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.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.