The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Surviving postnatal insomnia

“Sleep when your baby sleeps.” Yeah, right.

Everyone warns you about disrupted nights, though nothing prepares you for being woken, some nights, every 45 minutes. From two to seven months, two hours was a long sleep for my younger daughter. Even her big sister – no perfect sleeper – had left me totally unready for that.

Nobody warns you that you mightn’t be able to sleep even between those imperious alarm calls. That, as if this amazing, impossible motherhood lark wasn’t challenge enough already, you can be let down by your own body.

Nobody tells you about lying next to a sleeping baby, zombie-tired but irredeemably awake. About the time sliding by as your thoughts run in unproductive but unstoppable circles. Exhausted frustration to near-resignation. Then another cycle of almost-but-not-quite-dropping-off. Finally, sobbing panic at the thought of the long, fast-approaching day. A day with two infinitely valuable, infinitely demanding little persons to be kept alive and fed and happy.

No-one tells you about listening for your baby’s slightest movement. One moment hearing her stir and deciding it’s pointless trying to sleep when she could wake any second. The next panicking because you can’t hear her, and waking her yourself to ascertain that, yes, she is still breathing. About how sometimes you will end up waking her to feed, hoping the ensuing sleep will be a chance to sleep yourself. (It wasn’t, usually.) Or how you will tell yourself what a terrible mother you are to have disturbed her. (Those are not the hours for rationality.)

At least, nobody told me. I hadn’t heard of postnatal insomnia until I had Little L. Then, frantically Googling (usually at 2am), I found only brief mentions on the official websites, usually as a codicil to postnatal depression. It was only by trawling through the message boards that I found other new mothers grappling with it as a standalone problem. (Or perhaps not entirely standalone. Looking back, I can see how easily that tear-drenched middle-of-the-night panic could have spiralled into PND.) But, because it is a very real problem, and in the hope of helping someone else, here is how I got through my months of sleep deprivation.

Co-sleeping. I never planned to do it: it rang all the alarm bells in my risk-averse head. But when I only had to wriggle across to feed L. to sleep, then back to my side of the bed, I didn’t ever have to wake up all that much. And – an unexpected benefit – I loved it so much that I wished I’d done it first time round. (Tip for the similarly cautious: under-the-sheet bed guards. They stopped her rolling into me and under the duvet, but I could lie across them to breastfeed.)

Talking books. I tried some of the standard insomnia tips. Prescription and even over-the-counter drugs are, alas, incompatible with breastfeeding. So I was left with camomile tea (For weeks, I kept it by the bed.) With not staring at a screen before or in bed. (The 2am Googling: bad idea.) A hot bath. (Like, when exactly?) I even tried downloading what claimed to be a self-hypnosis insomnia cure. (I ended up more awake than ever, but distracted by planning methods of torture for the deeply annoying narrator.) Talking books actually blocked out that unproductive escalation of worry. Books I loved, but knew inside out already. They tricked me into sleep because I wasn’t thinking about it. It didn’t always work, but it did more often than anything else.

Early nights. For the insomniac, it’s a case not of sleeping when the baby lets you but finding out when you can sleep, and moving heaven and earth to make space for it. For me, that meant going to bed almost as soon as my toddler did. Then, I could grab a few straight hours while L. was carted round the house in the sling on her dad, or cuddled by whichever aunt or grandparent was to hand.

Friends. Girls I could text after a bad night, begging them to come round, warning them I was liable to burst into tears at any moment. Friends who showed up in twos or threes, loaded with cake and their own toddlers to entertain mine, who carried Little L. around when she cried, picked up A. when she tumbled over, and barely let me get out of my chair. Those expensive antenatal classes we did the first time round? Totally, totally worth it: they brought these indispensable ladies into my life.

Acceptance. The single most useful piece of advice I found in all my obsessive online research was that there is no miracle cure. Two friends saying of the two hourly wake-ups: “That’s just what it’s like when you are exclusively breastfeeding” was about the most helpful thing I could hear. After that, I wasn’t constantly thinking: “Oh I can’t wait to crack the sleeping so I can enjoy parenting again.” I was relishing her already. And it means so much, looking back, that I didn’t let the sleep crap undermine that.

The truth is, we can deal with it. Even a double whammy of insomnia and a six-feeds-a-night-baby. Once I found I could cope even with only an hour’s sleep, I was spared that 5am how-will-I-get-through-the-day panic. Yes, there was more Peppa Pig than I ever thought I would countenance, and I felt – and still feel – terrible at how much snappier the tiredness made me with my adorable A. But I knew I could keep both girls fed and cleanish and mostly cheerful, even if I was on reserve battery myself. Armed with the swat team of friends and cake, I even laughed my way through some of those zombie afternoons.

And while insomnia has nothing going for it, there is something to be said for the baby-led night-time wake ups. With a toddler and a houseful of chores, quality time with a second baby is thin on the ground. From that first besotted night in hospital, thinking how crazy I was to worry I couldn’t love a second baby as much, the night feeds have been just for me and Little L. For all the tears (mine and hers), there are memories that I will treasure. That moment when she stops raging and begins her trusting, shut-eyed questing. Her happy, snuffling noises. That warm, cuddly intimacy, even through the haze of exhaustion.

L. is nine months old now and at least starts the night in the cot. Her dad handles some wake ups, she’s down to two or three a night, and I (mostly) sleep better. I wouldn’t say I’ll be sad when she eventually sleeps through, but there will be some things I’ll miss, after all.

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