Sleep deprivation. When your child doesn’t sleep

This is the first part of my story of sleep deprivation . I’ve broken it into parts, simply because as a whole it would be too long, and also I want to give an idea of what we’ve been through, before I explain in part two, about the effects it has had on us, and what sleep issues can do to a family.

Sleep deprivation

When you have a baby, you expect to feel tired. When they’re tiny, and need feeding a lot, and wake up at regular times in the night, because of their small tummies and need for frequent feeds and sometimes just for comfort, you “know” it’s only for a season, and you comfort yourself with the thought that you will start to get more sleep as they grow and sleep for longer stretches. All the books, sleep experts and  fellow parents assure you that your baby will sleep, needs sleep and that it gets easier and better. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

My daughter had reflux, and was what was known as a happy spitter, as my doctor called it. She vomited a lot, usually after feeds and when laid flat. She couldn’t sleep lying on her back, and for the first four months of her life slept on my chest on her tummy, then in the bed with me propped on her nursing pillow to keep her at a comfortable angle. She woke every two hours most nights, until she was about thirteen months, then suddenly started to sleep for longer periods of time. I went back to work when she was 9 months old, and I frankly, felt like a zombie most days. I drank a lot of coffee and was thankful that I didn’t make any serious errors in my job as a nurse, running on so little sleep. From about 18 months she started to sleep all night, and since then, unless she is unwell, she sleeps as we jokingly say “like the dead”, and loves her sleep. I am very thankful for this. From a medical point of view, she was normal, for a baby with reflux. It was hard, but we survived.

When our came along, I was prepared for the same again, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he was in fact a really good sleeper. He was blissfully easy from the get go, nursed beautifully, and although he did have some reflux, it didn’t seem to bother him as much as it bothered his sister, and as long as he was positioned on his tummy (I know, PLEASE don’t lecture me on “back to sleep”, we made the decision based on research and discussion with my doctor, we used a baby alarm monitor with him, and for us, it was the right decision, I’m NOT promoting tummy sleep for all) he would sleep for 2-3 hours, wake to feed, and settle to sleep again. He gained weight beautifully, and by 3 months was sleeping 6-8 hours in a stretch, at night. He had the odd funny night, usually coinciding with a growth or normal developmental spurt, but these were easy and he settled back into his routine by himself. Bliss, for me!

Then at six months, this all suddenly stopped, and my “good” sleeper, suddenly wasn’t.
Some nights were bad, he woke 2 hourly, and wouldn’t settle, even if I fed or rocked him, and some nights he would wake every hour, or be awake for 2-3 hours at a stretch, from 1-4am, for example and nothing we could do would settle him. This went on until he was approximately  25 months old. We had good nights where he would wake once or twice, and utterly hideous nights where he would be awake again, hourly or two hourly or for long stretches of 2-3 hours where he was just awake.

We have tried everything, bar letting him “cry it out”. We tried various gentle ways of “sleep training” (oh how I hate that phrase) we spoke to experts, he was checked over medically, to make sure nothing was bothering him (ears for ear infections, reflux was ruled out, food allergies/intolerance ruled out, he was developing normally and reaching all milestones, there were not concerns about autism or behavioural issues) we read books, prowled the internet, spoke to other parents of children with sleep issues, but nothing we did made (or makes)any real difference. It was suggested that I night wean him, which we gently did. Made little difference. The husband took a fair share of night duties, and spent hours trying to settle him. We tried him sharing a room with his sister, we’ve tried co-sleeping, he just isn’t a good sleeper. Some friends kindly suggested medication, but frankly, I felt uncomfortable with that, and my GP and health visitor also wouldn’t support it.
He now, at almost thirty months, sleeps “better”. We usually have 3 or 4 good nights where he sleeps all night, followed by 2-3 poor nights where he wakes a lot. We’ve tweaked naptimes, we’ve tried diet changes, herbal remedies.

Because of my own sleep issues, when Small Boy wakes up, once I’ve got him settled back to sleep, I don’t necessarily go back to sleep. So if he wakes at 1am and is awake ’til say, 3am, I may not then go back to sleep for an hour or two, which can mean some nights, I’m maybe getting 4 hours of sleep. This has a cumulative effect, and whilst LSH does go back to sleep, he also is affected. There have been weeks where I have not had more than 4 hours of sleep on any given night. This is hard, mentally and physically, and takes its toll, not just on me, but the family as  a whole. 4 hours of sleep some nights, and maybe slightly more on other nights, with nights of broken sleep in between,  is not enough to sustain a human being. We need sleep to stay healthy, to re-generate, to rest  and heal our bodies and minds. Based on the fact that Small Boy hasn’t slept well since he was six months old, I am now running on going on 18 months of sleep deprivation. This is a long time, particularly as I struggle with a chronic illness, which is made worse by sleep deprivation.

The one good thing about this poor sleep issue we have struggled with, is that it has brought The Husband and I closer. Ironically, we’ve learned to work better as a team, we’ve had a lot of grace and patience with each other, and we’ve realised that we really are good together, when we’ve hit the really rough patches. Weve had some awful moments, weve struggled, and fought,  but we’ve learned a lot about each other through this.

I’ve also learned that we’re not alone. I’ve spoken with so many parents of poor sleepers, who are struggling on a daily basis to survive on little sleep. It has made me feel better, has stopped me blaming myself and loading myself with guilt that I am a bad parent, that I’ve done or not done something that has made Small Boy like this. I’ve found sympathetic friends in people I wouldn’t have thought would understand or be able to offer me a shoulder to cry on, and I’ve found that when the going gets tough, family is there to help. My father has been a great support, even rescuing me for a weekend of sleep, coming over to help me with Matthew, and being a sympathetic ear.

We’ve come to the conclusion that he is a high needs, intelligent, sensitive little boy, who just can’t switch his mind off sometimes, and can’t “make” himself sleep. It’s taken me a long time to accept that this is the way he is. He has got better, and it is easing, but we still have some horrible nights. By accepting him, and trying to work life out around sleep and keep him to a fairly strict routine, with lots of physical exercise in the day, reduced sugar in his diet, not allowing him to get over tired or over-anxious, we’ve found that bedtime and sleep are easier to come by. We don’t do things the way the books say. we don’t let him cry for long periods of time, we allow him to come and sleep in our bed for comfort (even though I intensely dislike co-sleeping with a wriggly, blanket hating, takes up the whole bed space toddler) because it works, keeps him calm, and LSH gets sleep and I try to make the most of the sleep I’m able to get.

I no longer participate in conversations on “how to get your baby to sleep” because frankly, I don’t like hearing other people tell me how wonderfully their babies sleep. I still struggle with feeling resentful, which I know is not fair, or right, and I cannot put my tiredness and lack of sleep onto anyone else, but it’s hard to smile and nod inanely so I avoid the topic unless I’m talking to friends who know what I’m going through.

I no longer accept parenting/sleep advice, and I will actually stop someone from offering it. I actually told someone recently that unless they were prepared to come to my home, send me to a hotel for the weekend, and take my place then I didn’t want to hear their sleep suggestions (it was a health visitor, who told me I should let Matthew cry it out, and when I told her that he would likely become distressed and vomit, and she replied “that’s fine, you clean him up, and walk away, you need to break him” I decided that I no longer wanted to hear what she had to say. Strangely, she didn’t offer me that hotel stay, I can’t think why not!)

In the grand scheme of things, this too will pass. He does sleep a little better, I am slowly getting more sleep, and I am aware that when put in perspective, what we have been through as a family, struggling with sleep, is nothing compared to  what others are going through in terms of sickness, or other issues, but it has affected us, and it has made us see things differently. I can’t imagine a day when I don’t feel utterly exhausted, maybe one day that will come. For now we make the best of what we can, we love and cherish this little boy who has come into our lives, and we wouldn’t swap be without for the world. Maybe we’d like him to sleep better, and one day, maybe him will. I now have tremendous sympathy for other parents of children who are poor sleepers. We band together, we prop each other up, we don’t tell each other what to do, we share a common bond and a lot off coffee to keep ourselves going.

So when I say I’m tired, I mean I’m tired, bone tired, mentally exhausted, drained, physically on the edge. Sleep deprivation is, literally defined as a form of torture. I have to carry on with life, I don’t have the luxury of taking time off to rest. I take what sleep I can. I’m hoping this honest piece will at least help others understand where I (and we’ve been) and also make other parents in the same boat realise they aren’t alone, and that it isn’t just them.

In part two I will go into more details on the side effects of chronic sleep issues as a parent, how it affects your marriage, your work, your relationship with friends, your children, your self-esteem, and your physical and mental well-being. It will be fairly brutal and honest.

Posted in Family Life and Parenting and tagged high needs child, parenting, Sleep, sleep deprivation.

One Comment

  1. I love this post – it’s exactly where we are at with little C. He also like to roll on to his tummy too and he’s still in the big bed…won’t go near his cot! I don’t stress though. I’m happy going with the flow even on 2 hrs sleep like last night…I’m still here, still happy and still optimistic he may sleep through one day! X

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