This is a guest post from Sarah Walton, a member of the fantastic gentle baby sleep techniques and support group The Beyond Sleep Training Project on Facebook.
She has very kindly agreed to let me publish her wonderful, inspiring journey on how she overcame her baby sleep troubles as a first-time mum living under lockdown.
It’s taken me nearly 6 months to realise what now seems so obvious.
I don’t know what being a new mum outside of a pandemic is like.
I imagine I would have met other new mums at classes, groups and coffee shops etc and I would see other babies around the same age as Hera.
I imagine I would meet mums who have babies who sleep better and worse than mine, feed more and less regularly than mine and babies who are all hitting milestones at different times. I think I would have benefited from this social interaction and therapy a lot.
new mum life under lockdown
I do know what it’s like to be a new mum during a pandemic with no groups, classes or coffee shops and I replaced those new mum chats and meetings with reading what a bazillion new mums were sharing online about their babies.
A comment about sleeping through and long naps. A suggestion of sleep training. A remark about self-soothing and crying it out – all of them sending me into a spin.
trusting an app more than myself
“Why isn’t my baby doing that?”
“Why doesn’t Hera sleep more than 3 hours at a time?”
“Why do I need to rock and shush her to sleep?”
“Why does she wake up as soon as I put her down?”
I downloaded an app that tracks baby sleep and gives you a predicted ‘sweet spot’ for the next nap. Lovely stuff. It seemed to work well. That was, until I became obsessed by it. The notification pops up to say she’s due asleep in ten minutes and the panic sets in: quick, get her ready! Set up the monitor, get the white noise on! Prepare the playlist, check the room temperature and get rocking her like my life depends on it!
Every time I walked up the stairs with her, I prepared for battle. A military operation with one goal in mind:
Sometimes she dropped off straight away in my arms and I lay her down in her cot. Sometimes I was trying to get an undertired baby to sleep because the app said she should be. I paid them to do a report for me based on the 3 weeks of info I had input. It told me she should be napping longer and set a schedule for her to sleep up to 1.5 hours each nap – a far cry from the 30/45 minutes she was doing. This just further fuelled my worries as I was relying on this report to tell me what to do!
trying to follow “the rules”
Extend the naps, they said – errr, don’t you think I’ve tried?!
Be boring with her at night to avoid stimulating her, don’t smile at her. Erm, ok but what if she smiles at me??
Increase the calories during the day. She feeds all the bloody time so thanks for that!
Stop rocking her to sleep or she will always expect to be rocked to sleep. What? Even when she’s 25…?!
Instead of being excited about going round to someone’s garden or going out for a walk, I felt anxious and on edge. How would I get her to sleep without her sleeping bag/songs/white noise/darkness in her room? I became irritable when we were out as her nap time approached.
Sometimes she napped with no problem, other times she wasn’t interested. As soon as I realised she wasn’t going to sleep my anxiety would kick in. Convinced I had ruined the routine for the day and set myself up for a bad night, I would want to get home ASAP to frantically scour the internet to find out what I was doing wrong.
Was I creating a rod for my own back by rocking and singing her to sleep? Was I going to regret letting her into our bed at 4am? Was I making life harder for myself by going to her every time she cried? Do I need to start sleep training and teaching her to self soothe? Lots of other mums (and people who are paid to write good reviews for baby sleep programmes) were doing it and having blissful sleep all night!
stress & anxiety
My mind was racing all the time. Scrambling for ways to ‘fix’ my daughter who doesn’t want to nap for longer than 45 minutes and still wants feeding every 2/3 hours at night. It was frantic at times and my head hurt. I could see Craig wanted to help bring me down but when anxiety is at its worst, you hear the advice but the anxiety pushes it away and assumes ‘they don’t understand’. You can think of a hundred reasons why your worry is valid and real.
I read about mums who had used the cry it out method to get their babies to “self soothe”. One said it was an age old, tried and tested method and only took a few days for her baby to learn.
So I lay awake at night thinking about teaching her to self soothe. Sometimes when she would wake early from a nap, stir and then start to whimper I would stand back just for a minute to see what she would do (more specifically to see if she would fall back asleep). As soon as she cried I could feel my body tense and I would pick her up, each time telling myself that I was “giving into her”.
I was physically tired from the feeding and broken sleep but I realised I was also mentally exhausted by the ideals, the standards, the goals and the ridiculous pressure I was putting on myself to have a child that napped for more than an hour at a time and slept through the night. Or at least make her into one.
Make her into one.
Just that sentence. Like I can “make” her sleep or get her to settle herself with my magic wand that I’ve been hiding all this time.
something just clicked
Then, I read a poem called Thanks, But No Thanks by Amy Ewens and something just clicked. It’s taken me nearly 6 months to realise what now seems so obvious – it was up to ME how I parent! I can write my own individual guidelines for my own individual baby!
What if I don’t want my baby to cry, even just for a few nights while she “learns”?
What if I am the type of mum who goes to her whenever she needs me, no matter how often or what time of day/night?
What if it’s OK that my baby wakes up, misses me and just wants a cuddle?
What if my baby doesn’t need the 14 or 15 hours of sleep every day that someone, somewhere calculated? What if 13 is enough for her?
What if 45 minute naps are all she’s capable of right now?
What if missing a nap doesn’t mean the world stops spinning?
What if an 8:30pm bedtime is absolutely fine?
What if it’s ok to rock her to sleep? Or, God forbid, feed her to sleep?
What if none of these experts with their magical subscriptions know Hera, her personality or her needs? What if all they can offer is general advice based on averages? What if some (not necessarily all) are preying on new parents desperate to find answers that don’t exist?
What if Hera and/or her behaviour doesn’t fit neatly into the 5 to 6 month box in the same way I don’t fit neatly into the 462 to 463 month box?!
What if she has 3, 4 or 5 naps? Some of them downstairs with us, sometimes in her cot, sometimes in my arms?
What if I had never seen the app and I used HER cues to let me know when she’s tired?
What if, just what if, none of it really matters because she’s a happy, chunky baby and totally unpredictable at not yet 6 months old? She’s going through a sleep regression and teething but still giggles all the time! Why was I being so hard on us both?
I’ve tried to be every type of mum, following every type of schedule, using every type of tool and it almost made me ill.
finally enjoying my baby
Nobody knows how to be Hera’s mum better than me. No research, no study, no forum, no website is going to help me understand her needs more than me just being with her, getting to know her and actually enjoying her.
I’m grateful to my mum friends who I have reached out to, who gave me advice and reassurance. I’m grateful to have an understanding partner who didn’t just tell me to ‘stop panicking’. I’m grateful to the people in the fantastic Facebook group, The Beyond Sleep Training Project, who show so much support. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying and spent more time just being her mum.
To any mums out there feeling the pressure of the endless list of things to stress about, I implore you to stop and remember that you’ve got this and you’ll find your own path, with your own routines and ways of surviving. And if your baby doesn’t sleep too well, trust that it’s not your fault and one day they will, when they’re ready.
Time goes so quickly so enjoy the cuddles, the rocking and the booby snoozes as they will be long gone before you know it.
Don’t let anyone make you feel like less than the total warrior you are, raising a child during a global pandemic just doing your best.
Sarah is 38 and a first time mum. She lives in North West England with her partner Craig and their 6 month old daughter Hera.
If you would like to connect with other mums who are trying to navigate the rollercoaster of baby sleep without being able to access the usual baby groups and community services, join The Beyond Sleep Training Project on Facebook for amazing support.
Need quick tips to help with baby sleep? Check out my 15 Baby Sleep Techniques post!
Meanwhile, if like Sarah you have an inspiring story of mum life under lockdown, I’d love to hear from you and give you a platform on my blog.