Eco Family Life. Right Here. Right Now. Be The Change.
“Is she sleeping through the night yet?” One of the most ill-informed and irritating questions I heard repeatedly as a new mum, and curiously now that I’m a mum of a nearly three year old, one that I have not heard in a long while. Yet my nearly three year old does not sleep through the night. Occasionally there will be a night that includes an uninterrupted stretch of six hours, but it’s more usually three or four hours between drowsy feeds, and these still happen a lot in the early hours before we have to get up in the morning. There seems to be an assumption that by a certain point (maybe six months, maybe a year, it’s an unspoken thing) that the whole sleep ‘problem’ will be sorted.
Firstly, why is should being woken at night to meet your child’s very real needs be a problem? The way I see it is that the energy needed to meet a child’s needs round the clock is not the difficulty, rather the challenge comes from living in a culture where mums, and indeed families, are not supported in the least, either physical, emotionally or financially. There are far too many substantial pressures on parents, for example, each parent needing to hold down a job and mum needing to run a household and care for older children almost single-handedly. Few mums, or families, have such a strong support network that they are able to keep their energy levels up where they should be whilst also being responsive to their child’s needs round the clock. It’s all very well telling mums not to worry about the housework and focus on the baby, but the family has to eat and the clothes have to be washed, and there needs to be some sort of basic level of hygiene in the home, and so the household chores begin to stack up, and that’s just during the first few months when at least one can talk about babymooning. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier as the baby grows into a toddler, it’s just that the difficulty goes slightly undercover. Governmental policies of our times, despite all their empty talk of family values, do not value parenting at all, rather the converse. The assumption is that very young children should be in daycare while parents work, for the good of the economy, whatever that really means. No consideration is given to the fact that being with their parents might actually be best for babies and toddlers. Modern life is expensive; most of us have to work our fingers to the bone just to keep up with the rises in energy bills, for example. In short, the problem comes from being expected to do work hard in a multitude of ways, largely alone, round the clock, not from the child’s need for night time parenting.
Secondly, why should a child be sleeping through the night? Adults do not sleep solidly either – we all go through cycles of different levels of sleep through the night. It’s just that as adults, we don’t usually remember waking up, and we don’t usually bother anyone else when we do. So-called baby experts who dish out ‘advice’ on how to get little ones to sleep through the night are perpetuating the myth, and it really is a myth, that children should be seen and not heard. ‘Don’t bother your parents in the night! Just lie there looking cute and be ready to wake up and play when the clock says it’s time, and not before!’ It’s dangerously misleading, and yet sadly it seems to be the prevalent attitude that this ‘advice’ should be followed, whilst those who speak out against it, and about the harm that it causes, are seen as unusual, to put it mildly.
Now, given that these cultural/societal/whatever-you-want-to-call-them pressures exist, and that sleep for mothers is P-recious with an enormous capital P, how do we go gentle into that dark night?
If you’re co-sleeping, and want your child to know you’re close by at all times, just staying while they fall asleep isn’t the whole picture. Wanting your child to know you are there, to sense your presence, and not to panic if they wake and can’t find you, deserves just as much consideration as the way you give reassurance throughout the day, but the challenge is how this affects your own sleep and therefore your ability to recharge.
Let’s say you feed your toddler to sleep at 7:30pm, and stay curled up around her for half an hour, to make sure she’s sleeping happily. Then, what next? Get up for some quality ‘me-time’ i.e. tidying and cleaning up the house, coming back every few minutes to check she’s ok, despite the fact that you can hear her every move from downstairs anyway? Sit up in bed with the laptop, catching up on emails or your tax return? (It’s amazing how many folders and notebooks you can juggle on your lap when you try.) Or, grasping desperately at the opportunity, cram in some reading or writing? The house needs cleaning, and you would love a good read, but sleep is seriously calling you…. How do you decide?
And so, no matter how tired one is, from nearly three years without a proper night’s sleep, sleep doesn’t necessarily follow. Particularly when a toddler no longer naps during the day, finding the moments of time when one can focus on the stuff one needs to do but that isn’t particularly toddler-friendly, can be tough. The night is calling you to be busy, and what could be a couple of extra hours of sleep for mum soon vanishes. Sleep when the baby sleeps’, one of the top ten clichés dished out to new mamas, sounds so simple, but can be completely irrelevant for mothers of children of any age.
Now, say for example it is 3am. The toddler next to you has been asleep since about 7:30pm, having stirred once already for a breastfeed when you disturbed her by going to the loo at 11pm, when you were woken by your partner getting into bed. Now she’s having a bad dream. You soothe her with a little cuddle and some reassuring words, and this works but it rouses her enough for her to want some more breast milk. She feeds hungrily and falls asleep with your nipple in her mouth. You manage to extract it without waking her but now you are wide awake and your mind wants to play.
“Uninterrupted thinking space! Sort through the to-do list! Grab your art journal now – why not? Read, you never get to read! Finish that article you started writing a month ago!”
Er, excuse me, we are all meant to be asleep right now. You won’t thank me in the morning when you have to chisel your eyes open and need prising out of bed.
“Why am I having a conversation with myself right now?”
Er, because it’s the middle of the night and I’m delirious through lack of sleep?
And this is a good night.
Hopes and fears can loom larger at night. How do I bring my child up so strong that she can cope with [insert current anxiety trigger here]? What if this happens, that happens, or the other happens? (In the stillness of the long, dark, night, clarity can come and go in many disguises, sometimes sounding ridiculously vague and unachievable, other times so simple and achingly obvious, the answer always being: well, I’ll just have to do my best!)
“Mummy, are you strong like Daddy?” “Well, Mummy is strong in different ways, darling…” One of Mummy’s many strengths is in her never-ending ability to keep going, to keep on nurturing and responding to her child’s needs, on very little and very broken sleep, over a very long time.
The night truly belongs to mothers. It is our time to shine like stars, to make the world of difference to the feelings of security and love experienced and internalised forever by our children. It’s tough, and perhaps there should be a new phrase for it. Like labour, ‘They don’t call it labour for nothing!’, it’s hard work. In labour we can think of every contraction as being one step closer to us meeting our babies and holding them in our arms. Maybe we can start to think of the nights we spend loving, nurturing and responding appropriately to our children’s needs in a similar way: our children being one step closer to being truly ready for night time independence, and for us mothers, being one step closer to just a little bit more sleep when the time is right. Because the night belongs to love.