Don’t ask me about sleep!

Please don’t ask me about sleep. Actually do. Because it’s the only thing I can talk about right now. But I get so bored thinking about it, let alone talking about it. And I’m sure I’ll bore you too. You don’t really want to know. But please ask, because I need to share my struggles. Although you’ll regret having ever asked, because it really is just so boring.

As I write this, I am four days into a new settling strategy. Ah, the world of settling! My daughter is 9 months old and I have reached depths of sleep deprivation that I never knew possible. Being a psychologist who specialises in perinatal wellbeing, and having learned many things first time around, I was convinced I would have it covered when my second child came along. How silly was I for thinking any such thing!

And just because my passion lies in pregnancy and parenting, I am not a sleep expert! Even if I was, no one can make the right decisions, or any decisions for that matter, when totally exhausted. And knowledge is worthless when one is too tired to see a situation objectively, not to mention have the energy to change it.

It is important to mention at this point that, at no time have I expected my daughter to sleep through the night. I have always maintained that babies are programmed to wake several times at night. And I have seen that my role as her mother is to respond to her in a timely manner whenever she does wake, tuning in to what she needs at that point in time. I am happy to continue to feed her overnight if this is what she needs. But I do need help to try to settle her without feeding, when she really isn’t hungry. This is what I have been too tired to do, and night after night find myself resorting to what is easiest – feeding her back to sleep. Most of all, I want her to have the opportunity for better sleep, for her own wellbeing and development.

Like they say, it takes a village to raise a child. I finally conceded that I couldn’t do it alone. I was too confused and exhausted. I was ready to shake the rapidly encroaching, and at times overwhelming, feelings of hopelessness, guilt and responsibility, not to mention the regret I felt each time I unfairly reacted to my husband or toddler. I needed help. I needed sleep. I needed time and space to look after myself, to enjoy my family, and to learn to talk about something other than sleep!

Following a recommendation, I booked in a home visit from a sleep nurse. The 3 weeks I waited for this meeting felt like forever. And during that time we regressed to a point that felt beyond repair. For me, anyway – I’m sure my daughter was doing just fine! But like anything, the day of the nurse’s visit came and went and the torture that preceded it started to fade. Well, not quite. But I did start to regain a sense of hope that enabled me to begin moving forward…

Here are six key lessons I learned on this journey:

1. Consistency is fair
Settling during the day and feeding to sleep at night is confusing for the baby, and it is unrealistic to expect any change to occur if this is the pattern. It takes 3 days to shift a pattern and 3 weeks to establish a new one, they say. So choose one and run with it, setting up the required supports to get you through.

2. Play and diet are equally important
A focus on sleep alone is not enough. An infant’s play schedule and diet are equally important contributors to their sleep. More specifically, growing children need active play where they have the opportunity to become tired, and they need time to burn off the energy from a comprehensive diet prior to sleep.

3. Know your baby
Your baby is an individual so any approach you take must reflect their unique needs. This means listening to what your child is telling you; spend some time distinguishing the cries; when your child needs you to help him or her manage emotions, and when to give him or her space to learn to tolerate unpleasant feelings or learn new ways of responding.

4. Reach out for help
Help is available, in many forms. This will happen when you are ready, so don’t beat yourself up for waiting too long. Your self-care needs are important however, so be sure to regularly check-in with yourself and act before it’s too late. A prioritisation of our own wellbeing enables us to meet our children’s physical and emotional needs.

5. Mindfulness is key
Our kids are always changing and so the demands on us parents are too. We can only be truly attuned to our children when we see them with a presence of mind that filters out our own struggles and past experiences. Taking some deep breaths and grounding ourselves in the present moment before responding benefits everyone involved.

6. Small change can come quickly
By following the above suggestions we maximise the potential for change. Our children are our mindfulness teachers, and as such they don’t hold onto the past like we do. This flexibility enables them to shift old patterns relatively quickly. Everything is impermanent; change is inevitable.

And now, fast forward 4 months, my little one is sleeping well. Phew! The relief I feel when I hear her cry out during the night and resettle herself back to sleep is incredible. Knowing she has learned this important skill also informs me that trouble falling asleep or staying asleep indicates she is struggling with something (e.g., pain or illness) and needs me to help her manage it.

As another chapter of the parenting journey closes, another will surely open and present new challenges. Please don’t ask me about…

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