Bedtime Stories: Survival tips for sleep-deprived parents from babies to 10 years olds

Sara-Jayne @keepupwiththejonesfamily
📸 Photographer, Family Outings & Raising 3 Boys
Mum to Jensen, Lyoto and Hero
Lover of Mickey Mouse and Huskies 🐕

When you’re about to become a parent, people joke about getting sleep before the baby comes. They laugh about it with you, you think you’re ready….but you’re not. Sleep deprivation is horrible. Awful. It’s why we laugh about it, because none of us has the answer to it. It’s not the missing of a couple of nights’ sleep, as some people would have you believe; it’s losing large amounts of sleep on a nightly basis and not knowing when you’ll be able to sleep properly again. It takes an incredible amount of strength and perseverance to deal with, can take a huge toll on your mental health and having an ordinary life when you have a baby that doesn’t sleep is impossible without help – and asking for help doesn’t come easily when you’re slightly less than rational from lack of sleep in the first place.

I’m going to tell you my story of how I survived sleep deprivation. It wasn’t a course, or a routine, or a magic potion. I was saved by a nun, in two minutes, by a chance meeting.

With my first born, it was extreme. He finally slept “through the night” which according to definition is for 5 hours solid, when he was one year old. Prior to this, people would continually give me unhelpful and rather ridiculous goalposts of hope in the form of comments such as, “he’ll sleep when he’s eating solids” [6 months, no sleep], “when he’s walking, he’ll sleep” [8 months, no sleep], and so on. If people do that to you, smile and file that information under “unsolicited advice I don’t need”.

So at the height of my sleep deprivation, when my firstborn was 5 months old, the day after I had in fact fallen asleep on the mop, standing up and staring at something on the TV, I was in our local doctor’s surgery, waiting to be seen about mastitis. I was alone as usual, struggling to keep my emotions under control as I was so exhausted, so tired [these are entirely different things as new parents learn quickly] and in so much pain. Jensen was joyfully bopping up and down as he stood on my lap, blissfully unaware that his Mommy was on the verge of tears again, and an elderly lady turned around from her seat behind me and started to interact with him.

I hadn’t got the energy to talk and be sociable and so I smiled weakly at her – the kind of smile that says don’t talk to me or I’ll cry. She looked from him to me, and told me how adorable he was, and how his smile lit up his face. Then she asked me a question and transformed my life.

“Is he a sleeper?” she said, and her eyes kindly smiled at me. I looked at her and tried in my rather fragile state to gather all the strength I could ready to protect myself mentally from the unsolicited advice about routines and crying it out from this stranger that was surely about to come forth. Anyhow, she didn’t wait for my answer. She carried on whilst Jensen was dribbling away, chewing his fist and staring at her.

I fixated on the small cross hanging around her neck and held back the tears. She told me she was a Sister [a nun, not a nurse] and had been a midwife for over 45 years. “We never did discover the answer to that.” She said. “Some babies are sleepers, and some aren’t. They’re all different, and they’re all beautiful, and they’re all worth it.” Then she was called in to see her doctor, and she winked at Jensen. I sat silently as he carried on bouncing, and the tears rolled down my face.

I walked out of the doctors an hour later with my prescription and I felt so free. It felt like some 80’s movie scene where I was waiting for the uplifting hit to start playing like in St. Elmo’s Fire. Since Jensen was born, I’d been faced with numerous people and advertisements, books and articles about how easy getting your baby to sleep was – that routine was everything [yes, it helps, there’s no denying that children need a bit of structure when it comes to bedtime especially as they get older] and heard tales at Baby groups of parents whose babies napped at intervals of their choosing during the day and then “went down” at an early hour so the parents could have free time to connect – or sleep. I felt like a failure. Why didn’t my baby sleep? Why couldn’t I make it happen? The judgement I felt from others who weren’t, in fact, Jensen’s parent and had no idea who he was as a baby, was what made me feel the worst.

You see, Jensen did not nap in the day. He never, ever, wanted to be put down and I carried him in a sling for most of the first year of his life so I could have arms, and he’d nap for a few minutes on and off as I tried to go about my day the best I could – and my best was pretty terrible because he didn’t sleep for more than 40 minutes at a time, ever, until he was around 11 months old. As I was breastfeeding him too, I couldn’t hand him over to anyone for a night so I could sleep, I didn’t have my family near me to babysit in the day and give me a break and it was 24-7. I felt destroyed and like the worst failure as a mom…I couldn’t even get my baby to nap without me being attached to him.

After I spoke to the sister, I found and read a book, called Nighttime Parenting. It was full of advice for accepting your baby, not combating them, and when I got to the final chapter, it was written by a very well known American doctor with many children. He wrote it from the perspective of a baby and I sat, read it, and sobbed. And sobbed some more. Whenever I felt like I resented Jensen and my Husband – which honestly, when you have no sleep at all for days, it’s impossible to avoid – I read the passage. And it bought me back down to earth – the earth I wanted to be on.

No, he still didn’t sleep, but I know didn’t feel like it was my fault – I wasn’t guilty of doing things wrong. And knowing that this incredible woman, who’d birthed and taken care of hundreds of babies and didn’t have the answer after all of that, said it was okay made it okay for me too. Accepting it made it lighter and easier to bear – and now, ten years on, he still takes time to get to sleep, because that’s who he is.

My second son, Lyoto, slept better but never alone; yet napped at random, and Hero slept through the night for at least 8 hours at a time from the day he was born. Some people say it’s because you’re more relaxed after your first baby, but I know plenty of mothers, mine included, who had a harder time with their later children than their first. So stick with what the midwife said. They’re all different, and they’re all beautiful – and being free of judgement for their sleeping patterns makes every day a little brighter, and parenting a little easier.