Why some babies sleep and some babies torture you instead

I wrote this post a month or so ago and never got round to sharing it. Unfortunately for me (not least because I have never wanted to be able to  use the adjective “scrotal” to describe accurately my under-eye skin), it turns out that mere contemplation of a blog post on the topic of sleep was sufficient to trigger an enormous, calamitous Sleep-Jinx. I should have known better. We are in the midst of the six-month sleep regression/first teeth hell. My poor baby no longer naps for longer than 20 minutes and wakes pretty much every 40 minutes at night. Somewhat ironically, I am too knackered to edit the original draft, let alone write something new, so here it stands. A testament to my enduring naivety and in memory of the last occasion when I had more than two consecutive hours of sleep. 

It is probably waaaay too soon to say it but my daughter seems to be a decent sleeper. [*Laughs hollowly*] I mean, she wakes at least twice in the night for milk and sometimes she can’t settle and some nights she chats away for a couple of hours when I REALLY wish she were sleeping and all I can think is that my son is bound to wake up just after she finally goes to sleep (because this is pretty much a dead cert)… but that all seems eminently sensible for a five month old baby.

My son, bless his heart, was a TERRIBLE sleeper. He has allergies and had reflux and the longest stretch he ever did until he was well over one was about three hours (save for one remarkable night when he slept for about seven hours and my husband and I spent most of it staring at him wondering if he was ok). He slept on one of us every night until he could roll over and lift his head up well, so that we felt comfortable letting him sleep on his tummy, but even then easing him from boob to bed was a complex exercise in stealth and guile (owing much to the “Hug ‘n Roll” technique deployed by Ross in Friends). We bought a super-king sized bed and co-slept until he was around one, at which point he slept in his own room until about midnight and then would come and kick one of us in the head until around 5am, when he would wake up for the day.

I have never know desperation and exhaustion like that caused by my beautiful, restless son. I can barely remember the first year of his life: it passed in a sleep-deprived fog. I spent much of my time reading about infant sleep through bleary eyes; we came up with countless (and ineffectual) plans to improve matters; depending on our frame of mind, we either frantically sought or frustratedly dismissed counsel from our patient friends; in the end, we even had a sleep consultant come to help us for a few days.

My conclusion now? Some babies, like some adults, find it difficult to sleep soundly or for long periods at a time. This almost certainly isn’t anyone’s fault. It isn’t going to be solved by blackout blinds or white noise machines or a lavender-scented bath or a bedroom at the perfect temperature or the right bedtime story (although those things might help a bit). As someone who read pretty much everything the internet had to offer when searching for The Cure, I genuinely am sorry to break the news… but there is no panacea for babies who are shit at sleeping.

Other babies sleep better. They like sleeping on their backs and they can settle themselves if they’re not hungry or wet and they even go down “sleepy but awake” and get themselves to sleep. (Before having my daughter, I simply did not understand this concept; it was hard to think of a more preposterous and enraging suggestion as to how I might go about getting my baby son to sleep). But hey, guess what?! This doesn’t have anything to do with the parents either! So if you have a Sleeper and you’ve been feeling smug about your superior parenting skills, don’t. (Or at least don’t overdo the smugness in the company of anyone who hasn’t been quite so blessed.)

I appreciate my sample size is small so we’ll have to put any claims of scientific rigour to one side. But based on my anecdotal evidence, my conclusions are as follows:

  • If your baby doesn’t sleep well, bad luck, my friend. Seriously, you have my every sympathy. My advice for you is do whatever you have to do to get some sleep during this difficult time and know that it will improve at some point. (I can’t say exactly when, I’m afraid, as my son is two and a half and he still wakes most nights.)
  • If your baby does sleep well, then congratulations! Your job is to commiserate with the unfortunate bugger referred to above and perhaps look after their children whilst they have a nap. You should try to bring them coffee and cake, regularly (because, in the absence of sleep, they probably now subsist exclusively on caffeine and sugar). And, most importantly, you should never (seriously, NEVER) suggest that they “try putting baby down sleepy but awake”.

Final thoughts from today: maybe it is my fault after all! I no longer have a sleeping child in my sample group. The only reasonable advice I can actually give based on the evidence before me is: SLEEP WHENEVER YOU CAN BECAUSE YOUR BABY MIGHT STOP ANY DAY NOW SAVE YOURSELF DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU

My son’s approach to sleeping in his cot

My daughter’s approach to sleeping in her cot (until she hit 5 and a half months – PRAY FOR ME)

Me for the last two and a half years 

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