And maybe we are there. Or hey, maybe this is only a brief respite...

Note, I have not included controlled crying, Ferberising, crying it out etc. I do not judge you if this has worked for you and your family. We once tried it with my older daughter - it turned into a pointless and epic battle of wills. Our son threw up everywhere in distress after 7 minutes. The guilt! But we were desperate. Now my view is basically this; anything that suggests the suppression of thousands of years of evolutionary programming to respond to the needs of our offspring, is probably not a good idea. Step away from the Gina Ford. That's all I'm saying.

So here goes, here is my very personal view on what to try, what not to waste your money on:

1. The bed 
My girl slept better as soon as she escaped from the prison of her cot into a toddler bed. Stories and bedtime snuggles without the nerve-wracking transfer behind bars. We did it at apparently the perfectly wrong time - just before we had a second baby and before she was two. Worked wonders. The boy is now in a proper big bed with a bed rail lined with mummy's pillow. Snug as a bug.

2. The soother 
Dummy, thumb, bunny's ear. I wouldn't let my kids suck their thumb as I thought it would be a hard habit to break. But babies do need something to soothe them and it ended up being my nipples most the time, just for an hour long chew in the middle of the night. Damn it, if thumb-sucking would have given us 2 years extra sleep, it would have been worth it!

3. The clothing
The baby who throws off the annoying! Yes there are grobags, my son acted as though I was putting him in a strait jacket. I tried padded suits - too hot. Then I started to get superstitious: he slept well in that babygro? Never again shall he go to bed in anything else! That is where madness lies and sleep-deprivation takes you. Final version was thermal vest, normal pyjamas with socks. Now it doesn't matter if he throws off the covers and sleeps diagonally half way down the bed.

4. The temperature 
Warm room or icy draught? Although my kids both slept beautifully in prams left outside the back door during the day, their little chilly cheeks rosy, they sleep better at night with the window shut. The warm snuggly wheatie bag has been the latest thing I have thrown money at which actually seems to help. We have a couple of lavender wheaties made of sock material known as Diddly the Cow and Waggie the Dog that you bung in the microwave and they love snuggling up to them on wintry evenings. Obviously it's thin sheets and sleeping in underwear in the summer.

5. The night light
Not too bright, not too expensive, not too exciting. Music and swirling images not that restful. They break easily. In fact, we went for darkness in the end with one subtle string of fairy lights and a few glow in the dark stars on the ceiling - kids seem to sleep better and it's supposed to be better for your diurnal rhythms to sleep in darkness.

6. The putter-to-bedder - get Dad, Gran or someone else to do it. Someone they probably won't hang on to for dear life. This person needs to do it regularly or for a few nights and baby might just learn that they can get to sleep without breastfeeding/3 hour long mummy cuddles. And after all, it doesn't always have to be mummy who gets to enjoy the delights/dramas of bedtime!

7. Co-sleeping
This is controversial in parenting and medical circles. I slept with my parents as a baby (I was a nightmare sleeper, apparently!) so I didn't perceive it as a strange thing. Initially with my first baby I spent the night transferring her between our bed and moses basket for feeding/sleeping. Then at one point I remember feeling utterly deranged - still asleep I couldn't work out whether the baby was in the basket or in the bed, or where I was, or what was going on. After that, I felt safer having her in my bed; curled round her I always instinctively knew where she was in my semi-sleeping state. The bonus of this is also that neither babies had any trouble working out the difference between day and night - being put to bed in the dark cuddled up to snoring adults is a clear signal to bunker down and get some shut eye.

8. The mummy pillow
Yes after investing in Lavender Pillow Spray, Australian bush essences etc, of course all they really want is eau de parent. Pillow, t-shirt, whatever you can donate that will smell strongly of you seems to help.

9. The company 
Apparently at the age of 4 years, I, "Miss Nightmare Sleeper", suddenly started sleeping through in my own bed when I got to share a room with my new baby sister. It shouldn't be rocket science that young children like company and reassurance. In fact it seems odd to me that while most parents share a bed with someone else, their tiny infant is put in a room completely on their own. The comfort of sharing a room is huge, be it with parents, siblings or whoever. For us, putting a 2 and 4 year old to bed in the same room is so easy - storytime (maybe taking it in turns to have a story each, always some together), then into bed. Usually they come down to us hand in hand in the morning then jump into our bed for morning snuggles. It's a special time and I think helps them feel closer as siblings.

10. The giant teddy
Another mum mentioned this to me as a goer. From toddler age (when they aren't going to suffocate under it!) a teddy about as big as they are is perfect to cuddle. This did seem to help the boy - a cheap one from Ikea but big enough to have a proper cuddle with and to make his bed feel a little less empty.

11. The nap
It's so hard to drop the nap! That moment in the day when you get stuff done or lie in a stupor on the sofa with a cup of tea. You really don't want to let go of this much-needed break from your marauding toddler's antics. But when the nap goes, often you can get them to sleep by like 7.15pm. And have a meal and a glass of wine. Watch telly. Because you weren't lying on their bedroom floor begging them to go to sleep till 9.30...

12. The evening potter
Don't underestimate the value of just being around. So many long evenings I spent singing lullabies, holding little hands, slowly going crazy in the dark as my attempt to escape downstairs to the sofa was thwarted every time! If you leave the hall light on, you can be pottering around their bedroom putting laundry away in a quiet and efficient manner while they drift off, secure that you're not abandoning them. Even better you can be across the hallway, in your bedroom, doing stuff you need to do but in a noisy way that means they know you are there. And you can stick your head in now and then. And if you promise you will be back in a minute, you pop back in a minute. They really do just learn to chill about the whole bedtime thing. I really wish I had done this one more!

13. The medical reason
So the enduring nature of my son's sleep problems have been explained to a great extent by a dietary intolerance to wheat and some form of reflux. He was a sicky baby, never got on with formula milk, breast fed little and often till I finally threw in the towel when he was 18 months, was colicky and upset at night with nightmarish hourly night-wakings wherever he slept. At the age of 22 months, we finally realised a medical opinion might be sensible. Even then it took months of wondering, trips to the doctor and experimenting with gaviscon, rantidine, domperidone and diet to finally work out what helps him. We don't have a formal diagnosis, purely by trial and error we worked out that no wheat and a nightly dose of ranitidine are what he needs to be able to sleep at night (plus sister, big bed, mummy pillow and socks obviously). And also it turns out, what he needs to grow and get roses in his cheeks.

The thing is, I had to hugely stick to my guns to get this far. No, I didn't want another leaflet on Solihull Sleep Training from the Health Visitors. My instincts told me something was hurting him. And he looked like a pale Victorian little waif too. I wish I'd acted sooner but you keep hoping they will grow out of things don't you? So, each child is different. Please don't read this as advice to give up wheat or whatever. All I'm saying is, if this has been going on for a while and your instinct is there is something up, don't leave your baby to scream in pain or till they are sick. Rule out a medical reason.

14. The emotional reason 
As mentioned above, young children need comfort and reassurance. Any change in family set-up, moving house, starting nursery or mum going back to work can upset them and lead to regression in sleep patterns. There was definitely a transition for my daughter and I when I went back to 12.5 hour nursing shifts - I would get home and desperately hope that she would wake up so I could feed her and get some time back. She definitely woke up more but also really bonded with her Dad when I was working nights and weekends. Do whatever you can to make sure they are getting the attention and comfort they need, from someone even if it can't be you.

15. The personality 
Clearly there are some babies born to sleep, some are not. Apparently my sister was the angel sleeper my parents deserved after having me. We thought my daughter was a bad sleeper but actually, in retrospect, she was pretty normal for a breastfed baby and after a protracted bedtime, would sleep through mostly from around 15 months. My son is a very affectionate, cuddly little person and likes to be around people. It makes sense that for him, he needs extra reassurance. Sleeping in a cot in a room on his own was never going to happen. But then, you get to know your kids gradually don't you? It's not at all obvious when your little newborn arrives and you expect one personality and get another!

Please feel free to share your tips below. Goodnight and good luck!

And for some light relief, you might enjoy this book, Go the F*** to Sleep. Though my kids keep finding it and asking me to read it as a bedtime story, it's REALLY not for them.


  1. I really enjoyed your post and advice. My baby is still sleeping in my bed but I look towards the future with trepidation! I have a friend who went through exactly the same as you did, so I know first hand that there is no magic solution: some kids just don't sleep well. Thanks for putting your story out there!

  2. HI Julie, thanks for your comment. I don't want to terrify parents of younger babies, they are all different and you will get there eventually! Enjoy the time you have now - snuggling up with a little one in bed is a really special time and one day when they are sleeping soundly in their own bed, you will miss it :) xx

  3. Congrats on getting through that! Not exactly a tip - but a resource I've found great is the book Bedtiming. It really helps explain why they might be sleeping badly or well at different stages due to emotional and mental development, which I find helps us figure out how to respond (or just count down until the stage is over!).

  4. I dont know that one! I like Dr Sears' The Baby Sleep Book - just generally very sympathetic to parents and children with flexible ideas.

  5. Nicely put. With thanks.