Sleep training – the follow up

Back in February I wrote a post about how we had begun to try and ‘sleep train’ Millie, a process where we aimed to be able to put her to bed and then walk out of her room at night and leave her to fall asleep by herself, and then stay in her room all night.

At the time of writing it we had gotten twelve nights in to a routine where we were having a cuddle, putting her down, saying goodnight and leaving the room, to cries that were lessening but still pretty strong, and we were making progress.

We carried on with this and the bedtime bit was going well – we never got to a stage where there was no crying at all but she would stop crying after around 10 seconds and lay down. During the night however, something shifted and Millie began waking more and more often, eventually to five or six times a night.

Initially we were determined to stick to our plan and we would stay in her room, give her a cuddle and then leave the room again, but we quickly became very exhausted doing this again and again, at different time through the night, and Millie would not settle back to sleep even after an hour or two being with her or going in and out.

We were becoming desperate again, and were at a bit of a loss. The sleep training/controlled crying method was a last resort and was supposed to work for everyone in a relatively short space of time with some commitment, which we had done, so why was Millie still waking so much after almost a month?

One night when my husband was working I took Millie to our bed with me after she had woken up again, and she slept soundly all night, so that became our new tactic. David took to sleeping on the sofa (which is very comfy and apparently better for his back anyway), and I swapped my sleeping partner for a small starfish shaped child.


Although this was working in terms of getting more sleep, and I adore sleeping next to her, it certainly wasn’t a long term option, but we weren’t sure where to go next. Then for my birthday David booked a night away for us all and the hotel had put a child’s camp bed directly alongside the double. Millie liked it, and slept really well, and I realised how much I missed sleeping next to my husband. So we tried it at home!

We had removed the side from the cot a few months earlier in one of our many efforts to solve the sleep conundrum, so we switched our room around a little and put Millie’s bed in our room, alongside our own bed.

Things are quite different, though it’s still been a bit of a journey. Initially we saw very quick improvements, with Millie sleeping through the night, and walking without crying because she could see us next to her. One night I saw her wake up and roll over in a panic, then see us and just lie back down again. After everything we’d been through, all she wanted was to be near us – so simple!

Now of course sleeping in a room with a giant comfy adult bed to climb onto is pretty tempting. Over a couple of weeks we started with Millie getting into our bed for her story, being all cute, snuggling in with her toys, and then she would join us in the middle of the night, and because we were lazy we ended up with her never in her own bed, just always in ours. Sometimes this worked and sometimes, on the sideways sleeping nights, it really didn’t, and that brings us up to this week when I became overtired and really fed up, and after I spent a night sleeping in Millie’s (very short) bed because I’d had enough of trying to fit around her, I knew I had to sort things out.


The last three nights, I’ve gone back to basics. I’ve read before that, although one of a toddler’s purposes is to test boundaries, explore, and push whatever they can, they also need to have the rules they are testing. Not only do they like to know where the lines lie, but they need to, because without this they don’t have any guide for behaviour. We were seeing this is action because Millie, although clearly tired, was pushing and pushing herself and not going to sleep until 9.30-10pm, which was only adding to my exhaustion, and I think it’s because she had no boundaries. She could go in the bedroom, lay where she wanted and we’d accommodate it, play until late and we’d try and curb it but weren’t strong enough about it in honesty. She had no lines to operate within, and just didn’t know what to do.

So – we’re now on night three of Operation Mummy’s Sorting Her Bedtime Shit Out, and so far so good! She sleeps in her own bed, and there’s been a bit of predictable protest, but it’s steadily reduced every night. And last night Millie spent the whole night in her own bed, whoop! There’s a clear lesson here – although I get worn down to the point of strength and commitment to sort things out, I’m not consistent, and take the easy option and give in after a while, which just doesn’t cut it, and confuses Millie. She needs me, and Dave, to be clear and strong in our boundary setting.

So tonight she was asleep by 8.30pm, which feels like a luxury right now, and I’m having a glass of bubbly to celebrate, and raise a glass to the future. She turns two in a fortnight so here’s a to a less lazy mother and finally cracking this sleep shiz!

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Celebrating my boobs

During my first midwife appointment, only a few months pregnant and not really even showing yet, was when I was first asked, ‘Will you breastfeed?’. A silly question to ask at that stage to be honest, because no one can know for sure, but I certainly wanted to try.

It seemed that my boobs wanted to try too, because at around six months pregnant I started waking up to small wet patches in the bed where I’d started leaking already. This was when I first started thinking that, really, the whole thing with boobs is weird.

We are subconsciously taught from a very early age that breasts are for admiration. They are a feature of attractiveness, a sexual tool. And yet here mine were leaking through my clothes and bedsheets at night – not at all sexy! Suddenly they were not mine anymore, they were preparing for someone else’s arrival instead.

Once Millie had been born we began to negotiate the breastfeeding minefield, which for us took a while. My nipples were dripping milk onto my swollen tummy in the shower, they were suckled for hours as Millie would fall asleep during feeds so I was expressing to make sure she was drinking properly, and as it turned out they weren’t quite large enough and needed little silicone shields to ensure a good latch. They were now a constant consideration, as they became full, hard and sore, then had to be switched regularly to ensure good flow for Millie, and were also pumped like udders with a loud electric device to allow my husband to get involved in feeding too.

This is all a bit overwhelming for anyone, and I feel lucky to have stayed in hospital for six days where I had access to clinical experts and a daily breastfeeding clinic where I could go and ask questions, and sometimes just sit and feed knowing I had people around to help if I needed it. The first time I literally asked the nurse to grab my breast and do it for me because I felt so lost, and she duely obliged – that level of support was invaluable to me.

Being able to ask my mum and friends openly about feeding was also vital, because it helped me feel more normal and less isolated – I’ve said it before and will always insist that a support network of any description is they key to how you manage with a child. No one can do it alone.

Initially I had been pleased at my extra cleavage but in fact it’s a huge amount of pressure. On top of trying to manage the varying size, leaking and feeding, there’s the constant talking about it all. Asking friends if the things I was feeling were normal, did their babies do this or that too, trying to fit my breasts into different bras, checking for their fullness. I lost count of how many times I was asked how I was feeding, and then when I started topping Millie up with formula at around six weeks because I couldn’t keep up with her appetite, waited for the judgement. I wasn’t often openly judged, in honesty, but there’s so much conversation about it that I felt ready to be, which is wrong in itself really.

The breast vs bottle thing is a crazy weight to land on a woman’s shoulders after squeezing a human out of her hoo-ha. Yes, breast milk has the longest list of utterly fantastic properties, but if we’re honest formula is great too these days, and the fact is that not every one can physically breastfeed, and even if they can they may not want to – and that’s THEIR decision.

Then came  feeding in public. Because of some of the hype around breastfeeding publicly I was ready to fight anyone who dared challenge me, despite never having actually been challenged! I believed vehemently in my right to feed my daughter wherever and whenever she needed it, and never shied away from that, because I was determined to normalise it and help change perceptions, but then I came back to the old societal rules. There are loads of places that openly support breastfeeeding in public, which is fantastic, but sometimes I didn’t want to just flip my boob out for all to see, despite the very necessary purpose. It feels beautiful, but also vulnerable, and very out of the ordinary for a woman, so I used to carry a big cloth for a bit of privacy now and again if I wanted it.

On the flip side of all that, breastfeeding Millie was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had with her. My favourite times (and my husband says the same, so it’s clearly more about bonding than just boobs) were the night feeds. In the early hours when it felt like we were the only two awake, quietly snuggled together as she filled her tiny tummy and blessed me with her new smiles. It was all about her, all about us, and those moments are so very precious.

Then at only five months it was all over, we’d worked so hard to create a routine and adapt together to her needs as she quickly grew, and then one day she decided she had finished and preferred full formula. I was bereft, and not ready, but the use of my body in this way was no longer my decision, and my baby was choosing to move on.

Now my lovely lumps, humps, breasts, boobs, tits, jugs, or whatever you call them (thanks again to society for steering us towards objectification) are mine again. They’re sexual again, meant for a very different purpose than for those few months of newborn sustenance. And I think I love them a little bit more now. They’re not quite the same as they started out but they’ve worked hard and deserve to stand a little less high, though no less proud.

Breastfeeding is beautiful, important, effective and bloody hard work at times, and I’m very glad I was able to feed Millie this way for a while. Everyone does this slightly differently, and ‘trial and error’ were never more important words for me than in raising a child. We made it work for us, which I think should be celebrated and cherished. I look forward to the day she might want to know her story, and perhaps if she chooses, to experience all this for herself.

Whether you breastfed or not, give yourself and your boobs a little hug, because whever you’ve been through, you deserve it!

The sleep rage

Like everyone, there are some things in life that annoy me. People who don’t turn their indicators off after making a turn, or who bump into you and don’t say sorry. The usual. But there’s one thing that really gives me the rage, and it’s anything that disturbs my daughter’s sleep.

For example, I’ve never been particularly bothered by fireworks before, and luckily our dog hasn’t either, but since having Millie I hate them. We live in a pretty well populated area and there are lots of people locally to set off their own on bonfire night, new year etc. Once I’ve heard them I spend the whole evening on edge, and it’s a bit ridiculous because Millie mostly sleeps through them, but they still leave me waiting for the potential wake up to occur. That’s the nub of the issue, it’s the threat of the wake up that winds me up.

Squeaky floorboards. Bloody hell our house never squeaked so much before I had a baby. I have a theory that housebuilders make the upstairs of a property with extra squeaky floorboards knowing that you’ll curse them if you ever have kids. Those ‘comedy’ videos online of people creeping out of the room like ninjas are not lying!

Loud engines get me too. There are a couple of particularly throaty motorbikes and cars that pass our house on a daily basis and I’m pretty sure they know how I feel because they seem to deliberately rev the engines as the pass the house and my hands automatically go into fists. Why is there a need for them to do that?!

Millie’s never been one for sleeping much at home and a lot of car sleeping gets done during the day. Many times I’ve pulled up somewhere to read a bit or waited before going in the house because the transfer out of the car seat wasn’t often successful, but I guarantee there’s always some knobhead out to ruin it for me.

Shouting loudly near the car, letting dogs bark, car horns, anything they can do to wake Millie, and they’ll do it. Every. Single. Time.

It’s like people just don’t know babies might be sleeping during the day (liars) or that they may not have considered there’s a sleeping child in their general vicinity (rude). During these incidents I’ve genuinely come close to telling the offender where to stick their noisiness. I’ve also thought about making a sign that says ‘child sleeping nearby, shut your cake hole!’ or something equally as direct. I’ve never done either of these, but still. I’d love to make some kind of public announcement and have the world stand still to make sure Millie can rest properly.

I know that it’s irrational really, but honestly it can take so much to get a baby to sleep sometimes, that when you finally make it your mental energy is long gone and any mother trucker who comes along to ruin your efforts is going to induce nap rage. It’s a biological fact.* (*I can’t prove that)

I hope I’m not the only person who suffers with this. I know I’m basically asking the world to give a shit about my daughter’s sleep needs…..so yeah, that’s it! Just shhh. Please.


 

Depression and anxiety: with a toddler 

So far in this mini-series of blog posts about my mental health I’ve talked about how my struggles first came about, how I dealt with it then and  how I feel I’ve begun to tackle it now. But I’ve mostly avoided discussion about one pretty major component in it all; my daughter Millie.

If I boil it down my main problem was being overwhelmed with too many things to worry about on a day to day basis, and of course Millie is a huge part of that. There were days when I really struggled to just get to the end of the day, and I was so frustrated, but I knew that her demands weren’t anything out of the ordinary and the problems were mine.

As time wore on and I felt lower and lower, and I began to feel disconnected from her. If I tried to say no to something and she protested, I gave in instantly. I normally feel guilty if she watches any TV or if she eats something I think is unhealthy, but I just went with the quickest and easiest option instead. I was lacking the mental energy to cope with most things day to day, and that included Millie.

That’s actually quite painful to admit to. Obviously she was never neglected or open to harm in any way, but if I’m honest our emotional relationship suffered for a time, because I had just begun to go through the motions. I had to remind myself to get more involved with her; smile when she did something funny and looked at me for a response, sit with her and cuddle while she watched Peppa Pig for the millionth time, and just not let it go when she refused to do more important things like clean her teeth.

I had been signed off work and had decided to keep Millie in her routine of spending two days a week at nursery. She also spent a day a week with my sister in law, and my Mum and Dad would help out and take her for odd days too. If anyone was able to give me a few hours to myself, I took it.

I was drowning and constantly dreamed of ways out. I often fantasised that I could book somewhere and go away to just be completely by myself, because all I wanted was for everything in my life to stop and leave me alone. I particularly remember a day when my sister was off work after an operation and couldn’t drive, and we were going to visit her. She lives about 20 minutes from me and I packed Millie and the dog into the car, and cried the whole way there. I genuinely considered what might happen if I asked my sister to take Millie for a few weeks and just drove away.

Afterwards I felt ridiculous and incredibly guilty. I felt guilty because I knew I was letting Millie (and everyone else) down and giving her far less than she deserved from her mother. I felt guilty because other people were coping with more children and more complicated lives than me, and yet I was crumbling. I felt guilty because there are people who would give everything to be parents, and I was wishing my daughter away. I felt like a failure.

One day my Mum popped in to see us and Millie saw her at the door and immediately went to get her bag and shoes as if she was going out, and then cried when she realised her Nanny was staying in the house with us. That was a bit of a slap to be honest, because I realised just how accustomed she’d gotten to being taken by other people, and how my company was wasn’t enjoyable for her.

I slowly started trying to spend time with Millie one on one. We often do things with others, and I thought it would be good to be together, away from home (because we both go a bit stir crazy when we’re in for too long), with no expectations.

We went to a local play café, we went to the farm, we went to the forest. I tried to let go of everything else in my head and just see her. I would sit with her and talk, play, or do nothing, just watch her. Forget my worries about what she was eating, what else was going on that day, everything.

You know what I realised? I need her. Dear God, do I need her. All the time I had been pulling away from her, and yet when I began to let her back in, she was the one healing me. When I focused on her I could smile because I was happy, and laugh because I wanted to, not because I thought I should. Children are such unaffected, joyous little souls, and I was getting to share that, and see things the way she did.

She doesn’t give a shit if I didn’t shower today, or if she had spaghetti hoops for tea three times this week. Everything she does is interesting to her, or fun, and when I began to just follow her lead, I saw it that way too. I would come home from our times out feeling lighter, and a little at a time I was genuinely enjoying life more, in all aspects.

Millie and sleep have never been great pals and in the last few months she’s spent a lot of nights in bed with me, then more recently we’ve moved her bed into our room, and this has also been really wonderful. It’s meant her sleep has settled and she no longer wakes nearly as much at night, which helps with my sleep deprivation, and I love being so close to her. Laying in the dark and listening to her breathing is very relaxing, and always makes me feel comforted and warm. Then in the mornings she doesn’t wake crying, I roll over and she’s right there, all bed head and chatter.

Now I continue to make time from myself away from everything else, including Millie, because I know I need it, and I know it’s ok to have that. I also continue to make time for just the two of us, because it seems to centre me a bit, we always have a great time, and I know one day she’ll be grown and gone, and I will be fantasising about our lives now instead.

I’ve read a number of times that having time away from your kids makes you a better parent, and it’s so true. If I have time to refuel myself I can give her everything when we are together, and I’ve accepted that now. I’ve realised that I can’t learn to manage my mental health issues without her, so from here on in, it’s a team effort.

Depression and anxiety: how it all began 

Towards the end of the summer last year, I began to realise I was having problems with my mental health. I’d had 10 days off work and spent them very wisely, with a trip to see relatives in Ireland and lots of time with my husband and daughter. I felt relaxed and happy, and yet I was dreading coming back to work, more so than I’d ever felt before. On my first day back I felt like a complete outsider within my very friendly team, and it took me a few hours to actually speak to anyone properly. It was very unlike me, but I put it down to work being particularly stressful at the time, perhaps a bit of post-holiday blues, and just carried on.

As the months wore on I was having bouts of sadness and feeling low, cancelling plans to see friends, and days where I struggled to even speak to people. Usually these things would shift or pass, but they were happening more often, and lasting longer. Christmas came and went, and then at the end of January this year, the situation came to a head.

Quite simply, I didn’t care anymore. I wrote in a blog post at the time that I felt like I was running and running on a treadmill and hadn’t ever considered just turning the speed down; I was completely mentally exhausted from just trying to keep up with every day. I was also very sleep deprived and getting up multiple times at night after having failed at trying to ‘sleep train’ my daughter, which really wasn’t helping. I’d completely lost the ability to deal with anything remotely stressful, like my brain had just shut down. If someone asked me a complicated question I’d struggle to answer and just stare at them. I was very sad and low, crying a lot (hiding in toilets became a regular activity), getting frustrated and angry a lot, forgetting things and having to constantly apologise to people for getting things wrong at work. In short, I was a mess.

I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how bad it was, or what to do about it. I clearly wasn’t coping well, because a few friends both in and out of work noticed I was struggling and helped me realise I needed to speak to someone and ask for help. I feel incredibly grateful because I think without the nudges I had from these lovely people, I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. To say you can’t cope with life is a very awkward conversation to have with anyone, and it was hard.

I was craving simplicity; trying to figure out if I could afford to quit my job and start again somewhere. If I could go away for a few months by myself so I didn’t have to think about anyone else. At the time Trump had just been elected and the news was rife with stories about him – stories that I would normally want to read, discuss, argue politics about – and I actively avoided it all because I couldn’t deal with it.

A big part of how I ended up this way, is that as well as being terrible at saying no to things, and thinking I had to take responsibility for other people as well as myself all the time, I have a particular issue with judging myself by higher standards than anyone else. I don’t know why, but somehow I always tell myself to just keep going where I never would expect the same of others. Had I been sat opposite anyone saying the things I was then, I would have taken them along to the doctor myself, but I needed to be told rather than give myself the same break. Thanks goodness for other people’s honesty!

Some people’s experiences of asking for professional support for mental health issues aren’t great, but the day I went the locum doctor I saw was incredibly understanding. She explained how our brains use adrenaline to kick start the ‘fight or flight’ response in stressful situations, and then afterwards your hormones return to a base level. Mine had not been returning to base level, meaning I was trying to operate in a crisis mode continuously, which is just not sustainable. It was a perfect illustration for how I’d been feeling, and I was incredibly relieved that someone got it, and also that it wasn’t all in my head! I was prescribed anti-depressants and signed off work to try and get some space and rest.

Before I went to see my GP the idea of not working for any length of time scared me, I worried about how it would impact everyone else, and what on earth I was supposed to do with myself while I was off, but with hindsight it was absolutely the best decision. I was spinning too many plates, and trying to operate in the same way as I always had before having a child, giving everything in my life the same importance as I did before.

Between trying to give full time effort to work as a part time member of staff, care for my daughter myself or arrange her care around my husband’s shifts, ensure the dog was walked and looked after every day, help care for my husband’s elderly grandmother, and keep up with housework, seeing family and friends and all the other trappings of life, it was too much. When I write it down it doesn’t seem like a very long list, but I was trying to put in more time and energy than I had to all of these things and inevitably failing. Something had to give, and the most obvious candidate was work.

I’m happy to report that, three months on, I’m feeling completely different. There was a time when I felt like I’d lost sight of who I was, and couldn’t be sure I’d ever get back to feeling better again, but I have. Right now I’m relaxed, happy, and with a far more positive outlook. It’s not a quick turnaround, and I know I’m not done yet, but I’m back to work and starting to get some normality back. I’m starting to get myself back, which right now feels really good.

Shameful as it is to admit it, I didn’t want to face what was happening initially. I felt I had to keep going, I couldn’t rest, that I was stronger than anxiety and depression, and it wouldn’t happen to me. Frankly that’s all bullshit, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. I’m glad it did, because I had to crack somehow in order to learn how to make some changes. Not the easiest of learning curves, but certainly one I’ve made progress on.

I’ve also learned a lot. I work for the NHS in a mental health trust and I thought I knew about depression and anxiety, but I didn’t really. I was surprised to find that my main issue has been anxiety, taking responsibility for and worrying about so many different things that it led me down a path to depression, and apparently the two often go hand in hand.

I’ve come to realise that I can say no, that looking after myself isn’t selfish, and sometimes I need to come first, otherwise I won’t be able to put anyone else first later on. I can tell you that I’m a better wife, mum, daughter, sister, friend, colleague (etc) and a better person overall for looking after myself. And I’m happier, which in the end is all I really want.

A letter to myself

I found out recently that maternal mental health awareness week was happening this week (1-7 May), and it got me thinking. Having a child – whether you’re pushing it out, having it surgically removed, adopting or whatever else – is the most incredible life change. There is no amount of reading or research that can prepare you for the sudden weight of responsibility in keeping such a small person alive. It’s a 24 hour operation, and if ever there’s a time in your life when your normal defences are down, and you are vulnerable to a bit of mental pressure, this is definitely it.

Some people take to it like they were born to (the buggers), but others, like me, don’t. I suffered with post-natal depression in the months after Millie was born, and at the time I thought there was something wrong with me. I refused medication, I didn’t talk about it, and I pushed on through. My life and experiences may have evolved and moved on, but there are many, many more people out there feeling like I did then. Eighteen months on, I’ve written my new mum self a letter with some advice I wish I’d had the courage to ask for then.

Dearest Liz,

Hits you like a brick wall, doesn’t it? I mean, you expected it, but you also really didn’t, and it’s hard. It’s so very hard sometimes, and you need to acknowledge that; you don’t have to brave face it all the time.

We need to just set a baseline here – you’re doing a good job. You know why? Because you give a shit. I read this recently and it makes total sense. The very fact that you worry about Millie getting the best, and feel guilty about what you think she might be missing out on, makes you a good mum. If you weren’t you wouldn’t care. Take heart in that.

I know it’s a rollercoaster. I know that you can’t leave her sight for a second, and that sometimes when you do the cry you hear makes every nerve in your body jangle, and you need to take a breath before you can walk back in and paint on a smile for her. I also know that when she smiles back and kicks those little legs because she’s happy just to see you, your heart melts. I can see it in your face. She’s a powerful being, and personally I think mother nature makes babies that way on purpose. They have to be so delicious in order for you to take the hardship – they give you strength.

You need to draw on this strength when you are at your lowest. Those times when you think she’d be better off without you, and you want to disappear? That it would be easier if you just kept driving and never stopped? You’re wrong. You need each other, right now more than ever.

You are strong, you are doing a brilliant job, you are not failing her, she does not deserve a better mum. There is no one better than you to look after your daughter.

I know you can hear all this, but you don’t believe a word of it. You feel battered, exhausted beyond the realms of possibility, and like you’re falling at every hurdle. There are days when you feel disconnected, and have nothing left, and can’t summon the energy to look after yourself, let alone a baby. And that’s ok. There is no overnight fix, and for now just that you’re hearing the words is enough, but you must never, ever forget them. When you lay down on the floor on her mat just to get a better look at her and drink her in, or during the many hours you sit staring at her sleeping on your chest, tell yourself how great you are. When you look in the mirror and cringe at your reflection, or hold back tears because she’s been crying for hours, tell yourself again. The smiles, the contented naps, the giggles, are all because of you. She’s figuring out a lot right now and growing fast, so she’s got a tough job to do too. You are all she wants in the middle of all that; you’re her whole entire world. You must be pretty bloody special to hold that spot.

Now I’m nearly done. See that bloke on the other end of the sofa? The one holding his iPhone? Tell him. Tell him everything you’re feeling, and ask him to help. He won’t be sure how, because he can’t be when you don’t even know yourself, but you can’t do this alone. Plus he’s not a mind reader! Then tomorrow text one of your friends and do the same. It’s scary to be so honest when you’re breaking inside, but it’ll be worth it. BT once said it’s good to talk, and they weren’t wrong. It takes a village to raise a child, so start getting your village on board!

Finally, step back and look after yourself now and again, don’t try and do it all. Walking the dog is driving you insane so get someone else to do it, and stop thinking about the hoovering, and making people cups of tea when they pop in. In fact some days you don’t have to say yes to them popping in at all if that’s what you want! Let people do more for you, it’s not for you to look after everyone all the time. Focus on you and Millie, get fresh air, take more baths, eat all the chocolate.

Oh darling, when I think of you now it makes me quite emotional, and I just want to scoop you up and hold you. It will get better, and as that little girl grows you will too. I promise.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself first sometimes. Millie needs you to.

Me xx