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Tips for sleep-deprived parents

I’ll bet you $100 that, at some point in the nine months of your pregnancy, someone said: “Make the most of your sleep now, you won’t get any more for 18 years LOL LOL LOL!” (or some variation on that theme)

Somehow the experience of sleep deprivation – something that is actually used as torture in other circumstances – is seen as a rite of parental passage. Like you aren’t actually a parent until you’ve existed on two hours sleep for a week and laughed about it at a wine bar with your perfectly make-upped coffee group.

I’ve now been a member of the up-all-night crowd for four years. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned that might help you through.

Hide your clocks

Ignorance isn’t exactly bliss but it definitely does help in the middle of the night.

If you open your eyes to the latest baby cry only to see a bedside clock chirpily telling you it’s 13 minutes since you last got out of bed, it’s *not great* for your state of mind. But when you don’t actually know how much sleep you’re missing out on, it’s harder to get as stressed and upset.

That should, in turn, make it less likely that you’ll get stuck in that awful sleep-killing anxious cycle of desperately trying to get back to sleep as soon as possible after each wake-up.

Try not to think about how tired you are

When you’ve had little sleep, it’s tempting to mope around all day feeling sorry for yourself. But the more you think about it, the worse you’ll feel.

If you focus on when you can get back to bed for a nap or how you can get the kids occupied so you can lie on the floor,what little energy you have will evaporate. Kids also tend to sense a bad mood and become much more difficult to manage.

Focus on as many little positive things as you can through the day (sorry! this is the only rah rah suggestion I’ll make).

Book a sleep-in

I found it so helpful to know that a little more sleep was coming at some stage. We used to take turns at the weekend so one of us would get a sleep-in on Saturday and the other on Sunday. When I was feeling revolting mid-week, that sleep-in would shimmer on the horizon. Can you book in a time when you can sleep-in or nap? Ask a friend or family member to take your kid/s for a loooooong walk, or get your partner to play with the baby for a couple of hours last thing at night or first thing in the morning.

Eat well and drink lots of water

When you’re super tired it’s easy to lose your appetite but good meals – preferably cooked by someone else – help. Supposedly you’re not meant to rely on sugar because it creates energy peaks and crashes. I ignored this advice.

Supplements

Whether it’s Juice Plus or 1Above or Powerade or basic multivitamins, try out a few options to work out what seems to fill the nutrition gaps. I found one I thought was magic, until I discovered it was probably its stealthy caffeine component that was making me feel better, not the vitamin hit.

Coffee

Self-explanatory. Bonus points if you buy a machine that keeps it warm.

Co-sleeping

Giving up on the idea of kids sleeping alone in their own beds has been the one thing that has given us a lot more sleep.

Instead of going through the rigmarole of carting our son back to bed and staying til he sleeps, then sneaking out, my husband just climbs in and goes to sleep with him if he wakes in the night. My daughter usually spends half the night tucked up under my arm. It means I only half wake when she stirs – much less painful than trudging around in the dark to her room.  If you’re thinking about doing this, there are ways to do it safely. 

Find a friend

Some of your friends will have annoying kids who allegedly magically and spontaneously started to sleep through from six weeks. Others will actually be honest and tell you that they are struggling through, too. Stay close to them and complain away. Knowing you’re not the only one up at 2.30am with a grumpy child can make a big difference.

Know it won’t last forever

I’m reliably informed that at some stage all kids will sleep by themselves. They’ll hop into bed by themselves, nod off to sleep by themselves, stay there all night by themselves and you’ll have trouble getting them out in the morning. All we have to do to get there is wait. It’s as easy (and hard!) as that.

Is it worth buying … a Lulla doll?

The woman in the shop warned: “This isn’t going to be an overnight miracle.”

I must have had sleep deprivation plastered all over my face.

When they first became available in this country, I remember thinking the idea of a Lulla doll was kind of sad. Kids who were desperate to share their parents’ beds were instead being palmed off with a oddly featured, small grey doll which played the recorded heartbeat and breathing of a Scandinavian mother-of-four and yoga teacher named Gudrun.

But then we had our daughter, who is yet to spend a whole night in her own bed. She’s almost one.

I decided to try the Lulla doll after one night in which my daughter woke up and demanded to know where I was about every 35 minutes, lay horizontal on my pillow to cough in my face and took up a new hobby of dream-pinching the loose skin on my neck. (I have way more of that than I realised.)

I was not coping but I figured Gudrun should be zen enough to handle it.

So I handed over my $100 to the woman at Baby City, where they keep Lulla behind the counter, like expensive champagne at the bottle shop. I briefly wondered if perhaps the latter might have been the better way to a sound night’s sleep.

But as soon as I pulled Lulla out of her bag, my daughter’s face lit up. She hasn’t formed any serious attachments to any soft toys yet but she was instantly taken with Lulla, smooshing her face against her and rubbing her on her cheeks. She kept her close all afternoon and held her tight through two naps.

Then it was bedtime. I set Lulla going (her breathing and heartbeat goes for eight hours at a time) and then fed my daughter to sleep before performing my usual acrobatics to lower her into her cot without her noticing. This actually involves bending right into the cot so I don’t have to unlatch her until she’s lying prone. Perhaps that’s a separate blog post.

Forty-five minutes later, on cue, she stirred. I held my breath. Usually she needs me to resettle her at this point but I watched her reach out for Lulla, pull her to her face again and go back to sleep.

I would like to say that this was the start of an amazing night in which I slept eleven hours straight and woke up to breakfast in bed and news of a Lotto win. Sadly, no. She did the wake-and-resettle trick again at 9.30pm, but woke again and needed help at 11.

She ended up back in my bed again by the early hours of the morning. But Gudrun’s heartbeat was very soothing as she lay across my face, Lulla tucked under her arm.

Is Lulla worth buying? I think so – this second night is already going better than the first. And if I strike another really bad one, I can distract myself by worrying about why my resting heart rate is so much faster than Gudrun’s. Better take up some more yoga.

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One less thing to worry about

This afternoon, the small children I was holding, one on each hip, vomited on me at precisely the same time – like nauseous synchronised swimmers. Four years ago I would have run straight to the shower. Today I thought for a couple of minutes about whether I really needed to change my top.

Being literally covered in sick is one of the things that no longer bothers me at all. (It should be noted I haven’t checked this theory with vomit from anyone other than the children.)

Here are some other things I’ve decided to stop worrying about.

Screen time
When my son was little, he wasn’t going to have any screen time, ever. I had read all the articles about how bad it is for little brains and how no kids should watch any TV until they are 2 and basically not use an iPad until they are 30. But then we were stuck on a bus one day, he was bored and complaining and someone showed him The Wiggles. He was captivated and stopped grumbling for a full five minutes. Six months later we were at The Wiggles’ live show, singing along to allll the words.  Now he has a sister, Robocar Poli is about the only thing that enables me to get her down for a nap without him racing in. I’m choosing not to worry about screen time within reason. As long as it isn’t those egg-opening videos on YouTube, or another precocious American child “reviewing” toys. My iPad swiftly “runs out of battery” if those come up.

Sleep
I’ve tried to follow routines and I’ve looked for tired signs. I’ve tried baby wearing, car-soothing, white noise and blackout curtains. But my baby seems to have missed the memo that she’s meant to have at least an hour’s nap twice a day, and then to sleep 13 hours at night (or something like that). I could tie myself up in knots worrying about whether she’s getting enough sleep and reading all the research about how unhealthy it is for small people to be awake too long. But all that seems to do is keep me awake at night in those small snatches of time when she actually is asleep. For now I’m following her lead. I figure by the time she’s a teenager I’ll probably have to coax her out of bed.

Food
I’d love it if my kids would eat only vegetables and lean protein and look at everything we serve them with pure delight. But actually they’re more likely to want to snack on custard, Nutella and crackers (preferably all at once) and to turn their nose up at our culinary creations. I could spend all day worrying about whether the good in the courgette cancels out the bad in hiding it in a chocolate cake, or I can just try to get the best food possible into them as often as I can. I’m convinced all those Pinterest mothers sharing photos of their kids with plates of artfully arranged, creatively cut “just whipped this up for a lazy night off cooking” vegetables are sneaking them packets of chips when no one is looking.

Clothes
I recently went to H&M and bought my kids some super cute matchy-matchy outfits – tops and trackpants, leggings and tshirts etc. They looked so sweet in them (almost like all the other kids on my Facebook feed). Then the clothes had to be washed and the pieces came through different loads and I’ve never been able to put the outfits together again. My son went out in a pyjama top and a pair of Hawaiian shorts the other day. I’m okay with that.

Keeping up with friends
I’m sure some of my friends must think they’ve mortally offended me because they haven’t heard from me since 2013. They haven’t. But by the time I’ve got everyone sorted, packed my mountaineering kit with the supplies I might need for the three hours we’re out, and organised us all into the car, any event we were going to is pretty much already over. I’m fortunate that one of my best friends is in Bhutan so I can at least pretend that the fact we haven’t caught up lately isn’t entirely my fault.

Sleeping in same bed as husband
I used to be shocked when people told me they slept in separate beds, but we seem to have become that couple. Our daughter (as mentioned) isn’t a great fan of sleeping but will put up with it if she has a milk supply on tap all night. It’s quite cute having three of us squished into the bed but the smallest one tends to take up the most room and the adults end up lying precariously balanced on the sides. Sometimes I actually have one foot on the ground. So when my son turns up demanding his father come and help him back to sleep after a nightmare (or whatever drives the demonic wailing down the hallway) we are both more than a little relieved. I’m assuming we’ll get back to the same bed within a couple of years… right?

Feeding to sleep
How many times have I heard that feeding to sleep is an awful habit that creates bad sleep associations that I’ll never be able to break? I think I lost count at about 1432. But when the alternative is pacing up and down the hallway for four-and-a-half hours, I’ll take the option of feeding for 20 minutes. I figure there aren’t any 12-year-olds still feeding to sleep so we’ll break the habit at some point.

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Things I miss about my old life

My life is a million times better since my kids came along.

I was never much of a baby person, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. And for the most part, it’s been a wonderful surprise. Babies have such bad PR – I was expecting constant crying, endless nappies and mind-numbing tedium. But what I’ve ended up with is gooey gummy smiles, early-morning snuggles and giggles – often about nothing.

But there’s some stuff I really miss from my pre-motherhood life. If you’re yet to have a baby, this is what I recommend you make the most of.

Husband
You know, that man I loved enough to have two small humans with. I haven’t shared a bed with him for a whole night for more than four months. I realised how much I missed him the other night when he gave me a hug (as we were passing each other in the bathroom door – he coming out to make dinner and I going in to cajole our son out of the bath). I’m so used to hugging small people that the feel of a proper hug from an adult felt totally foreign.

He and I give each other sympathetic looks as we pass in the hallway trying to placate one child or the other. He reaches over to pat me when I’m off to feed the baby for the third time in one night.

Most of the time when I see him naked, it’s when he’s climbing into the bath with our son. We sit across the dinner table from each other – but spend the time trying to contain the mess of a small child eating, or trying to convince him that he should. I’m hoping against hope that my husband remembers I can talk about something not child-related and has the patience to wait it out until we get another chance to do so – maybe in 10 years?

Sleep
This has to be near the top of any parent’s list. I used to think I sometimes had trouble sleeping when I had the occasional 4am wake-up worrying about something to do with work. Or when the neighbours started up their electric garden implements before 9am.

How I hate the former me sometimes.

It’s now been at least three years since I’ve had a proper night’s sleep and I think it’s fantastic if I’m only up wandering around the house twice a night. Even when the kids sleep better than normal, I often wake up to make sure that they are still alive. Or I’m so conditioned to listen for a little cry that a meow from the cat has me bolting out of bed.

I want to sleep in but it’s pretty hard to relax and indulge when you A) have your baby in bed next to you squealing and giving you a hickey because she can’t latch on properly unless you lie in a contorted comma-shape next to her and B) you know your husband is involved in a Moana marathon in the lounge to distract the small person who wants to come in and visit.

Being able to go somewhere when I want to

You have to go and do something, so you go and do it. Drop something off to drycleaner? No problem. Go to the post office? Easy. Except when it’s not. Any time I want to do anything now I have to cajole the older one into getting into the car – bribes sometimes included, and strap in the little one to her capsule. Then when we get there I have to take the bigger one out and ensure that he does not run away while hauling the capsule out of the car – or the other way around except the capsule weighs about as much as a small car.

Then we struggle into the shop and I try to restrain the elder without permanently marking my legs with capsule bruises, do whatever it is I need to do, then pile everyone back into the car and hope no one starts crying on the way home. I have to have white noise or Moana playing on the stereo and I have to make sure I have a pile of nappies, wipes and a change of clothes for both on hand just in case.

Being able to accept evening invitations without hesitation

You invite me out and I say “yes”. Sounds simple, right? I have not done this for almost three years. Any time someone invites me out somewhere now I must first check with the husband. Will he be home? ThenI have to think about what should be happening at this time. Will a baby require feeding? Will a child refuse to sleep if I am not there? What work should I be doing that night that I won’t be able to do during the day because I am otherwise child wrangling? It’s usually easier not to try to do anything.

Speaking of which, being able to do nothing 
Before I had kids I sort of imagined they’d just do their own thing and I’d do mine. They might play with toys on the floor while I relaxed on the couch with a magazine. How wrong I was. If I try to work while my son is playing with his cars, he will often come bolting over and demand I stop so that I can help him build a hill out of his road mat. Or the only way to keep my daughter placid and happy is to walk in ever-decreasing circles in the living room, while pointing out birds in the tree outside and jiggling every third step. So I spend much of my day attending to the needs of one small person or the other, fitting in what I need to do around them. This means, when I get a minute to myself, I don’t get to just sit down and do nothing. There’s always something I should have been doing earlier that is becoming a “must do” now.

Not having to worry about where public toilets are
My son’s pretty much toilet-trained but he doesn’t give me a lot of warning. So when “I need to go to the toilet” rings out, I must take action. This means I have a better working knowledge of where the public conveniences are than I have any right to.

Listening to whatever I like in the car
See aforementioned white noise/Moana. Not only are my listening choices dictated by little people but should I dare to sing along, there is a shout from the back seat: Mum stop singing!

Breasts

It seems mad when there is so much more of them than there ever was before but I miss them just being part of me, not something that can get lumpy, hot, leaky or hard, and constantly the topic of conversation with Plunket nurses. I miss the time when it was I who had the final say in when I got them out in public, not a hungry small person. And I miss all my pretty bras.

Going to the toilet alone
I only realised how far this barrier had broken down for me when I was standing, talking to my husband in the bathroom the other day, and went to sit on the toilet in front of him. I know some couples are more than comfortable with this, but it never used to be our thing. Now, I’m so used to peeing with an audience that I don’t think twice.

The ‘I’m more tired than you are’ game

There is a game some parents like to play. You may be familiar with it.

It’s called “I’m more tired than you are”.

It goes a little like this. Picture typical family chaos. Maybe the parents are trying to do something as outrageous as sitting on the couch together after dinner. Kids are playing around their feet.

Suddenly, someone has a meltdown, or in some way needs attention.

Parent A hopes against hope that the other parent will deal with it. Mutters: I’m so tired.

Parent B is annoyed at the other parent not dealing with it and deliberately ignores the suggestion that they should be the one to pick up the ball. Sighs: I’m sooooo tired.

Parent A: I’m so tired because I’m at the office all day. I have to deal with clients, manage my staff, handle all my meetings then I come home and make dinner, do the dishes, get the kids off to bed… I never get a break.

Parent B: Well I’m even more tired because I have been at home with these two alllll day and I have been trying to get work done and I had to get them in the bath while you were working late and now it is almost bedtime and I still haven’t even managed to brush my hair and I never get any time to myself.

Parent A: But you don’t have people calling you wanting to talk about work at 8pm so I am obviously more tired than you are.

Parent B: But you get to go to the toilet on your own sometimes so I am clearly the more tired one.

Some version of this conversation plays out at least monthly in our house.

The problem is that it is completely and utterly pointless. We could go back and forth all night but there would be no winner.

Say, for example, that I concede that he is more tired than I am. Or he agrees that breastfeeding all night wipes me out (just saying).  I do not feel any better. I am still very, very tired.

Unfortunately for us, tiredness is not a zero sum game. His tiredness does not take away any of mine, or vice versa.

We just end up annoyed with each other. And even more tired.

I’m a sleep-training dropout

I’m a sleep training drop-out.

It’s not just once that I’ve tried to call in a professional in the hopes of getting a good night’s sleep. It’s now three times.

Each time, I’ve hoped they had the miracle cure. The one thing I’m not doing that will enable me to get my child to want to go to bed, to drift off to sleep without tears, and to stay there the whole night. Doesn’t seem like much to ask, does it?

Let me tell you, it is. Especially if, like me, you are *not very good* at dealing with your child crying. Each training method seems to be more about helping parents come to terms with their children wailing and gnashing rather than actually getting anyone to sleep more quickly.

The first time was when my son was about three months old. I roll my eyes at myself now. I couldn’t work out how to get him to go down for a nap. Or something.

I met Dorothy Waide in the back room of a Baby on the Move shop (don’t ask) where she told me, in rapid-fire delivery, that he was too old for his Moses basket, should be on a clock-watching routine so he wasn’t overtired,  but that I could settle him in my arms after I’d done a couple of minutes’ worth of “dumping and running” where he would “learn to find his sleep” alone in his bed while I did something like made myself a cup of tea.

That might sound okay when you’re desperately taking notes from someone who seems like she’s done it all before.

It wasn’t. There was crying. From both of us.

I could do the “dump” bit – I placed him in his cot. But the running, not so much. I took a couple of steps to the door and his cry would stop me in my tracks.  I’d turn and scoop him up. At first I deployed the cupping method she described – for a VERY long time. One day I did this for so long, the small of my back was going into convulsions as I tried to use the power of my mind to propel my husband home as quickly as possible to take over. I knew I’d lost the plot when I told my coffee group on Facebook that I’d been cupping for an hour and got nowhere – one of them replied: Maybe he just doesn’t want to sleep?

Yes. Maybe.

So it wasn’t long before I gave up and was back to breastfeeding and rocking to sleep. Although on a schedule. Maybe that’s half a point to the sleep trainers.

The second was when he was about 18 months and I was still breastfeeding him to sleep.  She was a crunchier trainer who told me I could respond to his needs. Good to know – I’m a parent, right?That’s what I do. She told me there would be some “protesting” but a cuddle-pat method to sleep with gradually less and less cuddling and patting – maybe taking 18 months to withdraw, mind you – should eventually result in no tears and no patting at least by the time he’s eight. It kind of started to work, but then we bought him a single bed and realised we could climb into bed with him and snuggle him to sleep. All points to sleep trainers lost.

The third was earlier this year, when he, now 2.5, started getting up in the middle of the night, every night, wanting a cuddle.

I knew sleep training wasn’t for me when she told me I was doing well because I had had to hold the door shut to stop him, screaming, from coming out of the room to look for me when he was meant to go to sleep.

Sure, I’d like my son to sleep through the night. I’d love to have my husband next to me in the bed all night. I’d like to kiss  my child on the head and have him drift off to sleep like an angel in an ad.

It would be fantastic to be one of those parents who says “oh they’re in bed by 7pm”. But lying next to my son in bed each night, I feel his warm (no longer milky – sniff) breath on my cheek and I’m kind of glad that I failed this particular school. I patted him to sleep for 45 minutes tonight – a toilet stop in the middle meant we had to start all over again. But he snuggled into me, put his little arms around my neck, buried his face in my shoulder and just as I thought he was finally drifting off to sleep, said: “Mummy, what do birds eat?”

It’s infuriating, maddening, gut-wrenchingly boring sometimes. But in 10 years time, he won’t want his mum in his bed. I hope that when I look back on it, I won’t think about those piles of work I was worried about getting to or that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realise I have at least four hours of stuff to get through before I too can go to  bed.

Now my daughter’s four months and looking to follow in her brother’s sleepless footsteps. The look on my husband’s face when I suggested we try a sleep consultant was awesome.

Our dirty little secret

It seems lots of parents have a dirty little secret.

We don’t tell each other, we don’t tell the doctor, and we definitely don’t tell our Plunket nurses…

A secret addiction? A devious spending habit? Nothing so scandalous. It’s that we are all co-sleeping.

I realised the other day how widespread it was when my coffee group were talking about having trouble getting kids to fall asleep, stay asleep or generally have any interest in sleep whatsoever.

First one of us admitted that we more often than not share the bed with our kids, then another, then another – until it was obvious that almost all of us were doing it in some way.

Why don’t we talk about it? Probably because it’s become something of a parenting crime.

From the time you have a baby, it’s drilled into you by virtually every health practitioner you see that sharing a bed with your baby is a dangerous, no-good, very bad thing.

Coroners warn against it and Plunket nurses ask pointed questions about where your baby is sleeping – and send around back-up if you admit that it is sometimes Mum and Dad’s bed.

But when you are exhausted, co-sleeping can be a lifesaver. Falling asleep while your baby breastfeeds can take some of the sting out of what would otherwise be a sleepless night. Some people – and their babies – just sleep better together.

But because it’s so frowned upon, it’s hard to get any information on what you can do if you want to cut the risks.

So, if you find co-sleeping is what suits your family, here are some ways to make it safer.

  • Your baby should be on his or her back.
  • The surface of the bed should be firm – no waterbeds (apologies to anyone channelling the 80).
  • Make sure there are no gaps down the side or top of the bed where the baby could get stuck.
  • The same goes for the wall – make sure your baby could not get lodged between it and your bed, either.
  • Make sure the room isn’t too hot.
  • The baby’s head should not be covered and there should be no pillows nearby that could fall on to your child while you are both asleep. You might need to wear something to cover your top half at least, so you can have the duvet well below your baby’s face.
  • Don’t co-sleep if you’ve been drinking or taking any medication that will make you sleep more heavily than normal.
  • Don’t put your baby to sleep in a bed with an adult who doesn’t know the child is there – sharing a bed with a baby should be a conscious decision.
  • Don’t swaddle a baby who is in bed with you – they could get too hot and it limits their ability to move and let you know they are in trouble, or to move blankets from their face.
  • Some people suggest that it’s better to have the baby next to his or her mother rather than between the parents – some mums are more aware of their kids at night. If your child is at the stage where they are moving around, between you may be better to make it harder for them to fall off the side.