Sleeping Like a Baby

“Is he good at night?”

Why yes, my son is bloody wonderful at night! At this very moment he’s practising crawling by lunging out of his bedside crib and onto his daddy and showing no signs of slumber at almost 11pm. Earlier this evening he managed to rotate a full 180 degrees while unconscious, then woke himself up because he needed to expel some gas then beam at us adorably. He’s taken to bellowing, “mamamamama” in my face at bedtime, then trying to eat my nose, which hurts a lot more now that he has his bottom front teeth. Once he’s settled down he still wakes regularly in the night, particularly in the early hours, usually just to say, “hey mama and daddy, I’m here,” and a cuddle or a few minutes holding his hand is enough to help him settle again. He gets hungry too, usually at midnight and again at 3 or 4am, but he always drifts off, full, milky, and happy, on his daddy’s shoulder, swaying gently, and I know those are the most precious moments of Big T’s day, and of mine, watching my two boys dancing to their special nighttime music.

But of course that’s not what you mean when you ask if Little T is ‘good’ at night. You’re asking if he ‘sleeps through’, and the answer to that question is no, he doesn’t.

Does that make him ‘bad’ at night? It was my understanding that babies are incapable of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’; that’s surely the heart-melting joy of them! My six month old wakes up during the night because he’s a baby and that’s what babies do. I admit that sometimes I look back on my eight unbroken hours of sleep pre-parenthood and inwardly curse myself for not appreciating them at the time, and I am guilty of nudging a dummy into a quietly stirring face when I’m desperate for an extra 15 minutes under the duvet, but ultimately I let Little T lead. He has amazed me every day with how well he knows his own needs. He sleeps when he’s tired, not when I’ve decided he should. Naturally there are nights when he’s exhausted but ferociously fighting it and at those times I try to facilitate his needs rather than control them by creating a relaxing environment that’s conducive to rest but not forcing him to settle. Nine times out of ten he has a little wriggle around and then decides on his own terms that he’s ready to go to sleep, and up he goes into mummy or daddy’s arms, and he’s out like a light.

We don’t have a routine at night, not strictly. We eat together, then Big T takes Little T upstairs to get cleaned up and into his pyjamas while I load the dishwasher and tackle the high chair. Then he brushes his teeth (and by brushes I mean chews), and has a story and a cuddle.
And that’s it.
Sometimes he falls asleep straight away, sometimes we’re up with him for hours, but our attitude is always to support rather than control. We stay with him once he’s asleep because we enjoy the time together, talking or reading or *ahem*ing. He sleeps in our room in a cosleeping cot flush with our bed and cosies up to one of us in our kingsize at around 6am before getting up for the day at 7.

This system works for us, and it works for Little T.
And the thing is that we aren’t chilled out, relaxed parents. Big T and I are down-to-our-bare-bones control freaks, but Little T is an independent child and he doesn’t respond well to being forced into doing anything. There are plenty of babies who thrive on schedules and need parents to support that, and it’s that intuitive support I’m advocating in this post. Baby led sleep isn’t about letting your child run riot and become overtired; it’s about creating an environment that supports your baby’s natural ways of winding down, whatever they are. (Easier said than done when there are acrobatics or tears at 4am, I know, but that’s what cake, gin and Facebook rants are for.)

I do wonder though, why we as a society seem so keen to turn our babies into miniature adults when they’re barely out of the womb. Our expectations of our children are so high and our patience so thin that we forget that these supposed ‘dysfunctional’ behaviours are actually typical and healthy. I can be no more frustrated with Little T for waking during the night as I can that he goes to the toilet in a nappy. Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not an earth mother with an air of superiority about this – you only have to read my past posts to know that there were times when Little T was very small that I sincerely wanted him to go away, to get off my breasts, to lie down on his own and fend for himself. My patience was wafer-thin. The books told me to buy a Moses basket, so why wouldn’t he bloody lie in it? The midwives advised against bedsharing so why was he only settling curled up next to me? It was only when I took a metaphorical deep breath and actually educated myself that I realised the unreasonable pain in the arse was me, not my tiny newborn squish. Looking back, he was remarkably calm considering how little we understood him. Poor bug.

Occasionally Big T and I check in with one another about our feelings on Little T sleeping in our room. It can only work for us as long as we’re all happy, and we are. Little T does have his own bedroom though, with a cot he’s never slept in and is used mostly as a temporary play pen while I answer the door or disinfect the changing mat. His room is largely for his clothes and toys to live in and for him to play in. I imagine he will sleep in there before we’ve left this house and I’ll feel proud of his independence, sad that our bedroom will be a quieter place, and relieved to have a bit more space! But he will always be welcome in our bed. Always.

I last shared a bed with my own mother when I was a teenager, perhaps 15 or 16. I was never ever turned away. As she said when I asked her about it just two days ago, “loneliness is the worst feeling in the world and comfort is a basic human need”. I’m grateful to her for showing me by example how important it is to show your children that you are always available. I have some lovely memories of waking up in my mum’s bed to the sound of local radio and the unique glow of electric light on dark dreary mornings.

I hope to always keep bedtime from becoming a battleground, and to create special memories for our family along the way.

And I hope all the ‘bad’ babies carry on doing what works for them – don’t worry little ones, you’re doing grand. 🙂

A Gentle Nudge

Oh god, those early weeks. I’m not even talking in the context of PND here, I mean generally; having a newborn is bloody exhausting. I see photos on social networks of women with perfectly styled hair comfortably holding their calm day-old babies while walking (NOT waddling) serenely across their freshly mowed lawns in flawless make-up, with their John Lewis husbands beside them… I hate these women. I want to go to their houses, de-alphabetise their CDs and leave their toilet seats up.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t a new mum pin-up. My hair was religiously unwashed, my legs were fuzzy, the dark circles round my eyes were Fight Club-worthy, and I wore the same maternity dress and leggings combo for weeks because I convinced myself it hid my swollen belly. I looked like shit but crucially (and unfortunately) my outward appearance matched the panic I was feeling inside, and that’s why I became obsessed with what I like to call ‘parenting-by-numbers’.

Parenting-by-numbers had me clutching the book my GP had given to me when I first became pregnant as though it were a hot water bottle, and googling everything from “how much hiccuping is too much”, to “one of my baby’s eyes is bigger than the other” (seriously). I thought giving him a soother would make us lazy parents and Little T’s teeth grow à la Luis Suarez. I insisted on putting him down to sleep in his Moses basket despite his loud protests, and nappy changes were an ordeal because I thought there must be an elusive ‘right way’ to do it and had a hunch that ending up in tears and covered in shit probably wasn’t it.

You get the idea.

The problem is that parenting-by-numbers is hard. It’s like trying to assemble ten different Ikea flat-packs while holding on to a squirmy sack of potatoes. You can’t follow so many instructions with any hope of getting them all right, and you certainly can’t proof read them to make sure they’re even the correct instructions! And so we learned.

When the pressure cooker that was my brain bubbled over one of the first things that needed to go was parenting-by-numbers. I was increasingly stressed trying to live by rules that simply didn’t work for me or my family, and ridden with guilt that I couldn’t parent the way I felt I was meant to. Big T was struggling too. Neither of us felt like naturally ‘good’ parents and our home life was filled with doubt and uncertainty.

The revelation came after I started carrying Little T in a sling. Days with him cuddled up against me, oxytocin flowing, made me realise how many of our problems stemmed from the various ways we were trying to keep him separate from us. Kept close to me he was the easiest, sunniest baby in the world! Who knew! So I started, slowly, to believe that I actually was the best woman for this job, if I could just listen to my natural instincts.

What that meant (to us – I’m not speaking for anyone else here) was doing what felt ‘right’. It meant ditching the Moses basket (it’s now toy storage in Little T’s nursery). It meant buying a co-sleeping cot and deciding to allow him to tell us when he wants to sleep in his own room. It meant changing his nappy when we felt it was needed rather than to a strict timetable, because (funnily enough) babies don’t pee to a schedule. It meant no set bedtime and giving him the freedom to feel tired at varying times because, y’know, that’s what adults do and why should he be different? It meant rarely turning on the TV, not on principle, but because TV is just another way for the people in the room to be far away from each other (I confess to watching a daily 10 mins of Charlie & Lola on the iPad though – it’s absolutely, completely the loveliest thing ever). It meant carrying him in a sling or pushing him in his buggy depending on his mood, and welcoming the closeness and encouraging his independence, whichever he chooses. It meant giving him a soother to make up for the keenly felt absence of my breast and committing to use it only for comfort, and never for peace and quiet.

It also meant realising that a lot of what we’d already been doing was intuitive and naturally right for him. We practised baby-led bottle feeding without even realising it, and we’d bedshared occasionally so we could all get some decent rest. Obviously we’d been babywearing from early on. And we had never, EVER left him to cry. We treat and have always treated his needs as though they’re valid and reasonable, because they are. The epiphany that we were already innately ‘gentle parents’ was enough to propel our confidence skywards and I started to connect online with our local babywearing group  and found a vast community of like-minded mums and dads with the same set of challenges who wanted to approach their children with respect and tenderness.

We’re not ‘crunchy’ parents. We use disposable nappies (so far at least) and take the car when we don’t really need to. Big T is far too attached to bacon to ever become vegetarian and I am not prepared under any circumstances to part with my salon shampoo and conditioner. Admittedly there are ways that parenthood has made me more conscious of our effects on the planet and I’ve tried to change how we live accordingly, including increasing how much we recycle, buying second hand as much as possible (clothes, books, toys), eating vegetarian meals at least three times a week, and for me, recently deciding to move onto exclusively reusable menstrual products. But none of this directly relates to our parenting choices. You can own five cars, live on foie gras and pour toxic waste into the ocean just for funsies and still be an attachment parent (though you’d also be a dick).

Unlike parenting-by-numbers, attachment parenting, or gentle parenting, capitalises on skills Big T and I already have. When Little T arrived we had no clue how to raise a child. We needed books and websites and television and friends to tell us. But we did know how to be open and understanding and empathetic and sensitive. We knew how to love one another with complete transparency and how to communicate with respect. We knew that being together in our ‘bubble’ made us feel safe and accepted. We knew how to listen.

So the parenting manuals moved to the charity shop and our son is in that bubble with us, and he will never be left outside again. It will grow as he does, reaching as far as his independence takes him. He might not see it, but hopefully he will feel it and know that his mother and father are there, without question, with love, honesty and acceptance.