Why sleep is a mother’s greatest challenge

why sleep is a mother's biggest challenge

Parents of young children are almost always thinking about sleep. They might be walking around and talking about other things, but what they are thinking about is sleep. Sometimes they are actually having semi-sexual fantasies about sleep. When they are going to do it next, what they will be wearing, exactly how they are going to drift off. I’ll just lie down and put my head there and tuck myself in … like that … and then … and then …

In fact I would go as far as to say that the only hard thing – really hard thing – about having kids is the sleep thing. Even if your kids sleep well, there never seems to be enough sleep in the world for the parent of small children. And if your children sleep badly, well, fuck. You will simply go insane with exhaustion.

I would go as far as to say that the only hard thing – really hard thing – about having kids is the sleep thing.

You can tell how much sleep matters because as soon as the youngest child in any family is no longer waking up in the night needing instant attention, and/or can also be left safely downstairs alone in the morning with its sibling(s)/telly, you see the shoulders of the parents visibly slacken.

Their faces lighten, they move around more slowly, the edge goes from their voices. Their children might still be annoying little ratbags but there’s nothing that can’t be coped with now because there is more sleep to go around. They are no longer regularly jerked awake in the small hours by inexplicable wailing, they are no longer required to play horsies at 7am, and no longer need to beg their spouse at 3pm on a Sunday to be allowed to go upstairs and ‘just’ shut their eyes for ten minutes.

Esther Walker
Esther with Kitty, 3, and Sam, 1

And so, inevitably, after the congratulatory stuff about your first pregnancy subsides, out comes the shit about sleep. ‘You’ll never really sleep again,’ you get told, on and on. ‘Just get loads of sleep now because when junior’s out …’

I knew, though. I knew better than anyone that babies don’t fucking sleep. Or they sleep at the wrong times, or they’ll only sleep in 45-minute bursts. The threats about sleep fell on smug, prepared ears.

‘I’m getting a night nanny,’ I would say, rudely, to anyone who dared suggest that after having a baby I wouldn’t still be lazing about in bed for ten hours a night. ‘For six weeks. She will teach the baby to sleep. The baby will sleep. So will we.’

My husband didn’t understand the need for a night nanny. He thought we should have the baby in bed with us; he thought it would be cosy.

My husband didn’t understand the need for a night nanny. He thought we should have the baby in bed with us; he thought it would be cosy.

‘If you have a baby in bed with you,’ I would snap, ‘that’s how it learns to go to sleep. Then it can’t fall asleep on its own. I’m not having a three-year-old in bed with me.’

My husband paled at the cost. I told him that I would happily go without a summer holiday that year if money was the issue. He said that it was more than a summer holiday. I suggested that we sell the car and my engagement ring, which I’ve never liked anyway. I offered to stack shelves. He relented.

What is a night nanny? It is a person, usually a woman, who is expert with newborns. They arrive, usually at about 7pm and take the baby for twelve hours until 7am the next day. If you are breastfeeding they will bring you the baby (or you go to the baby’s room) for a feed, then take it away, change it, burp it and settle it back in its cot. If you are not breastfeeding at night, they feed it formula milk from a bottle and do all the changing and settling, and you sleep right through.

A night nanny seems extreme to most people. But I didn’t know how else to do it. My mother’s approach to small babies was to breastfeed exclusively, which she found easy, and to have the baby in bed with her. Permanently. Forget the sanctity of the marital bed. As far as she was concerned, her house was a cave and she was some sort of proto-human living in this cave – and in caves the whole family slept tucked up next to each other.

Well, no thanks. I slept in my parents’ bed until I was seven and it has left me with all sorts of bad sleep associations. I couldn’t go on sleepovers when I was little, I didn’t have my own bedroom, which took some explaining to visitors.

My mother probably tells people that aged seven I simply moved into my own bedroom and slept there and that was that. This is not quite true. I moved in to share a bedroom with my sisters, which was just about bearable, but when I actually moved into a room by myself the transition was hellish. I couldn’t get to sleep. I was lonely and terrified. I still fall asleep more easily and sleep better if there is someone else there with me. This is fine if you are a child sharing a room with your sisters or if you are married, but if you are a single adult it is really quite problematic.

So I hired a magnificent woman, originally from St Lucia, who came six nights a week for six weeks and trained Kitty to sleep through the night, in her own bed.

No child of mine was going to live like that. It was going to sleep alone in its own bed, from the start, and that was that. But I knew myself. I knew that at the faintest moment of exhaustion I would have the baby in bed with me like a shot and my dreams of an ordered house would be over.

So I hired a magnificent woman, originally from St Lucia, who came six nights a week for six weeks and trained Kitty to sleep through the night, in her own bed.

And she did. After carrying on with a feed at 11pm for a few weeks, Kitty slept through the night, going to bed at 7pm and waking up at 7am the next day when she was ten weeks old. And that was as much as I could ever have dreamed or hoped for.

A lot of people think this is wrong and that when a baby wakes up in the night it wants to see its mummy, that you fail to bond with your child, that this is neglectful and bad. I don’t find this. I found the whole thing magical. The clean and ordered bath time, the slumbersome bottle taken in a cosy, dim nursery. The certainty of it all! The night nanny left me with an A4 sheet with Kitty’s new routine carefully written out. A bottle of this much at that time, naptime then and then, bath time then and goodnight! Cheerio, see you in the morning!

So it came as a nasty surprise that even though Kitty slept, I was still tired all the time. When 7am rolled around, even though I had just had the previous twelve hours to do whatever I wanted with, I still felt tired and crushed when it was time to get up. During the day as we crept towards her naptimes I would feel my eyelids drooping, my shoulders sagging. I was sleeping at night but I was still in a fug of exhaustion all day. And, worse, I felt unentitled to it because Kitty slept so well at night and I had long given up breastfeeding as an impossible, unreasonable, terrible task.

Why was I so tired? Why, why? I ought to be rushing about, achieving things! I ought to be on top of absolutely everything, banging out novels, cooking enticing meals, looking terrific. But I found that I was only just marginally more together than other mothers I knew who were doing the whole thing alone. I was an absolute failure.

I would often fall asleep on the single bed near Kitty’s cot as he bathed her at 6pm. But what had I done that day? Not much

My husband would do bath time, but I would hang around in the nursery to keep him company. I remember that I would often fall asleep on the single bed near Kitty’s cot as he bathed her at 6pm. But what had I done that day? Not much. Kitty and I would have been out, come back, drunk some bottles, batted a few toys about. Kitty hadn’t even been weaned at that point, so there was no pureeing or cooking to do. I had had two hours all to myself in the middle of the day while Kitty slumbered in her cot in her own room. What on earth was so tiring?

I noticed eventually, when Kitty was about eighteen months old, that this constant droopiness had lifted. During Kitty’s lunchtime nap I no longer rushed through a few tasks in order to lie on the sofa and stare numbly at the ceiling. I made calls and chatted, packed up things to go to charity, worked, poked determinedly at neglected corners of the house.

Then I got pregnant with my second child, Sam, and a new era of tiredness hit me like a truck. Having not been especially exhausted while pregnant with Kitty, I was staggered at how tired I was all the time. Every lunchtime I would be wiped out for two hours, like chalk on a board. An alarm would raise me at 3pm to get Kitty up and I would lurch up the stairs to the nursery, still mostly asleep, nauseated to my bones. I would wake her up and let her play in the room (i.e. smash the place up) for another half an hour while I lay on that same single bed, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Sam was born in May, two years and three months after Kitty, and despite seeming to be a perfectly good sleeper and getting the same night nanny treatment that Kitty had had, at four months old he started waking up at 5am. Then that stopped for a bit and then he started waking up at all times of the night. Sometimes two or three times a night, always at different times. I had no idea what he wanted.

I suddenly realised what being really tired actually meant.

Having had no experience of this with Kitty I was completely adrift. And I suddenly realised what being really tired actually meant.

I hadn’t been tired with Kitty at all! I had been slightly fatigued! I was concentrating hard because everything was so new, and learning is exhausting, and I had been bored out of my mind because it was all just pretty boring, which makes you feel like you’re tired. But I wasn’t actually tired.

After Sam was born and spent months and months mucking around at night, driving me to distraction, winter came along and not only was he awake at least once in the night, Kitty was also getting ill and waking up, and then I got ill and all of a sudden I was open-mouthed and demented, one-eyed and bonkers with fatigue.

It struck me how dangerous it all is. When I consider how many people have children who do not sleep well and how many of those people have to go to work in the morning it really is a miracle that the entire world doesn’t just grind to a halt in a pile-up of errors because everyone is so flipping wired out on coffee, fags and sugar because their bloody kids have kept them awake since 4.30am.

No-one, as my sister says, gets away with it. You can have all the help you possibly want, can possibly afford, but unless you have your kids sleeping out of earshot and you’ve got a live-in nanny who your babies call for if they are sick or frightened, when your kids wake up in the night, it’s on you.

It’s one thing if you don’t work or aren’t working much when your children are small, but what if you are up with your kids at night and then have to fucking get up and get on the tube and go to work? It’s a miracle that trains even turn up, that the financial markets don’t collapse in on themselves, that surgeons don’t remove MORE wrong limbs, that banks don’t make more errors in our favour.

So I learned, humbly, what it was to be really tired. I recalled an interview with Stella McCartney (who has four children) a few years ago in which she stated that she had been up a lot the night before because three of her four children were ill and she was exhausted. ‘I’ve got burny eyes,’ she said to the interviewer. That’s it. Burny eyes.

I learned that being actually physically exhausted from no sleep is a completely different feeling from feeling crushed by boredom. When you have barely slept you can actually feel really awake, in the same way that people are said to fling their clothes off and claim to be boiling hot just before they die of hypothermia.

Exhaustion is often accompanied by hyperactivity, jitteriness and hysteria, and a reluctance to nap during the day. When you are being woken up and kept awake at night, you feel a resentment about going to sleep during the day. All you are doing, you start thinking, is fuelling yourself to do this awful, boring thing at night. If you have an hour to yourself during the day, going to sleep seems like such a waste when you could be poking about on the internet or sorting out your diary or tending to a small, terrifying and now critical pile of admin.

You grind through the day, not stopping because if you stop you start to think about just how tired you really are. And it becomes harder to carry on. In my mind’s eye, when I am very tired, I see myself pitched forward at an angle, bowling through my day as if walking against a very stiff wind.

 Genuine sleep deprivation was not as bad as I had feared

With two children, even though the exhaustion was real, the sleeplessness was real, the pain of it all was real, it was – and occasionally still is – better and more bearable than the crushing ‘knackered for no reason’ with Kitty. Genuine sleep deprivation was not as bad as I had feared – it is bad, don’t get me wrong, but not as bad as I worried it was going to be. You get used to it. And by that I don’t mean you simply bend under it, suffering silently like some kind of put-upon beast of burden, feeling the pain of it but not saying anything because complaining is just futile; what I mean is that, unless it’s really bad, you actually don’t feel it any more.

But there is also, it’s true, very much an element of suffering it and feeling the pain but not saying anything – because after a while you realise that most people are in the same boat, feeling the same pain, but carrying on regardless. They’re all just taking it, taking the hit, wordlessly. Occasionally it can feel like one of those awful dreams where you’re in a crowded room and you notice it’s on fire and you’re screaming ‘Fire! Fire!’ and everyone around you just carries on regardless.

Then slowly you get it. This is life, this is it. This is what being ‘in the club’ means. You’ve been let in on the secret. And the secret is: it’s not always very nice.

  • This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book The Bad Mother. We’re going to be serialising it over the next few weeks but if you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here


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