What it’s really like: When your baby won’t sleep

Henry sleepingBy Shawna Gamache

I always knew what I feared most about parenthood: sleep deprivation. No question. During pregnancy, when strangers and even dear friends insisted on peppering me with advice on all things baby, I always steered them to the topic that interested me most: How much were they sleeping? How much did their baby sleep? How could they LIVE like that? I was truly terrified, and it seemed like no amount of preparation could save me from the inevitable fog of exhaustion and misery.

You see, I LOVED sleep. No matter how well-rested I was, I hit that snooze button at least four times a morning. In college, I cultivated a deep affection for afternoon naps. On weekends, hubby and I never missed our siestas. And we were like bears in a cave when it came to our nighttime slumber: woe to anyone who woke us before we were ready. We liked our nine hours, loved our 10 hours better. How would we ever live through months of four-hour nights?

But here I sit, five years into this wild parenting adventure, and without a single straight nine-hour night sleep among them– and I’ve got a big, wide grin on my face. I really did learn to survive on less sleep. A LOT less sleep. Somewhere between the first few months of madcap survival mode, and the ensuing years of hard reality, I adjusted the way I thought about sleep, and somehow my body begrudgingly followed.

Baby sleep certainly wasn’t better than I expected. My baby was the worst sleeper in my PEPS group, the worst among all of my friends, the worst ever really (well, since me, if you ask my mom). My first daughter rarely strung two hours together in the first three months. When she hit 20 weeks and started doing three-hour stretches, I was ecstatic. Still exhausted, but ecstatic.

Both of my daughters celebrated their first birthday well before their first five-hour stretch of sleep. But here I sit, five weeks away from welcoming my third daughter, and though I know what’s coming, I’m not terrified. And, no, I’m not buying into the hype that third babies are easy babies (But of course I’d happily accept that reality!). Here are some things I plan to keep in mind this time around.

Accept that babies don’t sleep… for a while

I wasted a lot of time in the earliest weeks reading about how to make babies sleep. A lot of time that I should have been sleeping. In fact, if you’re reading this right now through tiny exhausted eye-slits, STOP IT!! The sooner you let go of control over your newborn’s sleep cycle, the happier you will be.

There are myriad things you can do to help an older baby sleep better. And you will read about those things in due time. But in the earliest months, the constant strategizing and dashed hopes will just add to your exhaustion and misery. Meanwhile, you missed out on crucial pillow time.

When you can’t sleep… embrace rest

At some point during my daughter’s babyhood, I heard a line that stuck with me: Rest is just as good as sleep. I took it on as a mantra. Is this scientifically proven? I have no idea. Does it feel true? Yes! During times when I just “couldn’t” sleep, I found that consciously resting helped immensely. Maybe I was lying next to her and couldn’t quite get comfortable. Maybe I had inexplicable insomnia despite needing sleep so badly I couldn’t see straight. Maybe a friend had offered to hold the baby for an hour and I had too tiny a chunk of time in which to “really” sleep.

Eventually, I learned to sit or lie quietly, and let go of my body’s panicked, frantic need for sleep. I told myself that rest was as good as sleep and I vowed to rest. I breathed deeply. I pushed thoughts away. I closed my eyes. I accepted the opportunity to rest gratefully. More often than not, real sleep would follow. But even when it didn’t, I felt better.

When you chose not to rest… do it mindfully

There are so many times when you can’t even rest. When you are bouncing a newborn on an exercise ball, or holding a screaming, teething baby for hours. When you are changing diapers, doing laundry, actively engaged in play with a crazed, overtired baby who won’t sleep.

Those times can stretch on for hours and hours, and by the time you are actually through them, you are usually so amped up that you don’t realize they’ve ended. Sometimes I would catch myself mindlessly reading celebrity news stories on my phone in the middle of the night hours after baby had fallen asleep in my arms. And I wasn’t even enjoying myself!

So often, I found I was just as desperate for a moment to myself as I was for a little shut-eye. That’s OK, and we as new parents definitely need to seize those moments as well. But half-heartedly taking them on auto-pilot will not make you feel more whole. Try to be mindful of what you’re doing. If what you really want is to binge-watch two episodes of Buccaneers on Netflix rather than catching some sleep, you should! Just do it mindfully, knowing what you’re giving up.

It’s not you, it’s them… really

One of the hardest parts of constant sleep deprivation is the accompanying certainty that all of the other new parents around you are getting TONS of sleep. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when other parents talk about having to wake their baby up to nurse, but the reality is that it’s really not about your parenting, or their parenting. It’s about your baby and her needs.

We parents are competitive about so many things that are really out of our hands. Maybe you will co-sleep until preschool. Maybe you will employ cry it out in the early months. But the reality is there is no one-size-fits-all sleep solution. You will eventually come into your own as a parent and find what works best for your family. Meanwhile, try to hold yourself as gently as you hold your baby. Let go of your expectations. Embrace as much calm and peace as you can.

Sleep deprivation can be… beautiful

Well, actually being sleep deprived is not beautiful. You will need some awesome eye cream and copious amounts of dry shampoo to get you halfway to bedraggled. But those late-night wakings with your blinking newborn, your sweet baby, your chatty toddler–even the great big five-year-old who climbs into your bed crying about her bad dream “about several mean dinosaurs”– can be so lovely.

When I think back on favorite moments with my babies, so many of them happened in the cool quiet of the night, or in the weak yellow light of early morning. A little upturned face looking to me for comfort, a tiny finger curling my hair absentmindedly. The chair creaking slightly as we rocked for hours, and the weight of that warm little bundle nestled under my chin. The way it felt to just let go and live in that moment with them. I am honestly glad for every hour I took with them. I see huge expanses of luxurious slumber in my not-so-distant future, but I know I’ll miss those simple sleepless hours for the rest of my life.


About the Author

Shawna GamacheShawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and co-founder of the local blog Moms Alive. She is mama to Ruby, 3, and Quinn, 5, and is expecting a third daughter later this summer. No, she was not trying for a boy. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, knitting and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.

  One thought on “What it’s really like: When your baby won’t sleep

  1. July 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    It took us 19 months to string even 2 hours together…and Wednesday was his third birthday and we still don’t get more than 4 in a row. We lovingly call him King Crappysleeper. He doesn’t NEED sleep, has never needed even 10 hours combined in a 24 hour period. How did/do we survive? Attitude. 100% about attitude. We went through various periods of trying different sleep training – we have tried them all. And it was only when we tried to control the situation were we truly and exhaustingly over our heads. When we just accepted that our baby does not sleep, we took it all in stride knowing without a doubt that someday we would look back and truly marvel and wonder “how did we survive?!” With a smile. And hugs. And lots a patients. And I took “sleep when the baby sleeps” to heart.

  2. shawnagamache
    July 20, 2014 at 3:09 am

    That sounds SO rough! I love what you say that “it was only when we tried to control the situation were we truly and exhaustingly over our heads.” That is it, exactly.

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