‘It was like when I had concussion,’ explains Nell Frizzell when I asked her to explain what her experiences of sleep deprivation in early parenthood were like. ‘That’s the closest thing I would relate it to, where you lose words and you lose capacity to sort of retain information.
‘I would very frequently fall asleep whilst breastfeeding in bed, probably for two seconds,’ adds Nell, whose memoir Holding The Baby explores how we can improve parenting for everyone, ‘but I would wake up with that searing panic that my baby was under the pillow.’ Some of those night-time hallucinations teetered on the edge of what we’d probably call psychosis’.
Having experienced more than my fair share baby-related sleeplessness over the last few years, I’d be inclined to agree with Nell – those confusing middle-of-the-night wakeups, where I couldn’t remember where my baby was or what room I was in were the closest I’ve ever come to losing my grip on reality.
But what’s striking is that I didn’t mention this to anyone – I don’t think I even told my husband the next day. Instead, accepted that this exhaustion was par for the course when you have young children, and made myself another coffee.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell anyone, because for the last year I’ve thought more about sleep than anything else. It has run my life, it runs my family’s life, and it frequently feels like my future happiness is totally dependent on my baby’s ability to independently link one sleep cycle to the next (IYKYK).
At the end of last year, the author Holly Bourne went viral when she sent a tweet sort-of joking about how her baby had broken the sleep trainer. ‘Ok, what happens when the sleep trainer refunds you after two days saying they’re “totally baffled” by your baby?’
In a follow up piece for The Juggle she wrote about the relentless exhaustion that comes with having a baby that won’t sleep. ‘Everyone warns you about sleeplessness before you have a baby, but there’s a giant chasm between knowing that intellectually, and experiencing the relentless exhaustion yourself. Both my husband and I are back at work now, expected to function and flourish, after night after night of stressful torture. It’s almost like having a secret identity.’
Like Holly, I found most of my attempts to get help with my son’s sleep were fruitless. When he was six months old, and his sleep started to get worse rather than better, I begged my health visitor for help. She suggested that I needed to start putting him down ‘drowsy but awake,’ a phrase that makes my eye twitch when I hear it now, but shrugged when I explained that every time I put him down in his cot in anything but the deepest of sleeps he’d arch his back and scream the house down.
Instead, I did what any geriatric Millennial would do and turned to Instagram. I started following every self-professed sleep trainer I could find on Instagram with an emphasis on ‘gentle’ and ‘responsive’ consultants who promised to help you and your baby sleep without anyone ever shedding a tear. Confusingly, no one was clear on exactly how to do this (one trainer I spoke to told me my son was napping too much, another said he wasn’t napping enough).
I was served up tips, tricks and advice on baby sleep at an eye-watering rate. Most of the ‘consultants,’ and ‘experts’ I followed (I use quote marks here as it’s not always clear what training and experience many of them have – as an industry it’s totally unregulated) churned out daily memes and infographics on self-settling techniques, awake times and nap windows, which I hungrily devoured, desperate for that nugget of new information that would explain why my son was waking up every 45 minutes at night and would only sleep next to me. Instagram, seeing that I was engaging with this sort of content served me more and more, all designed as a gateway drug to get me to sign up and pay money to receive a personalised sleep schedule, or a 30-minute call with a sleep consultant, or access to a two-month, no-tears sleep course. I was too tired to locate my debit card, otherwise I would have signed up to a basket weaving course if someone told me it would get us four hours sleep in a row.
The other option (as suggested by my mother and anyone I know who has a child over the age of 10) was to let my son cry it out, which I might have done, except Instagram also kept showing me posts about the evils of so-called controlled crying. Interestingly, I didn’t see a single post about the evils of eight months of sleep deprivation on an adult woman, but there you go.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to anxiety, depression, burnout, an increased risk of post-natal depression. In the long-term sleep deficiency can increase the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, strokes, and obesity. It was recently announced that blood tests have been developed to spot markers for fatigue – meaning that tired drivers could be stopped, tested and even prosecuted if they’ve gone over a certain limit – following research that shows that driving on less than five hours sleep is as dangerous as drink driving.
And none of this is news. We know that good quality sleep every night is fundamental to our physical, mental, and emotional health. Yet, when it comes to maternal exhaustion, the options seem to be: suck it up until you can’t take any more and let your baby cry it out, pay more money than the vast majority of people have access to on maternity leave for a sleep trainer to guide you through the process, or accept that life will be verging on unbearable for as long as your baby doesn’t sleep. In the meantime, we’re all expected to work, exercise, socialise and crucially look as though we never had a child in the first place. Tricky in the best of circumstances, impossible when you’re on your knees with exhaustion.
I remember a conversation in my NCT group about how you might feel when you’re both exhausted in those early days caring for a new-born – when you expect to be sleep-deprived and disorientated. But there was no discussion or advice on what to do if your baby continued to sleep like a new-born for months on end. There is (some) help and support available for new parents struggling with Post Natal Depression or breastfeeding, but every time I told the doctor or the health visitor that my six, nine then 11 month-old baby still wasn’t sleeping, I was basically told to suck it up.
In the end, after two failed attempts with other sleep trainers, Holly found someone who was able to help her family – Sarah Carpenter is a former Norland Nanny and maternity nurse who specialises in baby sleep and was able to offer Holly and her partner personalised support that helped them get their daughter to sleep through the night. The impact, she tells me, was huge, ‘Sarah has changed our lives, our sanity, our marriage. Until I met Sarah, I honestly thought my only two choices were to leave my baby to cry alone in her cot, or to just accept ‘the normality of baby sleep’ and somehow serenely surrender to being woken hourly until she might naturally grow out of it aged five.’
It’s this desperation and apparent lack of choice from parents that inspired Sarah to offer parents a service that’s as bespoke a route as possible to getting their baby to sleep better. She also co-presents The Sleep Mums podcast which crucially offers free advice in a non-judgmental space. 20 years ago she worked as a maternity nurse in Australia, and it quickly struck her that while parents would want to know how to bathe or feed their baby, what everyone was most interested in was sleep. ‘There was just this desperate need to know when their baby is going to sleep. But there’s this big fear around asking for help when it comes to our babies and children, and especially over sleep – and we still get parent bashing and mum shaming over the want and need to fix it.’
But what can be done to help parents who are often priced out of paying for a private sleep consultant? When I put this to Sarah, her suggestion is an NHS-funded service where parents could speak to trained professionals who can advise on every aspect of parenting on shift rotation. ‘It doesn’t necessarily come up that the question you want to ask is at one o’clock in the afternoon when you have your health visitor appointment. You need someone there at one o’clock in the morning, or 11 o’clock at night. That would be the most amazing service – someone you could text, who has access to your entire file, they know how you’re feeding the baby, they know if you’ve been in touch with any previous issues.’
Crucially, Sarah says, this person would be able to give consistent, and tangible advice, which many of her clients say they aren’t currently able to get from their health visitor. I can’t imagine how much this sort of service would have helped me over the last year, but I also can’t imagine how much the attitude to postpartum and sleep support for new parents would have to change for something like this to even be an option.
In the meantime, there’s always Instagram, where amidst all the advice there is still plenty of judgment reserved for parents who choose to sleep train their babies – something Sarah finds tricky – not least because many parents feel that they are in a desperate situation by the time they reach that point. ‘Everyone should be allowed to do what they want, so if you want to co-sleep and co-sleeping is working, then good for you – do it for as long as it works. But if not – why not try to get a full night’s sleep? It’s not a selfish act.’
But to some people, a parent expressing a desire and a need for sleep IS seen as a selfish act. It’s at odds with the modern maxim that says that new motherhood should be punishing – an experience where we subjugate our own needs for our children until we reach breaking point. Like everyone with a bad sleep story, it is starting to get better. My son is now sleeping more at night – thanks in no small part to Sarah, who truly is magic. But I can also say now that I’m not sure what we’d have done if we hadn’t been able to pay for help.
So here’s some free advice for anyone still desperate for that nugget of information that will help their baby sleep. Vigorously rubbing your tired baby’s back or patting their bottom will settle your baby to sleep far quicker than I’d ever imagined – half-heartedly rubbing an overtired baby’s back will probably just annoy them (finding a YouTube video demonstrating how to do this properly was a game-changer for me). If your baby seems to wake up more or get irritated when you go in to settle them, it might be time to leave them to try and settle themselves for a bit, and finally, once you find a consistent settling technique that works for you, you’ll be amazed at how quickly even the trickiest sleeper starts to settle at bedtimes.
Holly’s great article is honestly one of the best things I’ve ever read about baby sleep, so make sure you check that out too. But remember, even though every family and every baby are different, you are absolutely not alone, even if it feels that way at three o’clock in the morning.