Family Sleep: The Struggle is Real
There are times our physiology simply does not support our philosophy. We see it all the time in birth and parenting. You may have very much wanted a birth with timely pain management, only to have delivered too quickly before receiving it. Perhaps you wanted with all your heart to breastfeed your baby exclusively, only to find that no matter what steps you took or professionals you saw for help, your baby needed supplementation. This can also happen when it comes to your hopes of happily tending to all of your baby’s needs on your own.
In over two decades of supporting birth and families, I know with certainty that parenting decisions are made from a place of love and concern.
Parents’ hearts get full of sadness and self-doubt when they can’t tend to their babies how they want. They often blame themselves (no matter what you tell them) and are worried they are causing irreparable damage to their child’s future (they aren’t).
The scientific literature pertaining to infant sleep points to the physiological and psychological importance of tending to Baby’s needs around the clock, and most parents feel up for that challenge. It is normal for toddlers to wake up with needs to connect at night too. Without even sharing this literature, parents are intuitively drawn to snuggle and love on their little ones, and usually feel out of sorts when they are not able to be with or comfort their child happily when they call out. Those cries are meant to tug our heartstrings, and they do so with great efficacy.
But what happens if you reach a dangerous level of sleep deprivation and those cries turn into unpleasant feeling triggers for you? To put it into perspective, we do expect new parents to be very tired. Before developing circadian rhythms, babies up to three or four months often awaken at all hours around the clock, and this is normal. Tending to them lovingly regulates their vital signs and their emotions. It is lovely work for most people, as challenging as it is. Most children have a biological need to receive some night parenting well into their early childhood, though the intensity of it lessens over time when conditions that nourish development are optimal for the family.
From an evolutionary perspective, new families were, before we started to live in such social isolation, nurtured and tended to by “the tribe” without worry of financial, home, and community contributions for a while (because hello, tending to a precious new citizen is honoured and highly valued work). But now? Most of us are left to fend for ourselves from the get go, leaving us shattered by exhaustion. It is not that a baby’s needs are abnormal, it is the condition within which we are expected to meet them that is highly challenging.
Today’s parents are often fuelled by anxiety about the very real concerns of hearth, home, and sustenance. Without the need (NOT a luxury) to be tended to gently themselves in the early days, weeks, months, and even years of early parenthood fulfilled, exhaustion can potentially become a serious problem for the whole family. Friends will often chant “sleep when the baby sleeps”. But as a mother of four and a long time family supporter, I know this is not always possible when you’re at home alone with Baby and nervous about what will happen if you withdraw your attention for a while. Or, there are other children to tend to as well. Or you are back at work within a few weeks of giving birth.
In a state of chronic sleep deprivation, our physical and mental health can suffer greatly, as well as create unsafe conditions for parenting. This is a real symptom of modern parenting. The needs of Baby wear more and more upon us and we can potentially get desperate, thinking the advice we receive to alter Baby’s level of outward demands is the only key to the “way out”. For some parents, this will be the truth, and honouring parent choice with empathy is essential to providing true support.
But what if we took a deeper look? Babies are sensitive little souls. Any wise old grannie, never mind a PhD in Child Psychology, will tell you that our stress affects our little ones. The need to be tended to not just automatically, but nurtured intentionally by an emotionally present parent, is important to little ones for optimal development. Demanding much? Indeed! They don’t call parenting the hardest job in the world for nothing. There is nothing that brings forth all our impatience and frustration at kids’ high demands as feeling overwhelmed ourselves. So what if, instead of seeing the baby as a problem or judging parenting approaches, as a society we could simply take more compassionate care of parents? What if we shifted our views around wanting to alter babies as seen through a societal lens forged by physical and emotional depletion? What if we could experience greater enjoyment and peace at the privilege of shaping the architecture of a brain and the empathy of a little heart if we were physically and emotionally nourished ourselves?
This is a scenario I’ve encountered a lot: I get a call in the wee hours from a new mom or dad whose birth I’ve attended. They sounds shaky. In the background, I hear a baby yelling the roof down, and possibly the sound of an adult sobbing too. “The baby won’t stop crying. We just don’t know what to do.” These newborn parents are calling to be parented themselves in this moment. I get them to breathe first and foremost, to “put their oxygen mask on”, beam love and compassion at them, and then strategize from that decompressed place. Very often before I even get to feeding or soothing troubleshooting, I am informed that, “just talking to you has made us feel so much better.” I’m not magic. I’m just a reassuring voice in the night. While it is normal in our modern culture to night parent as newbies alone, in no way is this normal on an evolutionary level. Before I hang up the phone I ask the new parents if they can call upon a savvy Grandparent, Sibling, or Friend to come be with them for a couple of nights to provide opportunities for rest and reassurance.
When our physiology (exhaustion, edgy adrenals, challenged immune system, and high cortisol levels) does not support our philosophy (to tend to all our babies’ high demands with a reasonable calm and connectedness, for example), and family/friends are not available to help, it is time to shout out for what we at MotherWit Sleep Essentials call a Critical Sleep Intervention (CSI).
Instead of rushing in to try to fix what you think might be your broken kid or lacking parenting skills, a MotherWit Night Doula will make sure you get SLEEP. We do this in ways that honour your approach. If you will feel best having your baby brought to you when they are hungry so you can breastfeed, your doula will sit with you to reassure you and support you. It is often in these wee hours that our deepest fears are brought to light and dissipated in the compassionate listening your doula provides. When Parents and Baby/ies are fed and reassured, Doula takes over care, doing the diapers, wearing, soothing, whatever is needed to keep your baby happy. Even if baby is NOT particularly happy, your doula will provide loving support in case there are tears.
If you are happy having your baby bottle fed throughout most or all of the night so you can get a full restorative night’s sleep, or if your doctor has prescribed sleep medication for exhaustion and anxiety, perfect. Let your worry go, and all your baby’s needs will be cared for with love and attention. When you awaken, there will be coffee and breakfast.
Sleep is medicine.
Sometimes no matter what your want to do for your baby, your immediate need for sleep trumps everything. It is human. A Night Doula can fill that gap between your physiology and your philosophy. The good news is that we have seen even just one or two nights of intensive parent nurturing and good sleep shift the turbulent tides, bringing in fresh perspective and a new lease on life. As powerful a medicine sleep is, the far reaching healing in being loved and nurtured exactly as you are cannot be underestimated.
Sleep Well, Gentle Parents.