Vulnerability and Parenting
Newborns are hard. Really, really hard. And those early days seem to last forever. Sometimes they do last for months, if you have a colicky or overtired baby, or one with medical issues.
And it's remarkably easy to forget how hard it was, once we are out of those dark days.
I just went back and read my personal blog from the early days with my older daughter. I had forgotten how miserable I was. And how guilty I felt as a result. Guilty that I wasn't treasuring every moment.
"I'm not enjoying my life today. I feel guilty that I'm not appreciating C more. This morning, I laid her on the changing table and saw her sweet little face grinning up at me through my tears.
This made me feel terrible. Poor thing doesn't even realize that I'm upset.
Yesterday I accidentally woke her up while I was documenting her Baby Whispered status... and we've been off track ever since. And so now I feel like a baby sleep failure, on top of everything else.
And oh, sidebar, the pacifier: what a double edged sword. It helps her calm down so much and often soothes her to sleep. Until she loses it or spits it out... and immediately decides she wants it back. And so... Mommy goes to and fro, sticking the damn thing back in. Sometimes I don't give it to her... and then she cries, because she needs its magical soothing powers to calm herself down. I'm so frustrated!"
You are not alone if you are miserable, too. So many other women feel the same way. And our culture puts trememendous pressure on us to bounce back immediately, to fit into our pre-pregnancy jeans on our way home from the hospital, to have a spottless home and baked goods for our guests who want to see the new baby, to breastfeed effortlessly and painlessly -- after all, it's "natural," right?
I promise you, you will feel better. But possibly not right away. And if your baby or babies are not sleeping well, it may take quite a while. I know I never feel good when I am sleep deprived, and I know I'm not alone.
A cruel truth of sleep training is that is requires a reservoir of strength you may not feel you have. It generally gets harder before it gets easier. It's hard to believe that it will ever get better, especially when you are already exhausted and unable to think logically. When you are tired, it's also all the more agonizing to listen to your overtired baby cry. You just want that heartbreaking noise to stop. You just want to go to sleep yourself, as soon as humanly possibly. You don't care what you have to do to make it happen. Unfortunately, the shortcuts you take often make the overtiredness all the worse in the long run.
I wish we lived in a culture that valued vulnerability more. And supported new parents more. That told us it is okay to feel tired and hormonal and weepy. That we are beautiful in our milk-stained overstretched t-shirts and bagging yoga pants. We have created (or supported) new life. We are miraculous!
Brene Brown says, "Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. When we’re fueled by the fear of what other people think or that gremlin that’s constantly whispering 'You’re not good enough' in our ear, it’s tough to show up...
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
(You should totally watch her excellent Ted talk on vulnerability here -- it can be watched while nursing or rocking a tired baby. But don't watch it if adding one more thing to your day will stress you out!)
The thing about being vulnerable and real about where you are right now is that it allows people to love you. Perfection is admirable but not loveable. When we show people our weaknesses and our needs, we invite them into our hearts. We let them love us. And if there was ever a time where you deserve support, it's when you have a new (or not so new) baby at home. People want to help. They just don't know how.
So let them in. Invite them into your heart. And ask for very specific help. They don't see the unmet need. You give them a beautiful gift when you show it to them.
This was hard for me, too. Reading back over my blog, I see that I asked one of my closest friends if she would spend a night with me and do just one four-hour stretch with my daughter in the evening while I slept. This friend never went to bed early, but still, I felt like I was asking her for an unforgiveably huge favor. It was deeply painful to ask. But I did anyway. (At that point, C was waking every three hours to feed, and it took about an hour to feed her and get her back to sleep.)
"I asked SL last week if she would come over and stay the night to do a late night feeding, back when I was desperate (well, more desperate) for sleep. We hadn't seen her since the birth, six weeks prior. Amazingly, she agreed!
So last night SL left work on time (for once!) and we had a lovely time catching up. At about 8 pm, I started to yawn. And when my friend asked if I wanted to go to bed, I realized I did. Even though I felt guilty to desert her.
Of course, C was resisting sleep, so it took a while... I didn't want to go to bed until she was down. But I finally gave up and went to bed anyway.
Well, my little Super Baby finally went to sleep and didn't wake up again to eat until four hours after the previous feeding, at midnight, then went back to sleep... for five and a half hours!
Could this be the light at the end of the tunnel???
My friend brought her to me shortly before 6 am. At that point I had been asleep more than nine hours! Of course, I had woken up multiple times to look at the clock and notice my engorged breasts and wonder how things were going... with gratitude in my heart.
After the 6 am feeding, C went back to sleep and slept another three and a half hours! I slept three of them, then got up to have a little time with my friend.
So not counting that one feeding at 6 am, and the little wake-ups here and there, I slept twelve hours!!!"
In this case, what I needed was someone to take that early evening shift. If you are still in the early days of infancy, you might need this too. It's perfectly acceptable to ask someone if they will sit with your baby from 8 pm to 12 am. The worst they can do is say no. And believe me, it's deeply uncomfortable for me to ask people for favors, and risk them saying no. In my crazy little head, that "no" takes on all sorts of meanings, like that they don't love me. Which is not rational, but that's a story for another day.
Anyway, try to remind your rational self that the worst thing that can happen if someone says no to you is an uncomfortable feeling. And Brooke Castillo at the Life Coach School reminds us that uncomfortable feelings are not dangerous. They are just a vibration in our body, caused by our thoughts. And we can choose to change our thoughts. So instead of thinking, "she said no because she doesn't really care about me," or even, "she said no because I'm an unacceptable human being," we can choose to think, "she said no because she doesn't have the capacity to help right now, which is about her, not me. I'm glad she felt safe enough to be honest with me. I will think about who else I can ask."
Don't be afraid to seek support from folks you don't know as well. Other moms may not be able to pitch in at night, but maybe your neighbor or co-worker or friendly acquaintance from your religious community would love to pitch in. If you are in a community like Single Mothers by Choice, there are likely members out there who would love to pitch in as they wait for their own turn at parenthood. Post to your local group as well as to the national organization and let folks know you need help. Remember, you are giving a gift by asking -- it helps build friendships and community.
Even if you don't need physical help, please let folks know when you are struggling. It doesn't mean you can't be there for them but sometimes, sharing your vulnerability is a beautiful gift. If you are overwhelmed by sadness or anxiety, or have thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, please seek professional help immediately. It doesn't mean anything about you. It's not your fault. It's your hormones.
If you are ready to sleep train, ask for emotional support. Ask a friend or family member if you can call them to vent or cry. Ask them -- ahead of time -- to please support you by not offering advice or feedback. Just keep on reminding you that you are doing great, that your baby is crying because she's overtired and not because she feels abandoned. They need to remind you that she is going to feel so much better when she is getting the sleep she needs. I promise you it's true!
This is a big part of the work I do for tired parents. It's hard to have confidence that you are doing the right thing when both you and your child are exhausted. After we create a sleep plan together, my role is to troubleshoot but mostly, to cheer parents on. To tell them they are doing great. Over and over and over again. If you find someone who can help you stay consistent, you will see results.
If you're interested in getting support from me, let's schedule a free chat and help your family get the sleep you deserve. Remember, there is no shame in needing support. We all do. It's a beautiful thing.
I conceived both of my children on my own, with an anonymous sperm donor. So that meant there was no eager partner offering to help at night... and no tired partner grudgingly willing to help, either. My mother helped with my first during daytime hours, but she was totally off duty at night.
And so with my first baby at night, I did it all.
Despite being weak from a postpartum hemorrhage, I roused myself with each cry. I changed the diapers, nursed the baby, and soothed her back to sleep.
Luckily for me, she was mostly a good sleeper and usually went back to sleep after a feeding. That doesn't mean I wasn't occasionally in tears from fatigue. In hindsight, I can see I made a mistake. I should have gotten nighttime help.
I was beyond exhausted. Some days, emptying the dishwasher was an insurmountable task. Luckily we were staying with my mother -- I was too weak to take care of us at home -- so she cooked and washed dishes and changed diapers and burped the baby. And by the time we returned home, I was more or less okay.
But still. I would have enjoyed those early days a lot more if I had had some nighttime help. Even once or twice, for a few hours, would have made a huge difference.
With my second, my mom was gone. I had no family member offering to pitch in. I had great friends but they were busy with their own young children. And I had a three-year-old who needed me, too. A three-year-old that tended to burst into my room at 6 am, ready to start the day. Whether or not I had been up half the night with my colicky second-born or not.
Let's just say I was not a great mother to my older child in those early days.
It was miserable. For all of us.
Finally, I realized that I needed help.
Through the grapevine, I learned of a baby "nurse" (not actually a registered nurse) in the neighborhood. Laurel ran a local daycare and a friend recommended her highly. Sold.
Laurel came one night at 10 pm. I felt all kinds of wrong, handing my newborn over to a stranger. Leaving them alone in my living room and going to my bedroom to pump and then go to sleep (with my white noise machine on high) was surreal.
But I did it anyway. Albeit nervously.
I sent an alarm to wake up and pump four hours later. Four hours after that, Laurel crept into my bedroom and eased the baby into the bassinet and quietly departed.
It felt so good that I had her come back the next night to do it again. I was stressed about the money but it was amazing to feel semi-human again.
After two nights of help, I could imagine a world in which I actually enjoyed having two children. I started to think my older child was kind of cute, after all.
From then on, Laurel came every few nights. I continued to worry about spending so much money while on maternity leave but I just couldn't see a way to survive without her.
My breastmilk supply was fine with pumping at bedtime and again once during the night. My little one was not any worse at nursing for taking the occasional bottle (she never had a great latch in the early weeks -- despite visiting a lactation specialist, her mouth was just too small -- but she didn't get worse).
And then at five weeks, everything shifted. Amelie's tummy troubles eased. The long hours of newborn fussing lessened. She started to sleep a longer stretch at night. And it was clear I didn't need help anymore. I gratefully bid Laurel a fond farewell... and started to recommend her to my friends.
In hindsight, I wish I had had her come more often. I was scared that I would need her for a long time, but it turned out that the newborn period of mixed up days and nights, plus colic, didn't last long. Most babies start to sleep a longer stretch at night by about six weeks from the due date, though some don't start to recover from colic until about 4 months of age.
I wish I could go back and tell myself that even with my firstborn, it would have been a great idea to get paid (or not) help. It would have been okay to ask for a baby gift of contributing to a night nanny instead of unecessary baby clothes.
And so I want to tell all of you that there is no shame in accepting nighttime help, or even asking for it. When people ask how they can help, say, "would you be willing to do an evening shift with the baby?"
It's not too much to ask a friend or family member to watch the baby from 8 pm for a few hours so you can go to sleep and get a few uninterrupted hours. Even just three or four hours of unbroken sleep when you aren't straining to listen for a newborn cry can be amazingly restorative.
There's a myth in our culture that moms have to do it all. And effortlessly fit back into our pre-pregnancy jeans by six weeks postpartum, to boot.
This is a disservice to new families everywhere.
The newborn period is incredibly hard (for many, not all). I promise, it will get easier.
In the meantime, accept all the help you can. When someone says, "Let me know if you need anything," say "yes, actually, would you be willing to watch the baby while I sleep?" The worst they can say is no. But most people relish the opportunity to cuddle a newborn. And truly want to contribute.
Pay someone if you need to.
It doesn't mean you are a bad mother (or father). It doesn't mean you didn't want to become a parent. It doesn't mean you are lazy, or weak, or unloving.
Getting better sleep will make a better, more loving parent. And your newborn is most likely happy with any warm body. It doesn't have to be you in the early days (except for breastfeeding, of course). Take advantage of this and get yourself some sleep.
And hopefully it goes without saying but please don't bake or clean or even shower to prepare for these helpers. They are there to help you. Focus on your own needs. Take the best care of you that you can so that later, you can take care of your new little family member.
Massive sleep deprivation is not good for breast milk production, family bonding, or postpartum blues and depression. You are doing your whole family a favor by accepting help.
Motherhood is a long game. You are not going to make or break it as a parent in the first few weeks. Do yourself a favor and build up your strength so that you have more to give in later weeks when the offers of help dry up.
And rest assured, there are things you can do to make things easier in the early days, even when you don't have help. My number one suggestion is always to keep wakeful intervals very short for newborns. I aim for about 45 minutes awake, or the first yawn, whichever comes first. Preventing overtiredness will make it much easier for your newborn to go back to sleep, whether during the day or at night.
Beyond that, use Dr. Harvey Karp's 5 S's to help soothe your little one and get her sleeping: sucking (pacifiers worked great for both my children and didn't affect breastfeeding... the latest research supports this), shushing (white noise or even the oven exhaust fan works great), swaddling (even if she seems to hate it at first), swinging (in your arms or in a stroller or baby swing), and sidelying (only while being supervised).
If you need more support -- and remember, there's no shame in that! -- let's set up a free chat and see if we can't get you and your little one sleeping better.
I Can Do Hard and Scary Things
The idea of sleep training your baby or child is scary.
I get it. I've been there.
I didn't know about sleep coaches when my oldest was a baby so I hired my doula (the amazing Grace Veras Sealey in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn) to come over and hold my hand. She sat with me and gave me courage and lo and behold, two days later my daughter was falling asleep on her own in her crib. Easy peasy.
Last week, I told my friend that I love her. I've never in my life said that first to someone. (She didn't say it back. Yet. And that's okay, too.)
So many things in our lives sound so scary. Until we actually do them.
And then we feel great and move on to the next hard and scary thing.
I'm not scared of sleep training any more, but there's still lots of things I find scary. That's why my new motto, as we count down 16 days until the new decade, is "I can do hard and scary things."
I don't need a sleep coach but I get weekly coaching from an amazing program called Self Coaching Scholars at the Life Coach School. I think we never outgrow the need for support in tackling the hard and scary things in life.
Next up on my Hard And Scary Things list: posting video of myself each week to Instagram and Facebook so you guys can get to know me.
What hard and scary things are you planning to do as as 2019 winds down, or when 2020 starts? I would love to hear! Please post in the comments section.
If your hard and scary thing is sleep training, let's make it easier. Schedule a free consult and we will break it down into manageable steps. Imagine 2020 as your year to be well-rested! How amazing would THAT feel?
Why Hire a Sleep Consultant?
"Oh, my baby just started sleeping through the night at six weeks old. We didn't really do anything." Nonchalant shrug.
Don't you just hate people like that?
Okay, maybe hate is a strong word. But resent their smug satisfaction just a tiny bit?
The truth is that the awfulness of sleep deprivation, rather like childbirth, is hard to remember once you're safely out of it. Rest assured, you'll be there one day soon.
Everyone has been there. There's no way to have a newborn and not be exhuasted. It's part of the journey.
But once the early stages of the newborn period are over -- roughly the first six weeks, by adjusted age -- there are things you can do to tweak your baby's sleep to help yourself -- and your baby -- get better and longer rest. Even during the first six weeks, when you will likely need to feed your baby at least every 3-4 hours during the night, there are things you can do to help make the feedings go quickly so you can get back to sleep as soon as possible.
But when you are in the trenches of sleep deprivation, it can be hard to have the time and energy to figure out just how to do that. And if you have twin babies or older children -- or both! -- it is darn near impossible.
Enter sleep consultants.
It may seem crazy to pay someone to help you teach your child to sleep. After all, sleep is natural, right? Just like breastfeeding. And we've all seen how easy (not!) that is!
Getting help with sleep isn't cheating. It isn't lazy. It's knowing that you can't figure out everything by yourself when you are exhausted. It's accepting help in one of the most vulnerable times in your life. With great sleep on your side, you will be able to achieve so much more in your life. You'll be able to be the parent, partner, friend, employee and self-actualizing person you want to be. No one can be her best when she is exhausted.
Think about it this way: what would you pay to have one single night of great sleep? What if you could pay just a bit more to know that you could have a great night [nearly] every night? Isn't your health and sanity worth that investment? What is more important to your life than feeling rested? What can't you achieve when you are well-rested?
Even more importantly, your baby is suffering when he is sleep deprived. He may enjoy nursing every hour or two throughout the night, but after those first 6-12 weeks or so, it isn't serving him, either. He's probably wired and fussy and unable to focus well on his play -- the way he learns about the world -- when he's not getting the sleep he needs.
(And this is all true whether your baby is a young infant or a boisterous preschooler! You still need rest and so does your child.)
I see so much conflicting advice on Facebook and other parenting groups. This is so confusing to a tired parent. It's hard to know who to trust. And it's easy to feel guilty for wishing it would end. And it's normal to feel miserable when you read that it's normal for a child to wake up multiple times at night for years to come. (This is not true, by the way.)
Sleep consultants -- at least those trained and certified by the Family Sleep Institute -- have months of training in evidence-based approaches to sleep training. There is no fear mongering about how your child will be harmed in learning to self-soothe. Indeed, we discuss studies that show there is zero harm in short-term crying with sleep training older babies and children.
There is a strong emphasis, however, on how much your child needs great sleep to thrive. We talk about the many benefits to both parent and child in getting great sleep. FSI sleep consultants are taught how to coach families with a variety of parenting styles, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep training. Safety is always paramount. We know tired, vulnerable parents need lots of reassurance and positive reinforcement of their hard work to change their lives for the better.
If you and your child are struggling to get the sleep you need, please get help so that you can thrive.
I have years of experience as a pediatric nurse practitioner and now am working as a pediatric sleep consultant. I'd love the opportunity to bring the joy of great sleep to your family. Let's set up a free chat to get you all the rest you deserve so you can get back to enjoying your time together.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.