I don’t know any mother (even a first timer!) who goes into motherhood expecting to get 12 hours of beauty sleep when their little bundle of joy enters their life. We all know that things are about to change drastically, at least for a while. We understand we will be up in the middle of the night caring for a newborn, probably feeding every couple hours, and changing diapers. No big surprise. Especially for exclusively breastfeeding moms (like I was), our willing spouses are not even able to help as much because we are the solitary food source. Most notably during the “fourth trimester,” when babies are still getting used to life outside the womb and their needs and wants are the same thing, we have to be as responsive as possible.
This does not mean that a mother doesn’t suffer from the exhaustion that this can cause, but it does mean that it’s fairly expected. We know we are adding to the continual count of our sleep debt, but can steel ourselves to get through this period of time and understand why we must. I would even argue we are usually happy to make the sacrifice for our newborns. Also, new moms often (but not always) find themselves with readily available help from family and friends in those early days.
However, what happens when our babies continue to grow and become more self-sufficient in other areas, hitting milestones, getting bigger and growing out of cluster feeding… but are still waking up every hour through the night?
When people asked me how things were going with Jackson around 5 months on, I either put a smile on and felt like crying inside or I worked up the courage and answered “Actually, things are really tough. He wakes about 7 times a night and doesn’t nap very well.” Sometimes I was met with empathy, but all too often I was met with, “Oh yep! That’s how babies are! You’ll never sleep again!” I remember being in tears and timidly mentioning that I was so exhausted I was considering all my options and mentioned I had been reading about gentle sleep coaching. I was met with “No! Just let it be. They grow out of it. You never see 17-year-olds still waking their parents at night, do you?” 17 YEARS?! These types of reactions often made me feel that I just wasn’t good or unselfish enough to do this whole parenting thing.
As my sleep debt grew month over month, I found myself unable to sleep at all. I laid in bed feeling every muscle of my body tight, completely exhausted but also wired at the same time. I couldn’t sleep at night, so I sat waiting for the next cry from the monitor and worried about every possible horrible scenario in which something could happen to my precious baby. One morning I confessed to my husband that all I did the night before was worry that one day Jackson and I would have a car accident on a bridge over water and would be trapped in the car, and then sheepishly showed him the Amazon email confirming I had bought window breakers and seat belt cutters at 4 in the morning.
I was experiencing horrible postpartum anxiety, which I believe was almost single-handedly caused by my lack of sleep. However, in the fog of anxiety and sleep deprivation, I thought all of my worries were perfectly legitimate and highly possible.
Luckily, my husband and my close friends saw what the lack of sleep was doing to me, and encouraged me to do what was best for our family. When we sleep coached, the cloud lifted. The anxiety left. And eventually, I was able to learn to sleep well again.
The reason that I feel strongly about this is because sleep is essential. You have to sleep to live. Scientists may not know exactly why the body needs sleep, but they do know that, in a nutshell, you will develop psychological issues and then probably die without it. It is as important to your body as food, yet somehow it is treated differently when it comes to being a mom.
Hypothetically, if a mom confided in you that she had not eaten in three days because her baby cries in the car seat and she didn’t want to allow him to struggle for 15 minutes so that she could get to the grocery store, what would you say? My response would either be, “Oh my gosh! I will go to the store for you! Or I will watch the baby! You need food!” Or if that’s not possible, I would encourage her with everything I had to allow her baby to fuss in the car seat for 15 minutes because she absolutely needs food. Now replace “food” with “sleep” and this is how we should respond to mothers who have been in the cycle of extreme sleep deprivation for weeks or months.
Regardless of your stance on sleep coaching, we should all advocate for healthy moms because this, in turn, creates healthy parental attachment, which creates healthy babies and families! And that is something we can all get behind. Next time an exhausted mom confides in you, please don’t tell her she’ll feel better in 17 years.
If you or someone you love are struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety, there are resources.