A Year Without Sleep

DaycareDilemma

It wasn’t until 4 months postpartum that I cried because I wasn’t sleeping. Everyone warned me about the sleep thing before I had a baby. “You better sleep now.” they’d say. I felt prepared – like I had some sort of idea what I was getting into. I had read The Fourth Trimester so I knew that the first three months would be a total free-for-all, but I had set myself up for disappointment expecting that by four months all the sleep kinks would be ironed out.

Each night following the four month mark I continued to believe, hope, and pray that the next night would be different. Tonight is the night we are going to sleep. I had to believe it, really believe it, so I could manifest it. This is probably how people who consistently play the lottery feel. This time I’ll win. Some days I felt fine. I mean, I was still working, writing, meeting, coaching, and designing – but the sleep thing was always simmering on the back burner. And then there were the days it would boil over and I would feel completely defeated. I would have a total break down once a month or so. Sleep, or rather the lack thereof, dominated my thoughts and my conversations. I was losing my sense of self to my obsession with sleep. I would turn to Google almost daily, searching for answers.

Okay, so here’s what we were doing: Fox was born at home, in my bed. He went straight from my womb to my boob. When I got up to shower after a few hours he moved from my chest to Jeremy’s. He spent his first night sleeping on Jeremy in our bed. And he pretty much stayed in our bed from then on. So we were co-sleeping, more specifically we were doing what is known as bed-sharing. Fox was exclusively breastfed on demand. (I only learned the words for how I was intuitively parenting from a hefty Dr. Sears book.) So what Google told me was that I needed to begin teaching my baby how to sleep. More specifically, Google told me exactly how many minutes and intervals in which I would need to let my baby cry in order for him to figure it out. Google also told me that letting my baby cry himself to sleep would essentially ruin his self esteem for life. I left my Google binges feeling even more confused and inadequate. I had no idea what to do.

Four months turned into six, and eight, and ten. Fox was still in my bed and he still was waking every hour or so. I had to unfriend really nice people from Facebook who like to talk about how much their babies sleep. Or even those who complained about being at their wits end because their baby wakes up twice a night. On a typical night I was up no less than 6 times with Fox. On particularly bad nights it would be as many as 10 or 12.

So here I am Googling, reading, talking, and taking advice on what to do to get some sleep. Here is an abbreviated list of what we tried:
– implementing a water-tight bed time routine
– lavender oil on the soles of our feet
– putting an amethyst crystal under Fox while he slept
– eating lots of carbs before bed
– drinking tart cherry juice
– drinking wine
– begging God for sleep
– meditating on the universe for sleep
– questioning the ethics of sleep spells
– not talking or thinking about it to see if the problem would go away
– I seriously considered quitting my career and making sleep my new job
– I seriously considered moving into a fancy hotel for a week

Each night I was convinced that there was some sort of magical combination of variables that would guarantee sleep. And each night nothing changed.

I love my baby with my whole heart. Most moms would die for their baby, and I would die for Fox. And I felt like that’s exactly what I was doing. I was dying a slow death. The turning point happened when I called my mom in tears – the hiccupy kind where you can’t quite catch your breath. “Well, honey I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. You kids slept like happy sloths on a sunny afternoon. Have you asked Google what to do?” I hung up the phone. I didn’t quite want to kill myself but I couldn’t help but fantasize about a meteor hitting the house.

For the next two hours I tried to come up with new solutions. I seriously considered becoming a certified witch and casting a sleep spell on my baby. I bought witchy books and researched spells, and then Googled the ethics of casting a spell on a baby. The biggest roadblock to this plan was that I couldn’t figure out how I would gather fresh water from a running stream and stay up until midnight to charge it in the light of a full moon in my sleep deprived state – a necessary step in becoming a true witch. So I text Jeremy: “Everything is bullshit.” It had become my mantra.

Okay, so here is the thing I haven’t told you yet. When I was pregnant I loved feeling Fox move. It was a pretty incredibly sensation, but also, it was reassurance that he was okay in there. I would wake up multiple times throughout the night to go pee and when I couldn’t feel Fox moving I would wake him up. Like … every hour or two. I was waking him up every two hours since before he was born because I was scared he would die – and now he was continuing the sleep pattern I had taught him in utero. So not only did I feel like I had made this attachment parenting, co-sleeping, breastfeeding bed and that I needed to lie in it – I felt like Fox’s sleep pattern and waking every two hours was a direct result of me waking him up every couple of hours while he was still in the womb. I amended my “everything is bullshit” mantra with “this is all my fault.”

As soon as I hung up with my mom I received an email from a creative acquaintance from a friend asking how to cope with not sleeping – she had a 4 month old who was up all night too. I told her that at best I felt that I had compromised my marriage and my career. At worst, I had completely ruined my life and might die. Dramatic, yes. But I had nothing good to say about not sleeping. I didn’t care that this would only be temporary and that I should cherish my baby when he is so itty bitty “because it won’t be forever”. I didn’t care that it makes biological sense for babies to be up all night. I couldn’t muster up an ounce of gratitude. But then I felt guilty for being ungrateful. I even stumbled across a beautifully designed quote on Pinterest saying your problem is someone else’s blessing and started crying. I would think about how awful I would feel if Fox died. I made a pact with God that I would never sleep again if it meant keeping Fox alive. This kind of backwards logic only made me feel more insane. I seriously began to believe that this no sleep thing was a bargain with God. I was simply making the ultimate sacrifice.

My mom called me a couple hours later – “Are you okay?” “What?! No. It’s been two hours. Everything is bullshit.” People tell me I’m independent, though often I feel like the very needy younger sibling. I love being taken care of but I suppose I have a hard time asking for help. So when my mom insisted on taking Fox and letting him sleep over for the night I was resistant. It felt like a huge imposition but she insisted that she is my mom and that if she can’t help who can? So Fox spent the night at Grandma’s house – he woke up a few times in the middle of the night and she would heat him a bottle and rock him back to sleep. The very next night he slept through the night for the first time ever. Everything was no longer bullshit anymore. It was real magic.

I’m tempted to stop the story here and say that Fox has been sleeping through the night every night since – which is pretty accurate. I mean, there was that one time when I snuck him back in bed at 2AM and stayed awake distracted by his breathing most of the night. And another time that I sat on the floor of his room and patted his back through the bars of his crib for a solid 30 minutes while he half-assed cried while half asleep. But other than a couple standout instances sleep hasn’t been much of an issue since (trust, I’m knocking on wood over here). It’s actually surreal after being SUCH an issue for a solid year. And even after Fox started sleeping I was still waking up every two hours. I would wake up so excited that Fox was still sleeping that I wound up giving myself insomnia. I would lay awake in my bed trying not to think or wonder about the baby too much – I was convinced that my thoughts might be loud enough to wake the baby. Finally, after a couple of months I finally settled into an 8 hour stretch of sleep.

When my still-sleep-deprived friends ask me for advice, through a fair amount of survivors guilt, I give them this:
• First, you’re doing a good job and your baby will sleep one day. It never gets old hearing this.
• Second, I had to let go a little. In hindsight, I realized I was irrationally terrified Fox would die if he slept more than a couple hours at a time. My mom didn’t let Fox cry it out that first time he spent the night at her house. He woke a couple of times and when she showed him I wasn’t around he simply went back to sleep. It was proof that we didn’t need each other as much as we both thought. I have a feeling being a mom is a lesson in letting go a little more every single day.
• Third, have a game plan before you go to bed. If you have a partner come up with a game plan together. Explicitly outline the rules and boundaries. Approach it like a scientific experiment – try changing only one variable at a time each week. Setting small compromises gave us all a little structure and a way to stay consistent.
• Finally, try making small but consistent efforts and start on the weekend. Just like working out or eating right getting your baby to sleep takes small but consistent effort over time. I recommend starting on the weekend when you’re not stressed about getting enough sleep to work.

People have started asking me if we plan on having more children. I don’t think I can ever go through the not sleeping thing ever again. I thought distance from our year of not sleeping might give me a new perspective but more than anything hindsight has made it clear how awful the ordeal really was. It’s not like labor where I can’t quite remember the pain.

All of that said, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

  1. This is beautiful honesty, and I know it’s going to help many a sleep-deprived mother who’s frantically Googling right now. xo

    • Gosh, I hope so. I would’ve liked to have read something like this when I was going through it.

  2. Amie

    I’m 16 weeks pregnant right now and am loving rereading your And Bebe series. I was going to leave a comment asking if you would still cosleep if you did it again and then read the last sentence. I really appreciate your honesty and openness!

    • I loved co-sleeping and would still be doing it to this day if we were all actually sleeping a little better.

    • Also! Congrats on your pregnancy!

  3. Emily

    I’m so glad to hear fox is sleeping well now – we’ve had a similar experience switching over from bed sharing to crib sleeping at the 15-month mark. Our daughter had been sleeping with us since (home)birth, and it had gone from wonderfully sweet to ok to none of us getting sleep all night every night/straight up kicks in the face. Key for us was finally moving her crib from our room to the (now former) guest room, and having my husband do all of the middle of the night baby tending. She’s sleeping through the night now and it’s absolutely ridiculous.

    The thing is, her friends are sleeping well now, but they all had their own sleep problems all along. I think it might just take babies a while to settle in to sleeping through the night, no matter what we do to them.

    (I totally feel you on the middle of the night worrying, before and after having the baby. When she sleeps through the night past 7, I still worry and have to fight not to go check that she’s breathing.)

  4. Tonia

    Oh man. Yep, not having kids. I mean, we’re going to at some point, but….oh man.

    • Yeah, don’t do it! 😉

  5. Sarah

    Kathleen, thank you for this. My daughter is 9 months old and sleeps decently well, but I’m still completely exhausted everyday waking up a few times a night. It’s so nice to hear from other moms who are grappling with these complex emotions – deep, profound love, weird guilt, etc. Again, thanks. 🙂

  6. I’m so happy for you that Fox sleeps well now. I remember your post about how he wasn’t sleeping…
    My kid didn’t sleep that well at night, but I took about 6 months off from working, so I could catch up with sleep with her during the day.

    Again, really happy for you. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kelly – I’m so grateful he’s finally sleeping. I think he’s happier for it too, really.

  7. Meagan

    I love your honesty Kathleen. You’ve said it time and time again, but being a mom is hard… being a parent is hard. We don’t have all the answers, and we never will. We can only do the best we can.

    I have four kiddos, and we’ve used sleep training or scheduling with all of them. Well I should start by saying we always started out using the attachment parenting methods, but always ended up switching to sleep training methods around 3-4 months because I felt crazy and the kids didn’t do too well with it. Anyway, we followed the Babywise method in a way… we didn’t let them cry it out, and I did use a pacifier. I did schedule their eating, sleeping, and wake times, but I was VERY flexible with it. If baby woke up early and I couldn’t get him back to sleep after 5-10 minutes, I fed him and we started the little cycle back over.

    Anyway, it worked really well for us (and a few friends I know), but the biggest tipping point for me was realizing that if one thing doesn’t work, it’s okay to try something different and it’s okay to do it in your own way as well. Anyway… I’m glad Fox is sleeping better for you! And if you do decide to have more babies just know that you won’t feel so much like you’re winging it the second time around!

    • Yes! I think the best lesson in this is that there isn’t one “right” way to do things. I think I ended up combining a few methods + my own intuition – the book I read was “No Cry Sleep Solution” – I probably flipped through it 20 times before I finally committed to being consistent with trying one thing at a time. Again, ultimately, letting Fox spend the night at my mom and dad’s house was the thing I needed to get in the right mindset to get serious about sleep. XO

  8. Jessica

    I feel like Google is the best and worst thing to happen to parenting. On one hand, in those first weeks, beginning a google search and having the answer auto-populate gave me some sense of peace knowing others had gone through it, but on the sleep issue, it too made me feel like an awful failure.

    I too awaited each much-promised benchmark that promised sleep. The first was 8 weeks, then 4 months, then 6 months. We co-slept and fed on demand and never once fathomed CIO. While Beeb wasn’t nearly up every 45 minutes, it was every three hours at most.

    It wasn’t until two weeks ago (just shy of 8 months) that she started sleeping through. She did it in her time, and I remind myself every day that even though we went through our own trials, she was consistent the entire way, and I never had the horror of a baby that slept through the night at 6 weeks only to revert at 6 months. I think I would have died.

    • Throughout the whole ordeal I just had to trust the wisdom of my baby – and my own intuition. Even though I was putting myself in the insane position of being up all night for a year I really wouldn’t change a thing. Fox figured it out in his own time – just like you say.

  9. emily hassman

    There are so many things I want to say in response to this, but I’m going to resist the urge to type out a novel in this little box 😉 I mean, my baby sleeps so much more than yours did, but still, “at best I felt that I had compromised my marriage and my career. At worst, I had completely ruined my life and might die.” makes me go “YES YES YES. THAT!”

    Babies are the best and the worst. The love and the guilt and the crazy… and the resentment that my spouse is a man and therefore will never fully understand where I’m at… and and and…

    • I should follow up by saying … I think my marriage and career are stronger than ever. It all just takes a lot of work and attention.

      And exactly YES to what you said about babies being the best and the worst. I think that’s why it’s so confusing and hard! You have these mix of emotions like the biggest love you’ve ever felt mixed with a good dose of “Gah, vacation / evenings / mornings / sleep / [everything] will never be the same.”

  10. Renee

    I love that you shared this. Parenting makes you batshit crazy! Or it has me, at least 🙂 It’s crazy how our own anxieties are manifested in parenting. Shefali Tsabary’s book The Conscious Parent is a good one. Xo

    • I’ll have to check that book out! A couple of my girlfriends have mentioned it too.

  11. Heather

    Sleep deprivation is the worst. Our almost 3 year old still sometimes wakes up in the night and crawls into bed with us and our 18 month old still wakes up every single night and won’t go back to sleep unless she can sleep in our bed. I don’t really remember what a full night of sleep is like. I know it could be worse, though. My mom said I turned her into a zombie because I wouldn’t sleep as a baby. Whoops.

    • Aw, I have to admit – I’m kind of looking forward to the day when Fox can crawl back into our bed again. I love cuddling with him which is probably why it was so hard to get him into a crib in the first place!

  12. Caitlin

    Thank you so much for sharing your ordeal and bravery with us. I have been experiencing a similar decline in sanity for awhile now (for different reasons) and while I am not at all glad you went through this – it helps to know I’m not alone, and that I am not as weak as I was feeling. I feel like a freak walking around with all of this misery amongst these normal, functioning people.

    My husband bought a fertility spell on Etsy to make me feel better. At first I was even too superstitious to use it- a baby born of magic sounds dangerous, lol. But the “witch” was so kind and sweet and I am thinking of it as more of spiritual thing than a witchcraft thing.

    • Aw, this is so sweet. What you said about walking around with misery amongst normal people is so spot on. I really do believe in magic and am sending a little love and light your way. XO

  13. Amanda

    This is wonderful, but I am so sorry you had to live it! I have a 9 month old and although sleep hasn’t been our issue, I really identify with the Google binges. Feeding has been our issue and I’ve been exclusively pumping since 3 months. Within a single hour I go from being convinced she’ll never be able to form sincere bonds since we aren’t breastfeeding, ready to go office space on my pump, hugging my pump because breast milk will surely give her a few more IQ over formula, and finally acceptance with a heavy dose of martyrdom. Motherhood can make even the most sane/self-assured person feel absolutely insane. I give you huge props for making it through because sleep is absolutely the worst thing to loose!

    • This is such a great reminder that there is probably always something. Amanda, you’re doing a great job. I was 100% formula-fed from the get go and I still love the way my mom smells. Your bonds (biological and otherwise) go far deeper than food. XO

  14. sarah

    Thanks for being so real about this. My son is 3.5 months now. He slept great from 4-10 weeks and I thought id won the lottery. One night he actually slept we’ve hours. Then one day he just switched, now we have been at 2.5 hour stretches at most for a month and I’m wondering what happened! I keep telling myself “this too shall pass” but I can’t imagine doing this for a year!

    • I hope your son starts giving you a few more stretches of sleep soon!

  15. Jennifer

    Our son didn’t sleep for 14 months. I vowed we would never have another child and gave all of our baby things away. That was 3.5 years ago – and we now have a 6 month old. We are back in the same boat with this one. While I have finally had my first break down of feeling “crazy tired” -as in “so tired I feel crazy” – at least this time I know the sleepless nights will pass. When our son finally slept – he slept for 10-12 hours straight a night (and had been one to wake 10-12 times a night). Don’t throw out your baby stuff just yet….

    • Ha! Baby stuff is leaving the house, but I haven’t quite pulled the trigger on tubal ligation. So we’ll see. I hope your littlest one starts giving you a little sleep soon!

  16. KC

    I feel like you wrote this about my life. We did a mix of bed-sharing and just having baby sleep in our room for the first year-ish. He was a terrible sleeper from birth, and I thought it was because I’d always worked nights and I figured he was on my schedule from the womb. It wasn’t until he turned 14 months and my husband moved him into our guest room one Sunday night while I was at work that we all slept. I think it was a harder adjustment for me, but he slept great from that point forward. I missed having him just steps away, and would stare at him on the baby monitor in the middle of the night just to see him breathe. He’ll be two in July and loves his own room and bedtime routine now.

    Baby #2 will be here in November and we’ve already decided we learned our lesson the first time, and baby will be in their own room by March. I think I needed that closeness more than they do, but it wasn’t benefiting anyone – we were all sleep deprived! 🙂

  17. Katie

    Some babies just take longer than others. Mine just finished nursing at 2 years, never co-slept with us, and still didn’t sleep through the night until just recently. You can only do what you can do, and it’s so hard. I’m in the same boat-not sure I ever want to do it again, but haven’t quite decided to give everything away and actually be done. So glad you’re getting sleep now. Is Fox still nursing and able to sleep through away from you?

  18. Megan

    Ah, I love this post. I had a similar experience with our first. I remember lying in bed praying to God to let my baby sleep — but not too deep that he’d stop breathing. (My youngest brother died of SIDS, so take your fears and multiply.) We co-slept most of the first year in spite of my reservations about doing so. When I got unexpectedly pregnant with our second son, I was terrified of having a repeat experience…but having such low expectations seems to have worked in my favor. Our second son just turned 9 weeks old and sleeps so much better than our first ever did. No clue why. Different kids? Different energy coming from mama? All I know is that I’m so, so grateful. I’ll never forget the misery and insanity of sleep deprivation, and I wish more parents talked about what an impact it makes on their lives, careers and relationships.

  19. Margie

    Your honesty, I love it.

  20. Judy

    You might think you were being dramatic when you said ” at worst I completely ruined my life and I might die” but I swear you aren’t. It is like a psychosis when you haven’t slept and don’t see sleep in your future. The world you are in is REAL. AND YOU MIGHT DIE.

    I say this with two boys who are absolutely fantastic sleepers. But both provided me a time period in which I looked at my husband and said “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO? I AM NEVER GOING TO SLEEP AGAIN!!” I wanted to shake everyone by their shoulders who was talking about anything other than my sleep deprivation and say “DON’T YOU KNOW I HAVEN’T SLEPT AND WILL NEVER SLEEP AGAIN?! THE WORLD NEEDS TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM!”

    I will never ever forget the terror that balls in your stomach and you see the sun starts to set, not knowing that you will get any sleep that night. I see a newborn and am instantly reminded. The sleep deprivation made us almost not have a second child. Ours started sleeping through the night at 6 months and we couldn’t decide if we wanted to test the waters again. Some kids don’t sleep through the night ever! We finally took the leap, and by the grace of the universe we had another healthy boy who started sleeping through the night at 2 months. 2 months!!!

    But I will never forget what it felt like. And what you wrote is the exact experience people have. Google and witches and wishing and praying and crying. All of that.

    So happy for you and Fox that you are both getting sleep.

  21. Megan

    My now 5yr old boy did not sleep thru the night until he hit 12 months. And then, out of no where began sleeping thru the night. I commend you on not letting him cry it out. I couldn’t do it. It didn’t feel right. I’m beginning to believe that 12 months might be a natural timing for infants to begin sleeping 8-10 hour stretches. The first year without sleep is brutal but you made it thru and your baby has naturally learned to sleep which I think is the most important thing. love to you

  22. I hope you will see this comment and that it might help you even though you’ve seemed to work out baby Fox’s sleeping patterns. (Congratulations) I have a 4 week old baby who has some gas issues and i’ve been reading how to help him. Today I put some probiotics on my nipple before breastfeeding and he has been asleep for 3 hours without waking up in pain due to gas. Reading some blogs I came across someone who had to get antibiotics during labor for GBS (just like you, right?). Perhaps Fox could still benefit from some probiotics? Perhaps you’ve already done this but if not, I hope it helps <3

    • I can definitely add probiotics to the list of things we tried! It’s a great idea for most babes!

  23. Katie

    I loved this post so much. I’ve been suffering postpartum anxiety myself and just hearing someone else going through the emotions that I’m afraid to say out loud is refreshing. Parenting is hard. The best thing ever and the worst thing ever. Which everyone tells you, but I didn’t actually get it until I was in it. I’m very thankful for your blog and the language that you use. “Warrior mama” and “having a tribe” have seen me through some times when I really felt like I couldn’t do this whole mom thing. Thanks for providing strength, honesty, confidence and some camaraderie in this weird, magical world of motherhood.

  24. Brittan

    I’m late getting to this post because I’m just getting over 5 months with hyperemesis (which has also pretty much ruled out my ever being willing to go through pregnancy again, so I feel you there).

    This was simultaneously horrible and oddly comforting/touching to read. I can’t even begin to imagine going through a year of sleeplessness (and still functioning enough to have a full time creative job). It would have driven me to insanity, I think. But, as a mom to a 13-year-old and now pregnant with my second, I have a weird combination of experience and sort of feeling like a first time mom again. I barely remember what it’s like to have a baby (also I was 17 last time so not like I knew anything then either), and I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about it, but this has made me feel a little braver and more ready for whatever lies ahead. At the same time, I love what you said about motherhood being an exercise in learning to let go. It could not be more true. There have been so many of these moments and phases — learning to walk, kindergarten, first sleepover, MIDDLE SCHOOL. So many more. Personally, I always feel like I’ve hit my sweet spot when I am able to accept letting go, watch him move on, but see that he still knows that I’m there. At every stage you will see time and time again how much he still needs you (even in the early teenage phase where they repeatedly tell you otherwise), and how you can find new ways to support him — just like your mom did for you by letting him spend the night with her!

    Anyway, that’s a lot of rambling, but I’m truly happy to hear that you are getting sleep and learning the many lessons that motherhood has to teach us. I hope I can be as strong as you when my little one gets here.

  25. Sarah

    Yay for sleep! Congrats! My daughter didn’t start sleeping through the night until she was 18 months. I had insomnia the whole time too. I thought I was going insane. I had 2 car wrecks and even did a sleep study to find out what was “wrong” with me. What was wrong with me is that anxiety was through the roof because of no sleep! I don’t think I could do another one either after that hell. I’m having such a hard time letting go – she’s growing up so fast and I asked my husband the other day if I enjoyed her when she was a baby. I can’t remember! It’s such a fog now. I’m finally rested enough to want to take care of a baby and now my baby is a busy, talking, running, climbing toddler. I just about die every time she takes a moment to give me a hug or a cuddle. We moms never stop torturing ourselves, it seems.

  26. You’re breaking my heart Kathleen! “I have a feeling being a mom is a lesson in letting go a little more every single day” is one of the most beautiful, truthful lines I have ever read!
    I think this topic relates really well to that need for us to grow by allowing vulnerable. By putting ourselves out there, facing our fears and seeing what they really look like. I think that’s what you and Fox did when he stayed at your mum’s. And boy did it pay off.

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