Lessons in Mama-hood: Babies & sleep



Photo by Amelia O’Connor

I just put my Little Lion, who is now 19 months old, to bed for his nap. His brother sang him a song, we read a book, I cuddled him and kissed him goodnight, tucked him in and left the room.  He’s drifted off to the land of nod by now.

It doesn’t seem like a big thing right?  Children sleep right? 

I cannot tell you how hard fought this has been.  Every day of his life for the first 18 months of his life…and I mean every….he screamed.  Not just a little cry, full blown screaming.  It has been exhausting. 

In addition to the screaming, he didn’t actually sleep long and at night he woke at least 4 times for the first year – sometimes I had the joy of his company 15 or 16 times a night.  This happened for the majority of the first year and a bit of his life. We had the mantra of “whatever works” to get us through things.

We tried everything…..and I mean everything!  Some things worked short term…cuddling him to sleep worked the longest though he did scream still, just in our arms. We then moved our mantra to, “Whatever works until it doesn’t work then let’s try something else.” 

Bebito wasn’t a fabulous sleeper but we worked out he was a “routine” loving child (he still is truth be known) and he responded really well to a routine and within a few days of starting this, at around 10 months old, he mostly did quite well.

Little Lion’s sleep issues impacted all of us….settling and resettling….not enough time with Bebito….not enough time with each other…..and then there’s the whole sleep deprivation exhaustion.  It IS TORTURE – your brain plays tricks on you.  I felt alternately useless, stupid, like it was my fault, angry, resentful and mostly run-down.

In the end, what worked for Little Lion and us was engaging a professional who tailored his routine and settling approach to our family situation and his needs.  I cannot recommend this approach more highly.  It has however taken 3 months of consistent, solid work to get to this point. 

I’ve been asked by some friends with new babies to share what I have learned after coming out the other side (mostly!) of crappy sleeping small people:

– Don’t compare your baby/child’s sleep with other people’s – it will make you jealous and cranky.

– People who say your child is the book are right. BUT I never got the decoder for the code my boys’ books were written in.  What I’m saying is, it’s great to watch out for tired signs and act accordingly but putting the baby to bed but I sucked at the “having instincts for taking care of a baby” thing and it didn’t make sense to me, especially in the beginning.   

– When people say, “that’s not normal” ignore them – unless you hear those words from a GP or trusted Child Health Nurse or you genuinely feel like there is a medical problem. Every single baby is different.  What worked for one of my boys hasn’t worked for the other.

– Lower your expectations of what you can achieve.  Concentrate on the important things – for me it was always giving the boys my attention and cooking.  The rest be damned!

– Do whatever works for you – if you can handle co-sleeping and it works do it, if it works to have the baby/child in their own room do that.  Whatever makes you feel better will help the baby too.

– Don’t expect a miracle solution – a small improvement is still a good one!!!!

– Find like minded people to seek advice from and ignore those whose way of doing things doesn’t feel right.  There are studies that show “cry it out” is bad news and there are others that say it has no impact.  Horses for courses and don’t you dare feel bad about it either way!

– Get some help! Lots of help if you can – seek it out where you can until you find something that works for you all. We sought help from the local Parent & Child support groups, read lots of books for ideas and talked to friends. 

– I’m going to go against convention and say that it’s worth looking at books for ideas – we skimmed lots – buy them second hand or borrow them from the library.  If you don’t find it “speaks” to you in the first chapter…close it!  

– As much as coffee was my friend in the worst of times the best thing is to look after yourself with your diet.  It’s hard, really hard when your body is screaming at you that you, “just want to sleep”.  

– Be willing to go to bed early, like REALLY early! For us, the early part of the night was the time when Little Lion slept best so I went to bed not long after he did.

– Try to explain your situation to your loved ones.  Hopefully they’ll understand but they may not.  Don’t really expect people to if they haven’t had a really crappy sleeper.  If they don’t understand at least you tried and if they do, you may have some extra help around the place – BONUS! 

– ALWAYS use the same wind down routine with them – start that as early as you can. Tell them it’s time for bed soon, change a nappy, read a book, swaddle/sleeping bag, sing and tuck in is what worked for us and it’s still what we do every single day.  We also have some soothing music playing to block out the noise in the rest of the house.

If you’re a parent, what’s your best advice for sleepy nights?  

10 thoughts on “Lessons in Mama-hood: Babies & sleep

  1. Bec | Mumma Tells

    SUCH a great post, Cat. We tried so many things when the {little} Big Girl was a babe to find the magical sleep solution. Funny thing is, what worked best for us was letting go of all the things she “should be” doing, and just letting her be – going with the flow as much as we could. Time was our friend in the end. One day, she just decided that sleep was a good thing. And thank goodness for that! X

  2. Naomi

    I felt like I was right back in the midst of the non sleeping years reading this. I love your advice. Both my kids now 14 and 12 still have music to sleep to – it was part of what worked for us in the end.
    At our worst, I ended up in tears with my GP. It helped. She helped. Speak to people you know and trust.
    My best advice to add would be don’t feel guilty – don’t blame yourself. Some babies just do not sleep well, needing lots of help to get there.

    Here’s to sleep! x

    1. catbeloverly Post author

      So totally TRUE Naomi about not blaming yourself. I did worse with that the first time around than the second but it was hard. Accepting that he was just a bad sleeper took a lot of time though!

  3. Kellie

    I have a difficult sleeper and an OK sleeper. I agree with Naomi, don’t blame yourself. Some kids are good sleepers and some aren’t. That’s not to say that what you do has no effect, there are things that can improve the situation and some things we try actually make things worse. Seek help. The very best book, which is backed up with years of science and experience is Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Dr Richard Ferber. All other books in child sleep are based on this work.

  4. Adriana

    Love your post Cat, as per usual wise and helpful!

    Our little one now 6 weeks wont sleep anywhere but my chest! We have tried everything we can think of.. And well nothing has worked so far.

    I do wonder, is six weeks too little to sleep train? If so, what is appropriate? All of the books talk about three months and up!

    Oh well… Sending an sos to the world!

  5. Natalie

    Loving this post, Cat! I wish this list of points was handed out with all the paperwork they give you when you leave hospital to offer hope when that torturous exhaustion feels overwhelming.

    Parents should not feel bad for following their instinct and doing what works for them and their family, and they most definitely shouldn’t feel guilty for the times it’s not going ‘by the book.’ I have three little individuals who have three different ways of approaching sleep, or in the case of one NOT approaching sleep. What works for one won’t work for another – eg. two liked to hear that the Sleep Fairy was coming and we’d giggle together under the covers while I pretended I could hear her bell down the street, while the third asked me to put a note on his door banning her from his room. They are individuals with their own individual needs so there’s no one-size-fits-all.

    So, my advice would be don’t be too hard on yourself, follow your instinct when you know that something is or isn’t working and know that, in time, it will get better.


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