Can't Sleep, Won't Sleep

3rd August 2012

Up all night with a baby or a toddler? Sleep left the building? Alex Gray knows all about it…

No parent will never forget the early days of a new baby: a blur of feeding, burping and comforting, and, of course, utterly devoid of sleep. For the first few weeks at least, you're up every couple of hours. As life moves on, though, for some this starts to improve. Waking drops to twice, maybe three times, a night, and at three or four months it’s perhaps only once, or not at all.

Or maybe that’s in your dreams. What if the sleeplessness goes on not for weeks, but for months, years even? Sleep then becomes something of an obsession – if only you could just get a little more of it, life would be a bed of roses. By the time my second child was nine months old he was still up five or six times a night. In a fit of desperation I went on a buying frenzy on amazon one day, ending up with 15 books piling through the letterbox. Each was all about how to get a baby to sleep. Only I was too tired to ever read any of them.

It doesn't help that other peoples' babies seems to be 'sleeping through' with barely any effort. You limp into the three-month mark and the Health Visitor says, don't worry, you're nearly at weaning stage! But when the baby starts eating solid food it doesn't make any difference and the six-month mark comes and goes with barely a change to your night-time routine. By this time you've become a shadow of your former self: friends and family worry about the wild-eyed banshee that has replaced their loved one. Your bags are darker than a thunderous sky – with a mood to match. You realise there's no milk for breakfast and you dissolve in tears before you can say the ‘t’ in ‘cup of tea’.

So what can you do? Leaving aside strategies on getting your baby to sleep in the first place (advice is plentiful; opinions even more so), how do you actually cope? And if it's your daughter, wife, sister, cousin, daughter-in-law, what can you do to help?

1. You may wonder where the thread has gone that you were hanging by, but it's important to keep telling yourself that you will be okay. Remind yourself regularly (I wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it to the wall): This too shall pass.

2. Tempting though it is, don't stay in pyjamas all day. The simple habit of getting up, getting dressed and splashing water on your face means you're one step closer to being able to cope.

3. Don't underestimate the power of walking. Pile your baby into a pram and go. You don't need a specific reason; stop at the post office, grocery shop, the park or just keep walking, whichever suits your mood that day. The evidence is plentiful that exercise, and natural daylight, can do wonders to alleviate a dark mood.

4. Relinquish any notion of getting back to a ‘normal life’ and get down to basics. If the only way to get more sleep is to be in bed for longer, so be it. I ate tea with my two children and went to bed when they did. Chances are that I would be up and down like a yo-yo in the night, with anything longer than a 90-minute stretch of sleep a bonus. Adopting this strategy, I aggregated up to seven hours of sleep in one night. It's true that you also lose valuable ‘me’ time, but with chronic lack of sleep your sense of self may just have to take a back seat.

5. Don't try and be super(wo)man. The state of the bathroom/ ironing pile/kitchen floor can all wait. Raising small people, or getting yourself to cope with the day, is the primary job at hand. And if someone asks ‘What can I do to help?’ point them in the direction of the hoover. If you can afford it, get a cleaner. I think the best present my mother ever gave me was paying for a cleaner for six months.

6. Talking of which, get help. Friends and family, this is where you come in. When we're tired and emotional it can still be hard to pick up the phone and ask for help. And if you can see that your loved one needs help, don't say ‘Let me know if there's anything I can do…’ Instead, try asking directly: ‘Can I do the hoovering?’; ‘Shall I cook dinner for you all tonight?’; or, and this is the icing on the cake, ‘Can I do the night shift for you?’

7. Ah, the ‘night shift’. Once a week my husband or sister would take my place. I would go off to a separate bedroom – earplugs, eye mask, sleeping tablet in hand – and have a whole night's sleep. A close second to taking over for the midnight watch is the offer to do the ‘morning shift’. Having been up most of the night, if someone took over from 5am, when the baby woke for the morning feed, you could go back to sleep until 8 or 9 o'clock, and feel more human for it. I don't think there was anything that helped me more than this.

8. Don't feel guilty if you become singularly responsible for Cadbury's profits or if it's only you keeping your local coffee shop afloat. Yes, chocolate isn't the staple of a healthy diet and yes, it might leave your waist inching in the wrong direction, but let's be frank: if it gets you through the day, fine.

9. A problem shared... The popular websites netmums.com and mumsnet.com are there to provide support. Their forums are full of people going through exactly the same as you. Even if you don't want to take part, reading what they say can make you feel so much better. And if you're trying to help a sleepless friend or relative, you might garner some decent advice, too.

10. Finally, remember that one day you’ll be getting your offspring up in the morning. Imagine that? A whole night's sleep and you're up before they are. I'm not waking my son up in the morning yet, but I had eight hours sleep last night, and the night before that, and the night before that. It's your turn soon, not long now, just around the corner, any day now...

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