Sleep deprivation is a bitch! And if you dare complain how exhausted and crappy you are feeling, you are sure to get the same old answer: “you need to do ‘sleep training.’
You know in your heart, your baby is going through a rough patch, perhaps he’s getting molars, maybe he has food allergies, he’s in childcare all day and he needs some extra connection with you at night. You don’t want ‘advice’, at least not unhelpful advice that undermines your confidence and makes you feel as though you are depriving your child – for life! But, if you don’t want to leave your baby to cry, you are likely to be told, “you are just postponing the inevitable,” and “you are making a rod for your back.” Or, “you are depriving your baby of an important skill.” And, the ‘kicker,’ “well, you have brought this on yourself.”
Sleep is not a learned skill like riding a bike or playing a piano – it’s a neurological process influenced by many factors, for instance:
Hunger – is your baby feeding well during the day or is he distracted? Is he experiencing a growth spurt and corresponding appetite increase? Or, have you been advised to space out feeds? Consider, your baby needs a certain amount of food in a 24 hour period so if you restrict feeds during the day, he will wake more at night to get his ‘quota’.
Separation anxiety – consider playing gentle music on a low volume or safely co-sleep;
Food allergy or intolerance – do you have a family history of allergies, asthma or excema? See here for information about foods and unsettled babies.
Practicing new mobility skills in her sleep – babies process information in their light sleep. While this is an important brain process, it can affect sleep temporarily. The good news is that when she masters the new skill, your baby will sleep longer again. See here for more information about baby sleep regressions.
Teething – elevate the head of the cot – extra circulation to the head and jaws from lying flat can create pressure);
Need to suck – check your baby’s feeding history with a relevant health professional such as a lactation consultant – babies with tongue tie, for instance, may be more prone to breathing interruptions and may need to suck (breastfeed or dummy) to re-regulate breathing;
Pain – could sore ears or some acid reflux be causing wakefulness (reflux babies usually wake suddenly with a yelp as though being pricked by a pin)?
Low iron levels – for toddlers, consider a simple blood test, as insomnia can be a symptom of low iron levels.
As your baby grows and matures neurologically through the early milestones, it’s much easier to help him sleep longer, without tears for you or your little one. Meanwhile though, this can be difficult to believe when there is so much noise about what you ‘should’ be doing. So, as some comfort to you, here are some things real life sleep deprived mamas tell us they need to know (and hear) when they are feeling exhausted and questioning themselves – you might want to print this list out and hand it to friends and family so they can support you:
I need to hear that I’m not alone and I’m not doing it all wrong!
“I feel like I’m going certifiably insane. This would all be made easier if I knew I wasn’t alone. I honestly feel as though I have the most sleepless toddler in the world right now.”
We need a safe space to lament our fatigue and a kind, reassuring ear without fear of the “Well, you bought it on yourself” & “try this great sleep trainer” comments.
“I remember feeling that when my son was waking to feed constantly, that because I wouldn’t sleep train him, it somehow meant I wasn’t permitted to ‘complain’ about my exhaustion.”
Taking care of yourself is key. (I keep forgetting that)
“The better my needs are met, the better I can deal with the nights. And, when I’m having an extra hard time dealing with it, often my iron or magnesium levels are low, so that’s something to watch out for.”
infant sleep changes constantly and there is no magic solution that works every time with every baby.
“Teething was often the cause of extra-unsettled-ness for us. There was a kind of gap of better sleep between second-last and last molars that lulled us into a false sense of security. Sleep was much better after the end of the teeth.”
It does get better and the connection you will have with your child is absolutely worth it.
They say, the two greatest gifts you can give your child are ‘roots’ and ‘wings’ By showing your child you are there for her day and night, she will develop secure ‘roots.’ As she grows beyond this intense baby stage, she will develop the confidence to ‘fly’, knowing you have her back if she starts to free-fall, whatever stage she is at.
You are doing a great job, Mama!
Every mother needs to hear this, every single day. Tell a tired mother this today.
Pinky McKay is an internationally certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) . For gentle baby sleep solutions, check out her book ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’ (Non Australians can buy from Amazon), and her baby sleep seminars.