I’ve not written about our daughter’s sleep before on here, but over the last two years, it’s been a constant topic of discussion, thought and anxiety. It’s only in the last 6 months that I’ve become comfortable with where we’re at in terms of sleeping and have taken the pressure off of ourselves. We ended up co-sleeping and we’re ok with that. I’ll go back to the beginning…
Having a baby that doesn’t sleep through the night
So chances are you’re a parent yourself, or perhaps you’re pregnant and looking forward to the joys of parenthood. Either way, congratulations – it truly is the best thing in the world. Bloody hard, but the best thing without a doubt!
Well you may or may not know that one of the most prolific questions out there for any new mum is “is s/he sleeping through yet?”. I’ve been asked this hundreds, if not thousands of times about Flo in the last 2 years and if I’m honest, it still hits a nerve every time. A little less of a raw nerve these days, but a nerve none the less.
A newborn, breast-fed baby
So we were able to exclusively breast-feed for the first 11 months of our daughter’s life and we chose to feed on demand (ie. shove the boob in whenever the little one wanted it), which worked well for us and our baby. She was an “efficient feeder” which meant she’d latch on for 10 minutes or so and gulp a load down, rather than sit on the boob for hours on end. But she did graze and wanted feeding regularly, sometimes every hour. This continued through the night. So from day 1 of our baby’s life, we were feeding every 1-2 hours for the majority of the day and night. We’d occasionally get a random stint of 3 hours between feeds, but never more than that.
That was normal for us. It was hard, draining, exhausting, but normal.
When at 6-8 weeks old, lots of my friends started commenting that they had their first 8 hour night (ie. “sleeping through”), I rejoiced, as Flo was the youngest in the group and I thought she’d be bound to follow suit within a couple of weeks. That never happened, and I think this was for a couple of reasons.
Unexplained tummy upset
So at about 6 weeks, Flo went from being a really calm and happy baby, who just woke to eat then went back to sleep – to at about 5pm every evening (aka “the witching hour”), she’d become really uncomfortable and difficult to settle. It wasn’t colic, it wasn’t illness, it just seemed something was making her uncomfortable and looking back, we think it was her tummy. Probably because it was still developing and she was feeding so much, just one of those things really. Some babies get that, some don’t. Flo got it and it meant that the only way she could settle and go to sleep happy, was lying on her tummy. Which at 6 weeks old, the only safe way to do so, was on my chest.
Therefore every night, without fail, I’d try to put her down in her next-to-me-crib, on her back and within minutes she’d wake, crying, writhing around and unhappy. As soon as she was on her tummy on me or daddy, she’d be happier. She’d still wake, as whatever was causing her discomfort was still there, but she’d settle quicker having lovely mummy or daddy snuggles.
So although this was really hard and meant I had to sleep sitting up for months and waking at her every fidget, it was the only thing to do to ensure we all got at least a few hours’ kip. It also felt like the right thing to do.
This unexplained tummy upset went on for about a year. No one could help or explain or really offer us any useful advice. It was “just one of those things”. She was happy, healthy, growing, alert, full of personality, but for some reason every evening, she’d become really uncomfortable and just couldn’t settle off to sleep for any longer than an hour or two at a time.
We tried everything
During this time, we tried it all – expressing, introducing formula, crying, bottle feeding, breast-feeding, crying, various newborn friendly sleep cushions and supports (did I mention crying?) and nothing beat the comfort that me and daddy could give her. So we ended up co-sleeping. That’s it – ended-up. I didn’t go out thinking that’s what I wanted from my motherhood experience. I didn’t even really understand how it all worked. I just presumed that one night, after a few months, we’d move our perfect little baby into her own room in her cot, put a musical mobile on above her, dim the lights and she’d dose off into an undisturbed night of blissful sleep.
This happens for some people, so I understand. But it never happened for us.
Instead we spent countless months, exhausted, trying everything we could to get her to sleep, unaided, without us. Sensory sleeping, non-sensory sleeping, rocking her off, laying her down, dream-feeding, putting her down awake, putting her down asleep. And without fail she’d be awake within the half hour. We’d spend out entire evenings relaying to resettle her – hours we should have spent together, holding hands, watching TV, resting. But no, we were at our wits end and we thought she should be “sleeping through”.
The beauty of co-sleeping
So from what was an unintentional coping method and means of getting at least an hour or two’s undisturbed sleep (all of us), came a method of keeping everyone happy at bedtime. We decided that we were co-sleeping and hey, it wasn’t so bad. I breastfed until she was about 13 months old and even then, she still fed every 2 hours, so by that age, we used to just lie side by side, I’d dose off and she’d feed. We were both happy. Whenever she’d wake (for whatever unknown reason!), we’d be right there to comfort her and she’d settle really quickly. We cut out the anxiety, the stress, the exhaustion of relentlessly trying to get her down in her own cot in her own room.
Finding a rhythm
Once we accepted that Flo perhaps wasn’t like many of her friends and didn’t self-settle that easily and woke a lot throughout the night, we found our own routine that worked for us. This was feeding her to sleep in her own room, putting her down in the cot and re-settling as many times as we needed to until it was time for us to go to bed. Then we’d bring her in with us, so we could at least get that few hours of sleep. We’d wake up with the three of us in bed.
Co-sleeping is not without it’s downsides…lack of space with a growing baby/toddler being the main one. Lack of ‘intimate time” with your partner. Lack of a fully undisturbed night’s sleep. But most of my parent friends, co-sleeping or not, suffer with all of the above, so I don’t think that’s just a result of co-sleeping – I think it’s just a result of parenting full-stop.
And two years in, we are still partially co-sleeping. She goes down in her own bed (most nights), she’ll usually do a 2, 3 or maybe 4 hour stint without waking, but often still wakes every hour or two. 95% of the nights she’ll end up in our bed by 1am and there she stays until about 7/7.30pm and guess what?! we’ve had about 6 or 7 hours sleep, which after 2 years of not sleeping through, is blissful!
My message to other Mothers
Why am I writing this? Partly because it’s cathartic to finally reflect from a good place where I’m happy and content with our co-sleeping situation, is a wonderful thing. But partly because I just know how many other mums out there are beating themselves up about a similar situation…thinking that co-sleeping is failing, or thinking they’re doing something wrong. So many people (mums, dads, health professionals even) push this notion of your baby needing to “sleep through” or “self-soothe”, but it’s bullsh*t! Every baby/toddler/child is different and has different wants and needs from the world. Some are cuddly and tactile and so love to be in close contact, some love their own space and have no qualms lying down by themselves. Some like sleeping on their front, some on their back or side. Some go to sleep easily, some take hours to wind-down (just like us adults!) and some will sleep in big chunks (usually 5 or 6 hours, not 12 like you may think) without waking, and some will wake hourly.
None of these things are wrong. They are just little, tiny humans, working their way into the world. It’s all perfectly normal (I hate that word!).
What is wrong, is sleep-deprived, emotional parents beating themselves up about what they think they should and shouldn’t be doing. This does not make for a happy family unit.
So if like us, you’ve somehow ended up co-sleeping and you’re worried it’s not the right thing. Don’t worry. Do what you need to do to make your family unit happy, healthy and do what you need to do to make sure you get enough sleep! It’s perfectly natural to sleep with your baby and is still practised lots across the world, where it’s less of a conversation topic as it seems to be with UK parents.
And just think, one day they’ll be teenagers and won’t even want you to touch them. So just enjoy the cuddles, enjoy those special moments of bonding and give yourselves a break.