I was blessed with a magnificent child. A baby so delightful she made my heart sing. I was filled with so much love in an instant and as each day goes by, through every change and every discovery, my eyes are wide open with delight.
I was not blessed with a sleeping child. My little piece of perfection slept in short spurts upon my chest during the day for months, she woke frequently through the night (aside from a six week stint in her infancy where she magically slept for nine hours each night with either one or no wake-ups) and as she grew older things got harder, not easier.
At ten months old, my whole life was focused on her sleep, on my failure as a mother to help my baby sleep well during the day or night, on my failure as a mother to manage to get through the day without getting angry at this vivacious angel who Just. Wouldn’t. Sleep. I had read a thousand books, blogs and research articles, consulted with health professionals, online communities and family and friends and tried the cot and cosleeping, babywearing and the pram, with music, with silence, breastfeeding to sleep, the Pantley pull-off…. everything I could learn about. But none of the tricks that were reported to be successful helped her to get the sleep I knew she needed. She would go from happily playful to overtired and wired with no signs of sleepiness until it was too late and then sleep became a battle.
We decided to take a little break and go to the beach… we figured a little getaway to a beautiful place called Fingal Heads near the border of Queensland and New South Wales with a long, deserted white sandy beach and turquoise waves couldn’t make the situation worse. So I agreed to one night away. In my head I thought, “same stuff, different scenery”, but oh what lovely scenery! It’s difficult to be quite as despondent when you can walk to the edge of the beach and watch the dolphins frolicking in the sunlight!
I was in the amenities block, about to have bath time with my sand-covered, giggling, playful child when a lovely lady in her early 60s beamed at her, made her giggle with a little playfulness and then started to talk to me about my bright-eyed child… “Is she a good baby?” she asked kindly. My heart sank. I knew this question. It had been asked before and after ten months of sleep deprivation and perceived failure, I knew the answer and I said to her sadly but strongly, “no, no she isn’t. She doesn’t sleep well at all.”
The first few times I was asked, I had answered that same question truthfully, with my heart bursting with pride…. I’d said, “Yes! She is!!!! She is such a bright little girl, her smile radiates from her face all the time, she has started to crawl so early and she is so loving and playful, she brings us so much joy!” and the kind old ladies asking had looked at me blankly and said, “yes, but does she sleep well?”. As if everything else was irrelevant. So I learned from these experiences that a good baby is one that is perceived as sleeping well. Easy. And later I learned that they are the ones that ate well, walked early, spoke early, stayed quiet, learned manners quickly, never lashed out, never cried and wasn’t clingy. As a first time mother, these messages were shoved in my face over and over again.
My heart broke. Every time. But as with each other time before, I gathered up my darling girl, had fun splashing in the tub and held her tight and nuzzled her damp silky hair as it dried in the wind and we walked back to our little holiday spot by the shore.
I was fairly confident. I had fallen in with some beautiful mothers from my breastfeeding and babywearing groups in my local community who supported me in my efforts to raise a loving, and loved child. I was well read, but listened to my instincts. I was very in tune with my baby… but not being able to get her to do something that seemed so “normal” made me feel inadequate, shook my confidence and taught me that what I was doing wasn’t good enough. And that my precious child wasn’t good enough. It really hurt.
I even began to make jokes about having a ‘bad baby’ to cover up the hurt, until one day a friend reminded me that such labels are unhelpful because they can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for her behaviour. I stopped letting the kind old ladies’ opinions crowd my mind and instead started to listen to myself again. To revel in her goodness. To relax about sleep.
I read the most inspirational blog post about being able to wait until my daughter was developmentally ready to sleep and found an online community of women who also had non-sleeping babies and I discovered that we were not alone in this journey.
I reclaimed her goodness. I reclaimed our joy and I focused on making sleep a loving, cosy place to be. I stopped being frustrated at sleep time because I let go of the “shoulds” and the expectations of others. I started taking hours a day to dedicate to winding her down to sleep, to teaching her how to relax and to make bedtime so gentle and sleepy that my endless patience meant there was no way she couldn’t drop off eventually. This was a huge change from the frustrated bouncing rocking, the change in “settling techniques” which are all useless if mama isn’t settled herself.
Our journey to wholesome sleep is long and is not yet complete after 29 months, but sleep is beautiful and she loves it. And that is what I want for her so I am proud of what we have achieved. The longer stretches are coming, in fact I have a feeling we will get good sleep soon.
I will now always describe her as a good baby. A good baby that woke 5-8 times a night for more than two years, yes.
I want to redefine the term good baby and apply it to who they are, not what they can do.
For they are all good. We know it deep down.