Sleep is such a precious gift.
And one so rarely found in the early months of parenthood.
I’ve always been partial to a good Sunday morning lie-in and, to be frank, didn’t take my sleepless-parent friends very seriously when they told me to enjoy them for as long as I could. Surely the kids would just fall asleep eventually? I mean, a few bad nights here and there wouldn’t be too hard to deal with, would they? After all, there’s a phrase that goes ‘sleeping like a baby’ to describe the most peaceful slumbers, isn’t there?
Then I got a non-sleeping baby of my own. And oh, how many nights I’ve spent apologising for not taking my sleepless-parent friends seriously… There really is nothing else like the ear-piercing wail of your baby in the night – perfectly attuned to your own personal freak-out frequency – to give you an adrenalin rush of near-death proportions and to propel you out of bed vertically.
I could perhaps have survived a few months. I ended up having to cope with a couple of years of it. Then I went and had another non-sleeper and they tag-teamed me for even longer.
I was a physical and mental wreck.
Everything, from my eyeballs to my joints, hurt. My mind felt like crazy-paving where all of the edges were white-hot and sharp. I was brittle. And I embarked upon a diet largely made up of coffee, cake and toast. Simple, quick calories that gave me just enough energy to deal with the next challenge presented by my tiny tormentors. God, I loved them. But GOD, I wished they would just bloody sleep.
I went into this particular stage of motherhood in more depth in an earlier post. I include it here in the hope that it’ll make some mums smile and nod along or maybe chuckle a bit, and to show that I really understand how people feel when they discuss how badly lack of sleep affects them:
Of course, at the time, I heard all sorts of rumours about getting kids to sleep that I can dispel here and now:
1) The earlier you put them to bed, the better they sleep (no, that just makes them angry).
2) The better they eat, the better they sleep (erm no, mine both eat like elephants and still don’t sleep).
3) Tire them out during the day with lots of exercise (nope, they just get angry and tired).
4) Leave them to cry (absolutely not for mine, they were as traumatised as I was).
5) Stick to a strict routine (no, you can just set your clock by the evening screams).
6) Threaten to run away and join the Foreign Legion if they don’t stop (I didn’t end up trying this one, but I was close…).
You are reading the writing of someone who tried everything to get the little darlings to sleep. Lavender on the pillow. Warm baths. Ewan the Sheep. Swaddling. Cherry juice. Endless midnight cuddles. Putting them back into bed 100x a night in total silence whilst I rocked on the steps outside the bedroom door. Getting up at the time that they got up and pretending it was day time. Heavy blinds at the window. Bribery. Threats.
The fact is that if you have a poor sleeper, they are simply born like that. You are not any less of a parent than someone whose baby naturally sleeps like a little angel. You are not being punished for previous sins. No amount of calm and mindful reactions will stop them shrieking in the night (though it might make you feel better). In our society, there is a weird common perception that all kids should want to sleep all the time – when they really don’t.
A friend and excellent birth supporter and advocate, Bridget Supple (check her out on FaceBook at Bridget Supple Antenatal) put a post up some time ago that really rang true for me. You need to visit Bridget’s FB page for these nuggets of cool, pure wisdom and sisterly support:
“Researchers from Canada studied 388 infants at 6 months, and 369 infants at 12 months. They defined sleeping through the night as 6 or 8 hours of sleep without any waking. They found that at 6 months, 38% of the babies couldn’t make it six hours without waking – and a full 57% didn’t sleep eight hours at once. At 12 months, those numbers were better but still not great: 28% didn’t sleep six hours straight and 43% didn’t sleep eight hours.”
If you’ve ever been a parent or carer utterly eviscerated by the sleeplessness of your babies, don’t those statistics blow your mind?
YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
Your child is not the only child doing this! The regularly-repeated ‘fact’ that they ‘should’ be sleeping 12 hours at least a night is just plain wrong! In fact, it’s more than half that don’t sleep crazy amounts at night. So why are we doing this to ourselves? Forcing ourselves into contortions to make them sleep and panicking that something is horribly wrong if they don’t?
Well, parental sanity is one thing. I nearly went loopy without sleep so, without question, you need it. But better societal acceptance that a baby’s sleep isn’t and shouldn’t be perfect would definitely help reduce the pressure that you feel to get it right.
Also, in that horrible hinterland where sleep evades the household, just saying ‘other people are having a bad time too and it’ll get better’ just doesn’t cut it. You need some stone cold advice from professionals if it’s become so bad that you answer the iron instead of the phone and put the milk in the washing machine instead of the fridge.
And this is where another friend the Play Therapist, Rebecca, came in with an offer from the Gods themselves. Did I want to attend a sleep seminar given by a professional sleep charity? Does a bear…? The answer, in short, was yes.
The Children’s Sleep Charity was set up by a mum, Vicki Dawson, in dire straits who needed some straight answers to these particular problems. Recognising that it was a shared problem – and that parents or carers with special needs children have a particularly hard time with sleep problems – she set up a charity to deal with the topic. They aim to work with both parents and NHS professionals in order to introduce gentle changes that have a lasting effect on your children’s sleep.
Our local Child Development Centre had won the chance to host a sleep session provided by the charity and it was delivered by the resolutely practical sleep practitioner, Helen Rutherford. She provided plain common sense backed up by medical science and experimentation. There are no Gina Ford tough love solutions here, nor are there any suggestions that you should duck tape your baby or child to your body and endure the sleeplessness as a mark of your maternal fortitude. The lesson given out was that this needn’t be your life and here are a raft of things you can do to make good, incremental changes.
The session began with a bonding experience: a piece of A3 paper where we could detail just how bloody awful sleeplessness made us all feel and what kind of effect it had on us day-to-day.
Yes to all of that. And if we feel like that, how do our children feel? After all, they’re suffering from lack of sleep too. It was like a lightbulb moment for me and it certainly helped to explain some struggles my eldest had been having at school. Cognitive function and concentration capacity just plummets when they have little or disrupted sleep. Fine motor skills are affected as are their emotions and general development. A good baseline of sleep is immensely important to improve all of these things.
She also described sleep cycles to us in a way that made them accessible and eminently understandable. Now I knew why my two would suffer night terrors at certain points of the night and not others. And why the little darlings seemed to wake up at similar times during the night. The trick being to let them root around and shuffle about in order to soothe themselves back to sleep – even if it is by having a little whinge – whilst at the top of their cycle where the sleep is shallower.
We discussed the various reasons why our kids wouldn’t sleep and related them to known reasons that can interrupt sleep. Some kids are naturally good at self-soothing, others have what we termed ‘fizzy brains’. Some of that is like a base-line inability to squelch the thoughts in your head that keep you awake. Most of us learn various techniques over time that we use to help send ourselves off: reading books, listening to music, warm drinks/baths, no coffee after 5pm, (inordinate amounts of red wine, ahem) etc, etc. Kids haven’t learnt those techniques yet so it’s up to us to give them some good guidance.
Helen suggested some simple changes to the regular sleep routines that we all employed:
Screens of any sort off at least 1 hour before bed (the blue light that makes them so visible interferes with the sleep hormone, melatonin).
For the same reason, lower the lights in your lounge or wherever the kids are before bedtime.
Make the bedroom as dark and plain as you can to prevent excessive visual stimulation. The bedroom should be just a sleep room.
Get the temperature right. 16-20 degrees C is about right but it should be towards the lower end of that bracket. Having a lower temperature in the bedroom is important for the children’s bodies to be able to regulate their own body temperature during the night.
You can also give them some tryptophan-inducing foods. You may well have heard of some of these and even tried them to little effect (sodding cherry juice). But the trick is to give them at least half an hour before bed to give them time to work and they need to be given with a carbohydrate to aid digestion. So in contradiction to long held beliefs, a small amount of cheese on crackers – perhaps with a cherry juice chaser – would be perfect.
Children also need to have used up all that extra mental energy that they have. This is where proprioceptive activities come in.
Proprioception is defined as: The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. In humans, these stimuli are detected by nerves within the body itself, as well as by the semi-circular canals of the inner ear. In other words, it’s the sensation of where our body is in space or in relation to another object
The activities you can do to very gently stimulate the mind and body to sop up the last of the energy to aid soothing are varied. Quiet colouring in, a simple jigsaw puzzle, massage, threading pipecleaners in and out of a colander, all of these gentle repetitive tasks that use hand and eye co-ordination, in a way that doesn’t frustrate your child, are useful. One of the ladies attending the session told us that her child loved having a blow-up core balance ball rolled up and down his body before bedtime! It engaged his senses just enough to calm him down before bedtime.
Some children (and adults too) would benefit from a particular type of music being played in the quiet hour before bedtime. Marconi Sounds have worked with the British Academy of Sound Therapy to create ambient music that helps to cut out some of the anxiety that can plague sleepless people in general. It apparently works for 60% of the population. I hope it works for you.
Another good point was to make staying awake after your official ‘bedtime’ incredibly boring. If you’re called into the bedroom again and again for cups of water, toilet breaks, abstract questions about the state of the world, answer in a dull monotone with your ‘sleep phrase’. This is something very simple that you say to them like “It’s time for sleep” and it becomes your mantra. Calling mum or dad into the bedroom again and again then becomes terribly boring because they’re neither getting a nice chat nor a bellowed threat.
Conversely, when you’re ready to wake them up, you do exactly the opposite. You wake them up with a flourish and your best Robin Williams GOOD MORNING VIETNAM voice. Open the windows, let the sunshine in, chirpy, chirpy, chirpy. If it helps, you can buy one of the SAD lights that give off a natural sunshiney-glow for dark winter mornings. Sit one of those at the breakfast table whilst they’re eating and you’ll all get a natural seratonin lift that helps you and the kids to distinguish between night and day.
There are other changes you can make that might be particularly appropriate to your child. I realised through talking to other parents that my eldest has some small sensory issues around the firmness of her mattress. She’ll happily sleep on the floor so I have had to re-think her sleeping arrangements. My youngest would happily sleep in a marshmallow cloud because she’s better at self-soothing and, frankly, nothing will stop her when she’s ready to sleep. Nowadays anyway (tut).
The point is that, until you talk to the professionals, and by this I mean the real professionals, not the GPs or nurses who haven’t had this training, and the other parents going through this, there are important issues that come to light for you that, previously, you couldn’t begin to imagine affecting you. Does your child manufacture less melatonin than other kids? I don’t know, but there’s a test that GPs can do to find out if they know it might be a factor in your child’s sleeplessness. You might find it worthwhile testing your sleepless child but don’t be downhearted if that’s not the immediate answer. As in life, there is rarely one miracle cure that sorts out the issue. Instead, there are many little factors that, if changed, can work together to make miracles happen.
Moreover, getting fellow sufferers together disproves the strong feeling that you are the only person going through this hell. That there is no escape and this terrible foggy nightmare is now your life. There is hope that things can change.
Fundamentally, what this seminar taught me was how to put the control back into your routines and to banish bad habits that can get in the way of your own mental health and that of your children. In my mind, anyone attempting to help parents beset by sleeplessness deserves nothing less than the Nobel Peace Prize. Imagine how much healthier – in all sorts of ways – we’d be if parents felt less broken after the birth of their children?!
Of course, I did one seminar some months ago which I am now attempting to relay to you in a blog post. You could do much better by approaching the charity yourself and reading up on the courses that they have to offer. If you have any children’s health centres in your area, maybe you could get in touch with them and see if they could bid for funding to have your own local sleep seminar. It’s not a luxurious added extra, this stuff is sanity saving and it needs campaigning for.
There is help out there for folks like you – seize it!
And, in the meantime, all of my love and sympathy, and I mean all of it, goes out to you if you are living through sleeplessness. You deserve a big hug and a quiet nap of at least two years in length to catch up on what you’ve lost. I can’t exactly give you that but I can give you the website address. Go forth and be both sleep-rich and happy!