Part 20 - Sleep Deprivation and Adjusting to Motherhood

There is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the reality of the sleep deprivation that accompanies night time feeding – and I was most certainly no exception.

Towards the end of my pregnancy I lost count of the number of people who told me to get the sleep while I could. It used to really annoy me because it was nigh on impossible to get any decent sleep due to the discomfort of sleeping with a huge bump and the constant need to pee. I considered it nature’s way of preparing me for what lay ahead, but it didn’t really. It just meant I was tired before I’d even had the baby.

The first few nights in hospital challenged my ability to sleep too. Not only are you woken regularly for the obligatory checks, but I was high on the hormones that accompany birth, and I had drunk a lot of black tea to keep me going following the Caesarean section. Plus, I was acutely aware that Elijah could wake at any moment and I was nervous about my ability to comfort him and prevent him crying.

Thus by the time I made it home I was absolutely shattered; not least from the activity on the ward but also from the surgery and the acute blood loss that accompanied it.   All I wanted was some quality sleep to support the healing process and my recovery from the surgery, but of course this isn’t a reality when you’ve got a new baby, especially when you’re breastfeeding.

There was a novelty factor to the night time breastfeeding those first few days. I tried the ‘watching TV while drinking tea and eating biscuits’ approach but this just made me feel yucky. I tried the ‘check Facebook in the middle of the night’ tactic too, but this meant I got too engrossed in things that I didn’t need to be getting engrossed in. So I opted instead for the ‘stay in bed and put the side lamp on’ approach so that I didn’t wake E in the process.

In those early days feeding took an extraordinary amount of time, because it wasn’t just the feeding but the winding too.  And then if a nappy and clothing change were required, as they frequently were during those first couple of weeks (until I realised that we needed bigger size Naty nappies - skip size one they don’t work, go straight to size two), then I could be up for forty minutes to an hour by the time I’d also managed to settle Elijah to sleep again.

I quickly gave up with the ‘trying to settle Elijah thing’.  I had his Moses basket right beside the bed but he absolutely loathed going in this initially and I found that the only way to settle him was if he slept on my chest with me sleeping virtually upright propped up on pillows.  I’ve since discovered that this is common in those first few weeks and perhaps not surprising given that the baby has been nestled inside you all those months and wants to stay close to you.

I was a little nervous about this at first, given the fact it had been drilled into me in hospital that you must not have the baby sleep with you in your bed (I got told off for doing this one night), but I absolutely needed sleep and this was the only way I could manage it. It was never enough sleep though, and as E returned to work immediately after I returned home from hospital, and as my breasts were frequently required for feeding, I didn’t get to lie in either.

After six weeks of Elijah lying on my chest I was desperate to lie on my side to sleep. By then my shoulders, neck and upper back were aching from all the breastfeeding and carrying of car seats and my awful posture when it came to the night time feeding.  I was often so tired that it was all I could do not to fall asleep as I was leaning over breastfeeding him.  I was severely anaemic and had such little energy.  All I longed for was a good night’s sleep.

I managed to transfer Elijah into the Moses basket, albeit that the Moses basket was placed in the centre of the bed between E and I.  Fortunately, we had invested in a super king sized bed in preparation for his arrival and already this was proving beneficial as it meant we still had lots of space.  It was lovely to sleep as I chose and he was still close by and amazingly it didn’t take much longer to settle him than it had done when he slept on my chest.

It helped in settling him that he slept on his front. We had little choice as he wouldn’t sleep on his back, and I don’t blame him, its not a position I favour either, but we felt hugely guilty placing him to sleep on his tummy, as this once again went against all the guidelines that you’re given in respect of safe baby sleeping.  Still it felt intuitively okay to take that perceived risk, and my Mum and her friends were very much of the opinion that they’d slept their babies like that so what was the big deal and I tended to agree.

I had been keen to mother Elijah intuitively, but when it came down to it, as a first time Mum I was fearful of unintentionally doing something to harm him and often sought validation that what I was doing was okay.  I was a member of various baby related Facebook groups back in those days and would get regular updates from Baby Centre about what my baby should be doing when.

I quickly became aware that there is a myriad of opinions on how best to raise a baby and often mothers would present their opinion and validate it by including a link to a relevant research paper. Now I certainly have no wish to discredit researchers and the often valuable work they do, but research findings can be decidedly biased depending on who’s funding it, the nature of the research subjects used and the manner in which the research is interpreted.

The research would often ignore the fact that every baby is different, every mother is different and mothers should be given an opportunity to go with the flow.  It is my experience that far too often in life we are not given the opportunity, or encouraged then, to truly check in with our intuition and our gut feelings, and trust in these and have the strength to act on them. 

Many women don’t even know how to access their innate voice, because they’ve spent the best part of their life making decisions based on other people’s opinions be that their parents, partners, siblings, friends or society. This lack of connection with natural insight, and our inability to make decisions based on it merely serves to make motherhood an even trickier and confusing time than it is already. 

People would so readily give their opinion, and this took some getting used to.  Even complete strangers would comment on whether Elijah looked hot, or enquire into his sleeping and feeding patterns and offer unrequested advice. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the majority end up doing things by the book – whatever the book may say at that particular time – even if it doesn’t resonate with that mother or isn’t right for her baby or her immediate family.

I fell into this trap with Elijah. It was ridiculous really because up until that point, at least since I’d been practicing yoga and Reiki, I had been living my life intuitively.  However, having a baby was new to me and I was so extremely exhausted and ungrounded that even if I did experience some clarity, I always felt that everyone else knew better than I did and initially I felt a pressure to conform to what was expected of me as a responsible mother (whatever that meant).

I had been told that babies often start sleeping better at six weeks so I was hanging out for this.  But the six-week anniversary came and went and there was no positive change, he was still waking every two hours and I was desperate for this to change. The fact I was still terribly anaemic didn’t help, nor that I was often having to check the blackberry and keep abreast of developments at work.  I was running on empty and desperate for sleep.

The twelve-week anniversary was soon upon us and with that my return to work. Still the sleep didn’t improve and if anything it got worse. It was like he needed the night time intimacy to make up for the fact I was now parted from him for up to five hours a day. It didn’t help that this coincided with his teething and he would sometimes wake every hour or even more than this at times. 

I felt permanently jet lagged and existed on black tea and dark chocolate in quantities I had never before consumed or indeed since.  The job was demanding as I was on a three month catch up with a never ending inbox and there were lots going on that was time pressured and urgent. Additionally, I now had to factor in time away from my desk to express milk and I had to be really disciplined in taking the time to do this.

It also didn’t help that I now had baby brain and acute sleep deprivation, which created an inability to retain information for longer than five minutes.  I was okay if I could stay in my zone, but the moment anyone asked me a question I would lose the thread of what I had just been doing and sit there staring at my screen completely baffled and incapable of thinking clearly. 

It was the most frustrating experience, so too the inability to remember words so I was frequently asking my male colleague the most ridiculous questions.  Fortunately, he had a young family himself so he was well aware of what I was going through.  But still I had to check and re-check my work because I would make silly little mistakes, which was infuriating for a type A personality! I began to think that I was going mad.

And then I did go mad. 

Well not mad in the sense that I lost my mind entirely, just mad in the sense that as the weeks went on and the night feeding and waking continued at one to two hourly intervals, I found myself on an edge. The cumulative effects of the sleepless nights began to take their toll. I was incredibly angry about the birth, the resulting anaemia and the manner in which this had affected my health with recurring thrush infections and a compromised immune system.

I had completely lost my grounding and with this, I had also lost my footing. I was surviving each day, obsessed with my tiredness and my inability to think clearly, I felt directionless and unsupported and I was angry at the Universe.  The dark night of the soul was upon me. This was not how I imagined motherhood to be, it was exhausting and relentless and was seriously affecting my relationship with E.

My life became one of constant rushing, I’d get myself and Elijah ready for the day, go to work and try and get on top of things, and then I’d rush away from work to collect Elijah, and inevitably I was always running late and aware that Elijah would be wanting breastmilk. I’d feed him at my parents’ house and then return home mid afternoon to washing that needed hanging up, dinner that needed preparing, a house that needed tidying and a baby who would cry unless I was holding him.

My life felt terribly out of control and it was no surprise perhaps that my OCD for cleanliness went into overdrive. It became imperative back in those days that the kitchen floor was spotless and I wasted a good few cumulative hours of my life cleaning this each day. My yoga practice became even more important to me as it provided a life line, a sanctuary, a quiet space without anyone demanding anything of me.   

Really I should have just adopted a gentle practice with a lot of resting, but I challenged myself with a dynamic practice because I figured that that was what my mind needed. I was trying to cling to anything that felt normal, even if, ironically, it was further unbalancing me. Active and dynamic yoga has its place but certainly not in the post natal period and I’m keen that other women don’t make the same mistake on their mats as I did.

It took me until Elijah was two to appreciate my profound tiredness and the need for a gentle and restorative practice and the benefits that this would offer me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve since discovered the joy of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and her incredibly feminine and healing approach to the yoga during the post natal period.

I had started teaching yoga again when Elijah was about six weeks old and it was this that kept me sane.  Yes, I was drained and often running on empty and there is a very strong argument that post natal yoga teachers should wait a good few months before giving to others through teaching, but I experience great joy from teaching, it stops me thinking about anything else and keeps me present.

It was the exhaustion that made everything so challenging. I just didn’t have the same energy for life. I certainty didn’t have any energy for E either. This was another shift. All the attention I previously gave to him, I gave to Elijah and I had absolutely no interest in him touching me. Pre-baby I’d been very tactile but now I felt like my body was for Elijah and I couldn’t cope with anyone else touching it. My libido was at an all time low!

It was a particularly challenging year and there were times when I didn’t think that we would make it. Sleep deprivation brings you to your knees. It’s no surprise its used as a form of torture.  I certainly felt like I was being persecuted at times, and it affected my perception of reality. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. Motherhood was all consuming and I longed for something to shift, for Elijah to sleep, for E and I to have some fun and for life to become brighter again.

E didn’t seem to understand and was constantly frustrated at my low mood and obsession with how much sleep I wasn’t getting. The fact he didn’t understand just compounded matters and with that the resentment set in and I had no idea how to change things.  Resentment is a horrible energy, all woody and edgy so that it splits things apart, and certainly there were moments where it was doing that to us.

I now know that this is perfectly normal, in that many couples go through a significant period of adjustment during the first year of parenthood. The dynamics of the relationship change and the mother is often exhausted and trying hold it all together with the home, the baby and work, while the father’s life appears to continue as usual albeit he now has to adjust to someone else demanding his partner’s attention. It didn’t help that we came to parenthood late, when we were both so used to doing what we wanted, when we wanted.

The father doesn’t always appreciate the significant change that the mother’s body has had to go through, not least to accommodate the pregnancy but post natal too.  There’s often weight gain and you don’t feel so good about yourself and you might be breastfeeding and have full and leaky breasts.  Factor in sore bits from the birth and all the hormonal shifts happening and its hardly surprising women just want to be left alone at this time.

I found the changes to my body one of the most difficult aspects of the initial post natal period.  That and the sleep deprivation. Not only was I giving mentally and emotionally, but now I was giving physically as well and I certainly didn’t have any energy to give to E too. Because I was so sick this just compounded matters and occasionally I just wanted someone else to manage everything so I could have some time off from all the responsibility!

This was not how I expected motherhood to be. I’d desperately wanted to have a baby and now I was questioning whether I had been wrong to encourage E to have that baby with me. I’d had this terribly romantic idea of how things should be, breastfeeding and floating around with a baby attached to me, whereas the reality was completely different. I was super sensitive to everything and would cry easily. The tiredness was all consuming and I didn’t know how to change things.

Fortunately, I had befriended a lovely Mum with a little boy just a month older than Elijah, who helped to keen me sane.  She too was going through the same experience so we were able to moan and share together. We were also keen to find a solution that meant we got more sleep. We were both keen to gentle parent so the ‘crying it out’ approach was never an option for either of us.

The only time I read a baby-related book was in my quest for more sleep.  I tried the ‘No Cry Sleep Solution’, which was all very well and good, but to be honest I was just too tired to put any of it into practice! I just simply didn’t have the energy to make a change; breastfeeding when Elijah awoke seemed the quickest and easiest way for us to get back to sleep, even if everyone told us that this was creating the sleeping issue.

I tried all sorts of other things.  We went to baby yoga and while we both enjoyed the classes, they didn’t make him sleep any better that night.  I took him for cranial-osteopathy and to see a healer too and while both ladies told me he would sleep better after the sessions, he never did. I burned lavender oil in his room and wafted pine essential oil into his aura to ground him. I gave him Bach floral remedies and homeopathic remedies.

We bathed in dead sea salts to cleanse our auras and I put crystals under his pillow. We spent a lot of the day outside in nature, running around and getting lots of fresh air. I tried to do Reiki on him but while others are calmed and sleep amazingly well after receiving Reiki, typically it seemed to make no difference to him at all. I used the soothing sounds of Tranquil Turtle too, but this seemed to soothe me more than it did him.

Of course there was always hope that the sleep would improve, and it was this hope that my friend and I lived off.  It got to the point where we’d laugh because someone was always telling us that when we reached certain milestone things would change, for example when they started on solids, when they started crawling etc. But those milestones came and went and made no difference to our sons’ respective sleeping patterns, if anything they merely got worse.

E and I did what was encouraged and moved Elijah into a cot when he outgrew the Moses basket.  Intuitively I had intended to co-sleep but I was told that I would be making a rod for my own back and that he would smell my milk and want to feed even more than he did already. In hindsight, it was silly because now I just spent half my night traipsing backwards and forwards across the bedroom to feed him and try and settle him in the cot that he didn’t like to sleep in. 

Sometimes I was up and down every 45 minutes to an hour, which was incredibly tough. It was at times like this that I felt wholly resentful of E sleeping soundly beside me.  There was little he could do however as Elijah was very attached to me and would want the comfort of my cuddle and my breast, but nonetheless I was annoyed E didn’t appreciate the extent of my tiredness.

Mind you it’s difficult to truly explain how detrimental lack of sleep can be to one’s wellbeing, or indeed how you manage to keep on going.  But you do, because each night you hope it will be better.  I lived and breathed sleep deprivation and I made sure everyone knew about it. It became my thing. It was hard for it not to be though as it impacted so hugely on my quality of life and my health.

Essentially I needed help but I didn’t know how to ask for it and I couldn’t see how anyone could help because I wasn’t prepared to stop breastfeeding.  People told me I needed to move Elijah into his own room as he’d sleep better farther away from us.  We tried this and now I just spent half my night going backwards and forward across the landing.  So we moved him back into our room, where he stayed until he was big enough to go straight into his own bed.

We put him in a double bed initially and we were told that this was the reason he continued to keep waking. So we replaced it with a single bed but this made no difference. I was still spending half my night in his room and now it just meant there was less space for me in the bed beside him. So I’d end up just carrying him into the bed with us where he’d wrap his arms around my neck and hang on until the morning.

It felt like things would never change and by the time Elijah was about eighteen months I was just about keeping a grip on things.  I’d done an eight-week mindfulness course a few months earlier and that had made me very aware that my life was out of balance and I that I was stressed and unhappy. It wasn’t just the sleep deprivation that was challenging, my working life was far too busy, I was approaching my fortieth birthday and knew that we still had frozen embryos in Wessex.

Furthermore, I was under pressure from E and other family members to stop breastfeeding and I knew that if we went through another round of IVF that this was necessary. However, I was adamant that I wanted to breastfeed him until he was two years old so he could gain the immunity benefits. I also knew that I wasn’t mentally or physically in the ‘right’ place for IVF and was concerned I never would be.

I ended up seeing a counsellor because I just needed to talk to someone who didn’t know me and who wouldn’t judge me, so that I could try to make sense of how to make things better again. I’m not sure the counselling itself helped, but the fact I had acknowledged that I needed help set the wheels in motion and I slowly started to make the necessary changes to the way I was living to help me to heal.

I recognised that the more I went on about being tired, the more I was going to create “tired” in my life, it’s the law of attraction. I also realised that I needed to take my need for sleep more seriously.  I had to go to bed earlier and slow my life down to facilitate this.  I had to stop juggling so many balls and trying to be superwoman. I had to accept my imperfections and that it was ok to rest and let things be (like the floor).

I also finally learned to accept that Elijah just didn’t need much sleep.  I acknowledged that there was nothing wrong with him and stopped looking for the magic sleep solution because it didn’t exist.  One day I knew that we would have the opposite issue – we wouldn’t be able to get him out bed in the morning, so I resolved to accept what I couldn’t change and appreciate the blessing of my energetic little boy instead – it was me who needed to change, not him.