Yesterday morning we were up with the lark, if the lark was daft enough to stretch his wings at 4:51 that is. 4:51, when the sun was still far from rising over our rural idyll. 4:51; do the kids not realise, we’re unemployed. What kind of time is that to be roused by the gentle screams of “MMMUUUUMMMMMMYYYY!!” reverberating across the landing. The girl had woken up and this is never a good thing. Once she is awake, that’s it. She’s up. The shrieks had also roused her brother, who was declaring he was “not sleepy” whilst yawning and sleepily rubbing his eyes. Being the considerate mummy that I am, I rebuffed requests for stories and songs, the, far too bright, nightlight went on, books were grudgingly handed out (in the hope they’d both doze back off to sleep), and I stomped back to bed. To spend the next hour and a half alternating between listening to them arguing about which of them was, in fact, Donald Trump (their newest, favouritist insult) and leading them back to their beds (or telling J it was his turn) when they dared to breach the sanctuary of our room asking “Is it morning YET???” In the end we decided 6:30 was a reasonable time to get out of bed, and the day began (though the kids were reminded a number of times during our early breakfast, that they would still be happily in the land of nod at this time on any other day).
Sleep, or at least lack of it. It’s one of the things people warn you about when you become a parent, but until you’re living it you don’t realise how terrible sleep deprivation really is. Even now, as soon as there is any change to the kids’ sleep patterns my stress levels shoot up, because it takes me straight back to our early months of parenting where sleep became almost a mythical being.
The boy came to live with us when he was 6 months old, his foster carers had assured us he was a good sleeper; on his first visit to our house he took a three and a half hour nap. “Ha,” we thought “this is a doddle”. Little did we know.
Within a couple of weeks of the boy moving in, his sleep was horrendous, really, really horrendous. It would take hours to get him to nap in the day, cuddling, singing, lying him in his cot and singing to him, rocking him. We tried so many things. Eventually exhaustion would take over and he would nap for an hour or so. We did this twice a day, as long as the first nap fiasco hadn’t taken so long that the second nap became redundant. Then bedtime would come, and it started all over again. Hours of singing, rocking, cuddling. Eventually he would give in and fall asleep. 40 minutes later he would wake and we’d start again. I remember it took us three nights to watch Arthur Christmas, and eventually we just gave up film watching, it’s hard to stay engaged when an hour and a half film becomes a multiple night feature.
Through the night it wasn’t much better, he’d maybe sleep for two hours and then be awake for two hours; if he woke at 4.30, you knew that was probably you up for the day. We were getting by on maybe three or four hours sleep a night. It felt never-ending and unrelenting.
Once the girl came along we knew we couldn’t continue the way we had been, and so we made the decision to try controlled crying. This involves putting the child to bed, doing the usual routine and then leaving, child cries you wait a couple of minutes, go in calm them down and then leave the room again, child cries again you leave it a couple of minutes and then go in calm down etc etc. In theory the child will eventually settle themselves to sleep when they realise that your response isn’t changing – the fact you go back in after a number of minutes also reassures them that you’re still near to hand. It’s a technique I know a lot of people don’t agree with, and it’s not for everyone, but we had tried everything and had nothing left.
I won’t say it was a miracle cure, but things did improve; getting him to sleep in the first place still took a long time, there was a lot of backwards and forwards to his room, but it gave us back some control of the situation and, more importantly, after a few nights of doing controlled crying, if he woke in the night, he could usually send himself back off. Once we dropped his second daytime nap, then the morning nap became easier, and the bedtime fiasco got shorter, and less of a fiasco. Slowly, slowly it got better and eventually we moved the girl into his room when she was about six months old and we’ve never looked back. Having her there seemed to really help him settle, and he also got better at sleeping through disturbances, generally he didn’t wake up if she cried during the night, and if he did we could settle him easily.
Reading this back now, I think, of course it was hard for him to settle, everything in his young life had been turned upside down when he moved in with us. And I’m sure at the time, there was a part of me that knew this too – but when you’re so sleep deprived there is no logical, there is no common sense, there is just a desire to sink into the arms of Morpheus and forget all for a few blissful hours.
Reading back, I also wonder how I would cope with this now, and honestly – I don’t know if I could. There was a period around the time of the boy turning three when he was still happily, and easily, going down for a nap for two to two and a half hours a day, and he’d still go to sleep at bedtime. Then one bedtime, he just didn’t, he stood at the child gate at his door and shouted, the next day was the same. And the next. I became a wreck. I just broke down and sobbed, telling J “I can’t do this again”. But the answer was obvious, he wasn’t tired by bedtime because of his huge nap, and so we dropped the nap and the problem was solved – although it was hard at times, seeing how very tired he was by the end of the day.
Most of the time now, bedtimes are so much better, we read them each a story during which they generally fall asleep (if there’s any chance of them not. We. Read. Very. Slowly) and it is a lovely time, and not just because they’re going to sleep (though that is one of the major highlights). But I think I’ll always have a sleep monkey on my back (not to be confused with a sleeping monkey – now that would be weird).