Surviving sleepless nights

The fact I started writing this blog post at 3.30am two weeks ago says pretty much everything about the sleep pattern of a new parent. It’s unpredictable, exhausting and relentless; but you learn to cope with it. Because you don’t have any choice…

“How are you sleeping?”

It’s the first question everyone asks a new parent, even though they already know the answer. I didn’t know a great deal about babies before Sonny was born, but I’d seen dark bags under the eyes of enough friends and colleagues with young children to realise that a settled sleep pattern isn’t among their many attributes. And as someone who’s always loved sleep, the prospect of multiple nightly wake-ups was a huge concern of mine from the second we discovered we were having a baby.

Four months into my son’s short life, I can confirm it certainly isn’t a myth and that babies don’t sleep half as well as you’d like them to. And despite the fact Gemma (Sonny’s mum) and I now spend every waking hour walking around like a pair of comatose zombies, the really scary thing is we seem to have it better than most! For the first few months Sonny usually nodded off around 9pm (usually after an eardrum-shattering bout of screaming for two hours), then slept in 4-hour bursts. It was quite normal for him to wake up around 1am for a feed before settling back to sleep around 45 minutes later. He’d then be up again around 5am ready for a nappy change and feed, then back into his basket for a quick nap before bursting into life, ready to attack the day at around 8am. All in all, he was probably getting around 9-10 hours of sleep a night – but of course we weren’t.

We would go to sleep an hour or two later than Sonny, spend many fretful hours during the night checking he was breathing OK in his Moses basket, then struggle to settle back to sleep after his nightly feeds. We found ourselves staring at phone screens to kill time and watching movies or reading books in the middle of night while we waited for him to settle – and even when we did fall back asleep it was usually with one eye slightly open and our brains never quite settling down. I can’t actually remember the last time I had a dream.

As we stumbled into a rhythm things started to become easier, but when Sonny hit three months old everything changed again. All of a sudden, he stopped sleeping in 4-hour stretches and started waking up every 2 hours – sometimes even less. He was still going to bed at the same time, but would often be awake again by 10am and would scream and cry if he wasn’t picked up or fed. Half an hour later he was asleep again, then an hour later he’d back up. It was like torture.

Apparently this is a very common thing, with children often hitting a sleep regression stage after a few months, but that still didn’t make it any easier. Sonny was happier than ever during the days, smiling and cooing his way through every everything, but he turned into some kind of demon at night – thrashing and screaming in his cot and waking around five times on average. Gemma heroically shouldered the majority of the responsibility because I needed to be up at 6.30am every day for work, and after a couple of weeks of the same routine she was absolutely exhausted. We both were.

But the funny thing is that you just deal with it and eventually begin to adapt – because you’ve got no choice. Friends without kids look at me with a mixture of pity and terror when I tell them about Sonny’s sleep pattern, then usually shake their heads and say: “I just don’t understand how you cope.” And I can’t explain it, but we just do. I’ve certainly got less energy than I had four months ago, but rather than letting it get on top of me I’ve tried to attack it head on. I still get up and cycle to work three days a week; I still walk the dog every morning, afternoon and night; and I still try to make sure Gemma and I spend as much time and have as much fun together as possible when Sonny is asleep.

But the real reason we can cope is because of the immense love we have for our little boy. Parenthood has been both harder and easier than I expected to be. Harder in the sense that it’s even more full-on, relentless, emotional and exhausting than I ever could have anticipated; but easier in the sense that it’s amazingly good fun and far more enjoyable than I ever could have dreamed it would be. All Sonny needs to do is open those big blue eyes and smile to make me to forget all about the previous night and start looking forward to a new day with him. Each morning provides a new chance to watch my son grow and adapt to the world around him, and take another step towards becoming the wonderful boy and man we know he’ll grow up to be.

I wouldn’t swap those sleepless nights for anything.

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