Who Needs Sleep: How Loss of Rest Affects the Mother-Child Relationship
My baby has committed war crimes against me.
No, wait. I’m being serious. Sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture, and at this point I’m pretty sure that my child could give lessons to black ops agents on how to effectively drive someone right over the brink of insanity.
For twelve months, my child didn’t sleep. I knew it would be that way in the beginning. Everyone warns you. Everyone makes the jokes. “Get your sleep while you can!” As if you can deposit sleep into some mythical sleep bank, build up your balance, and make a withdrawal at a later date. I can tell you now that no amount of sleep will help when you’re on week 52 of getting up a minimum of four times per night every night. “It gets easier”, people told me. “As soon as you feel like you can’t take another night, that’s when she’ll start sleeping,” they said. But I hit that limit. So hard. So many times. And it didn’t change a thing.
“Just sleep when the baby sleeps”, they said. My baby never slept. During the day, her naps capped out at 45 minutes. At night, she averaged 2.5 hour stretches (sometimes shorter), until after her first birthday. Swaddling clothes. Sound machine. Dark room. Pitch black. Try a night light. Try a Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit. With a doll. Without a doll. Put her down asleep. Put her down awake. Feed her extra before bed. Let her cry. Pick her up. Don’t pick her up. Put her down earlier. Put her down later. Go by wake times. Have a strict schedule. Have a regular bed time routine. I tried it all.
I got advice, solicited and un-, from everyone. “Once she starts solids, she’ll sleep better,” they said. They were wrong. “She just needs to cry it out,” they said. They were wrong. “Give her some formula before she goes to sleep. That’ll help,” they said. They were wrong. My personal favorite was “Just enjoy it. One day you’ll look back and realize how much you enjoyed all the extra time to snuggle.” Not only were they wrong, they made me stabby.
Sure, I might eventually look back and miss having a cute, squishy, adorable baby. But let’s get one thing straight. I will NEVER look back and miss being approximately one-third of a human being. I will never miss driving to work at 6 AM after five hours of fragmented sleep with the windows open in the winter, wondering if today is the day I fall asleep at the wheel and kill someone. I will never miss literally screaming at my child at 2 AM, only to fall to the floor in a hysterically sobbing heap because the fact that I just screamed at a four-month-old can only mean that I am hands-down the worst person and parent on the face of the planet. Literally, the worst. Hitler probably never screamed at babies.
I will never miss the molten guilt, fury, frustration, and shame that overwhelmed me. I will never miss crying multiple times a day, tears running down my face as I tried to assess how to move forward. I will never miss resolving to never yell at her again, only to do it that very night when I was woken up for the third time in as many hours. You start to question yourself. What are you doing wrong? What are you missing? Why did no one ever tell you anything about THIS? About what happens when your baby is 9 months old and STILL NOT SLEEPING?
Then you start reading things on the internet. Sweet Jesus, if you’re reading this because you’re looking for sleep advice on the internet, just stop now. Go no further. I’ll summarize it for you: No matter what you’re doing, you’re wrong, and your child will probably be permanently damaged because of your failures as a parent. Let the baby cry? It will never trust you ever. Don’t let it cry? Your baby will still be nursing and in diapers when he’s 18, and when it’s time to go to college, you’ll just have to go with him because you will have destroyed his independence when he was still in onesies. Supplement feedings? But your breastmilk supply! And formula is evil! Bed share? Practically child abuse, and you’re guaranteed to kill your baby. Separate room? WHAT IF SOMEONE CREEPS INTO THE HOUSE AND KIDNAPS YOUR BABY AND YOU DON’T EVEN WAKE UP?
Ultimately, what worked for us was nothing. After 12 months of horrible sleep during the day AND night, she started sleeping through the night (although she’s frequently up for the day before 5 AM), and taking hour-long naps. She’s never going to be a great sleeper. She’s never going to be one of these babies that sleeps twelve hours every night and takes two two-hour naps. But the 9 hours of sleep she gets at night now have changed me as a person.
Y’all, listen. Sleep deprivation is real. It’s literally a form of torture. Add it to the already rocky road that is new motherhood with everyone’s favorite side of Post-Partum Depression, and you’ve got a recipe for chaos. Trying to exist in the world as a parent when you can’t remember the last time you slept for more than three solid hours is beyond hard. It verges on impossible. It changes how you look at yourself. You didn’t know you were capable of such anger. Such sadness. Such hurt. It changes how you look at your baby. This thing that you love that is also making your life hell, that you want to protect, but that you also just can’t even stand to look at right now. You waited for months, maybe for years, for the chance to hold this perfect, tiny human, and now all you want to do is give her back, or maybe put her back inside. You feel guilty for feeling this way, and angry at her for making you feel this way, and guilty for feeling angry at her for making you feel this way, and angry at her for making you feel guilty for feeling angry at her for making you feel this way.
It changes how you look at your partner. He had always been there for you, but somehow it doesn’t seem like enough when it’s the middle of the night and you’re nursing your child for what feels like the millionth time today. Maybe you resent him for sleeping, even when your logical mind knows he’s doing everything he can to help. Maybe you resent him for agreeing to have a child with you in the first place.
Your job. You used to be good at it. You used to enjoy it. Now it’s something that you’re only peripherally aware of as you try desperately to appear professional when all you want to do is GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP. You’re getting into trouble for forgetting to complete tasks, for being short with your coworkers, for doing things half as well as you used to. And you just know that people are looking at you and judging you every time you set foot through the door (even when they’re not).
Your relationships. You used to enjoy knowing people, being around them, engaging with them. Now they’re just another obstacle you have to navigate as you pretend to be okay. Or you have to listen to them give endless advice, as if you haven’t already tried every method known to man to make your baby sleep. And underneath it all, you imagine you hear this tone of condescension that says “I never had any problems getting my baby to sleep. What’s wrong with you that you haven’t figured it out yet?”
But here’s the thing. It wasn’t my fault, and it’s not yours. Every article I read, every piece of advice I listened to, they all made me feel like if I just tried HARDER or if I just did something DIFFERENT, I could fix this. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about sleep schedules or solid foods or crying or comforting. It was about this baby being an unpredictable force of nature that couldn’t care less about what I needed or wanted. She knew it wasn’t about me, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. Honestly, I didn’t figure it out until she started sleeping. Probably because before that I was too exhausted to figure out that I had snapped her onesie closed outside of her pants and that I had baby crap in my hair. I think what the whole experience has taught me is that no one – wait, let me repeat that – no one. One more time in all caps: NO ONE has any idea what they’re doing. We are all just hanging on to whatever shreds of sanity we have as we slog through this new, insane, confusing, confounding, amazing, heartbreaking, infuriating experience. Sometimes we’re lucky and things are easy. Sometimes we’re not lucky and things are so miserable you find yourself questioning why anyone would ever be stupid enough to actually want children. But in the end, looking back on it all, you have to be able to acknowledge that you did your best with the card of hands you were dealt, and no one can judge you for that any more harshly than you judge yourself. Maybe my baby isn’t an average baby. But then again, I’m not your average mom, and chances are you’re not either.