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Baby Sleep Stress: My Experience as a New Mum with a Non-Sleeping Baby

As a mum of two and the owner of a baby store, I have wanted to write a blog post about this for a long time. It’s something that holds a lot of emotion for me, and something that I feel passionate about. By writing this post, I hope that I’m able to help some of our readers to feel better about their baby’s sleep, and I hope I can help relieve some of their stress.

When I was a brand new mum to a beautiful baby girl, I was overcome by stress about her sleep. I had read every book, every website, and every blog post I could get my hands on about baby sleep. I was a reader, a researcher, and someone who wanted to know all the information so I could make the most informed decisions. In other areas of early parenting, this had been great! I knew all about what to expect during pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and breastfeeding. I could troubleshoot issues we were having because I had read an enormous amount of information about babies and parenting. But baby sleep was different. There was plenty of information out there about baby sleep. I own at least four books in baby sleep. But the problem was, it was rarely evidence based, it used fear mongering tactics, and much of it was written specifically to sell a product.

So what was so stressful about sleep?

I knew before I got pregnant that baby sleep could be challenging. I knew that babies didn’t sleep through the night for a long time, and I knew that it was common for new parents to feel sleep deprived and tired for quite some time during early parenting. However, when I read all the information I had gathered about baby sleep, it seemed really easy. It seemed like a puzzle, and if you could solve it, your baby would magically and independently sleep through the night from a young age. There were a variety of sleep “solutions” written in the books, most of which centred around getting the baby to “self-soothe”, or around “sleep schedules”. The problem was that none of the solutions these authors were giving me actually worked on my baby.

I was so full of information and so determined that I was going to do the right thing by myself and my baby, and be a great parent. While the sleep books and programs often had different recommendations, a main one was about getting your baby to self-settle, or self-soothe. This was supposedly the magic bullet that would mean your baby would sleep through the night from the early months. For me, I was lucky that I had a baby that self-settled relatively easily. I didn’t really have to do anything to get this to happen, she just did it herself without any tears. In the beginning I thought I had hit the jackpot. However, unfortunately this did not at all translate to sleeping through the night or having big long naps like I had been promised. Instead, I had a baby that self-settled, but then took very short naps and woke multiple times through the night. I couldn’t work out where I had gone wrong, and I read more and more books to try to find answers. I timed her sleeps on an app, I tried putting her to bed earlier, and later, and tried a dark room, and a light room. And none of it worked.

I was feeling so stressed about my baby’s sleep. All of the sleep books and programs treated baby sleep like a puzzle, like a problem that had to be solved. If you got everything right, the baby would sleep through the night and take long naps. When this didn’t happen for us, I was devastated. It felt like I was failing as a parent. I couldn’t believe that I had failed as a parent, right at the beginning. The books and programs also made it sound like babies would never sleep if we didn’t teach them, and that if they woke in the night or took short naps they would not develop properly and would be chronically sleep deprived. I lived in fear of my baby being overtired, and spent hours bent over a cot in a dark room trying to force my child to sleep, each time hoping this would be the time she would take the two hour nap or sleep through the night. But it didn’t happen.

The worst of all of this saga was happening every night when my baby was around six months old. Everything I had read had told me that babies don’t need breastfeeding at night over six months old. But every night, my baby would wake around two hours after bedtime and need a feed. I would rock her, pat her, cuddle her, do everything I possibly could to get her back to sleep without feeding her. Sometimes this would take well over an hour. I would cry every time and wonder why I was failing so terribly as a mother because I just couldn’t get her to sleep through. If I ever gave in at that first wake and fed her, the guilt would be overwhelming. I would be sobbing as I was feeding her, feeling like I was giving in, and stealing her ability to ever sleep through the night. I felt like I was reinforcing her waking and making her sleep deprived. By the time she woke for the second time at night, around two hours after the first time, I would give in and feed her every time. I just couldn’t sustain it. And so the guilt would happen again.

And still, she didn’t sleep through the night. I became completely obsessed with baby sleep. I was completely and utterly depressed about it. I read more about sleep training, the Ferber method, and leaving babies to “cry it out”. It felt so wrong to me to hear my baby cry, and I couldn’t do it. Of course, this made me feel weak, and like I was doing my child a disservice. I felt like I deserved to be tired because I couldn’t just leave her to “cry it out”. It didn’t matter what I did, I was completely devastated by my inability to make my child sleep through the night.

I look back on this time now, and I see how ridiculous this all sounds. If you had a baby that slept through the night early, or if you just embraced the wake ups from the beginning, this might be a completely foreign blog post for you. But for me, and many others that I have since found on social media, baby sleep stress is very real.

Thankfully, I was able to get my hands on some amazing sleep books and real evidence-based baby sleep information. I started with a book called “Sleeping Like a Baby” by Pinky McKay. The opening chapter of this book literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. Finally, someone was telling me that it was ok that my baby didn’t sleep through the night. I finally felt some relief. I learnt over time that babies are supposed to wake up at night for feeding. I learnt it was perfectly acceptable to breastfeed my baby at night, and that she actually got benefits from this. I learnt that if I just fed her to begin with, she would quickly drift of back to sleep and I could sleep too. I learnt that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for sleep schedules, and that there is actually evidence pointing to them being damaging to the mental health of new parents.

And so my life changed. I wasted the first six months of my baby’s life worrying about sleep. Once I learnt all of this, I had a wonderful time parenting my beautiful little daughter. She eventually slept through the night, but it wasn’t until well after her first birthday. Some people get good sleepers, and some people get babies who wake multiple times a night. I had to learn to embrace the wake ups, and respond to my daughter at night in the way that worked best for our family. For us that meant keeping our daughter in our room, and feeding her every time she woke.

Unfortunately the baby sleep industry is full of myths and full of fear-mongering. I’m here to tell you that it’s ok if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night. It’s ok to feed your baby at night past six months, and it’s ok to respond to your baby each time they wake. If your baby doesn’t sleep through the night, it doesn’t mean they never will, and it doesn’t mean they are chronically sleep deprived. Waking at night with a baby is challenging, but I can tell you from experience, that I would much rather wake at night to my baby every night than to experience the stress and anxiety that trying to sleep train my baby brought.

I’ve now got two gorgeous children. With my second I stressed much, much less. And I was lucky, he was a slightly better sleeper. He still woke overnight, but not as often as my first. I didn’t stress about any of it, and now, at age two and five, both my children happily sleep through the night most nights in their own beds. And, more importantly, we are happy to no longer stress about sleep.

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