A few months ago, my son would only go to sleep holding my hand against his cheek.
Writing it down, it seems ridiculous to call this a "problem". I feel guilty, calling this a problem. Ten or more years from now, when he will probably die of shame if I even attempt to hold his hand, I'll be wishing I could go back to these nights.
Everyone jokes about being a sleep deprived new mum when you get pregnant. Sleep now because you never will again! they warn you. I admit, it was one of my biggest concerns about motherhood, but I hoped for the best and hoped I would get a good sleeper. I ADORED my sleep and I loved sleeping in, and the idea of giving it up for months on end scared me! At the time though, people assured me that you could put routines in place to deal with non sleeping babies, a kind of guarantee in case I got a 'bad sleeper'.
Sixteen months later and I had no idea just how complex, confusing, political, unpredictable and stressful babies and sleep could be! I did not luck out and get one of those rare little babies who sleep from 7am to 7pm every night from 8 weeks old! I got what I feared - an unpredictable sleeper who hasn't allowed me to sleep for more than 4 hours at a time for almost a year and a half.
I have made dozens and dozens of forum and Facebook posts and even sms' all about my son's sleeping! You constantly search for the perfect routine, or the missing 'ingredient' in your day that will be the answer to the sleep problem. Is it about food, will feeding more make him sleep? Does he need two naps or one or three? What's the perfect 'up time'? Is it feed play sleep or sleep play feed or what the hell?
As a newborn, he was just your average baby who woke every three hours and after a week or two, would sleep from 7pm. Considering I'd spent the last few weeks of my pregnancy sleeping non stop, this was an unsurprising shock to the system. But in the haze of newborn love, you muddle through and get used to it. I thought it would get better soon, and I felt lucky (and still do) that I had a reasonably settled baby with no colic and no reflux issues. After a week or so of trouble, he was also breastfeeding like a champ. At 5.5 months, the dreaded 4-6 month sleep regression hit us like a well aimed brick. He went from predictable blocks of sleep to two hours, one hour, 6 hour, 3 hour blocks! But there's always a reason, a standard sleep regression, a developmental milestone, a growth spurt, teething… I kicked on.
At 11 months it got even worse as the separation anxiety kicked in and he began refusing to sleep without me in the room, crying hysterically if I left but also taking up to an hour and a half to even fall asleep. Day sleeps, which had previously been up to three hours, became 1.5 hours in a pram next to me. Fast forward to now, I gave in and went to sleep school. The first thing they asked me was whether I wanted to continue breastfeeding over night. You'd think, after 17 months of complaining I had no sleep, I'd be nodding my head vigorously. But I had to admit I felt….conflicted. I wanted him to sleep through the night, but when he did I missed him and I missed feeding him. At night he was all snuggly and warm, and even though I didn't really want to get up at 2am and feed him for 15 minutes and take another hour to go back to sleep, I would still feel like it was a loss.
It wasn't just the feeding either, from the time he was a newborn I would end up with him sleeping on my chest for a few hours before waking time or at least snuggling in beside me. If I happened to wake up before he did, I would often catch him waking up and smiling straight away because he was next to me. Even at 16 months, he would sometimes still sleep on my chest with his head under my chin. It wasn't that comfortable for me, but I still managed to fall asleep with his hair ticking my nose.
I decided to cut out the feeds though and try for sleeping through the night and after four days of trying to work out what worked for him at sleep school, I did end up with a toddler who now sleeps through quite often. In some ways I can't stop rejoicing when I wake up at 7am and he's still asleep, but the mummy side of me still feels like it is one more thing that separates us and creates what feels like a gulf between us, a gulf that independence will slowly and steadily fill.
I have realised that being conflicted is just part of parenting and it's ok to mourn some of the little steps towards independence even though you know that's the best thing for them and you do secretly long for the day when you can tell them to stay in bed and they just have to listen. Or they become teenage boys who you have to drag out of bed. Feeling conflicted about all this doesn't mean you're coddling your baby or you won't end up with an independent adult. As long as you do what is best for them, you can secretly wish they still needed you as much as you like! Growing up is hard…on all of us.
I think that's one bonus of being enjoying photography if you're a parent - it's the one way you can keep those fleeting baby years permanently. Photos will never change, and they're yours. My son may not appreciate the photos of him being dressed up like a girl in years to come, but at least I'll have something to remember all those silly moments when he's long grown up and worrying about his own sleeping, crying, baby.