“She doesn’t really nap, unless I’m holding her,” I told my old coworker when I brought the baby in for a visit. “Some days she doesn’t really nap at all. She dozes while she nurses, but that’s it.” I don’t remember his response, but I do remember the look of shock and pity on his face. Looking back, I wish he had told me, that’s not normal. You should get some help for that.
I wanted to share with you all a little about my first year or so as a mom. There have already been a few times when I’ve been writing a blog post and thought, this would make more sense if they knew how things were for me as a new mom … so here we go.
Going into motherhood, I was completely committed to breastfeeding. I attended a few La Leche League meetings, I read a huge book about breastfeeding, I got a Boppy and a nursing cover. Although it was of course a little painful at first, I was lucky to have a bountiful supply and no significant problems. My baby nursed beautifully … and she nursed a lot.
I held and nursed my baby constantly. I’d heard that the best way to breastfeed was to go ahead and nurse the baby the moment she started to fuss, or even before she started to fuss, so I did. She would nurse for 15-20 minutes and fall asleep in my arms, still sucking. If I tried to unlatch her she would wake up and cry, so I’d switch her to the other side and nurse her some more. Again, she’d fall asleep sucking, but if I tried to put her down, she would wake up and cry again. So I would just nurse her and then hold her while she slept. I spent hours holding her while she slept and sucked.
This continued long through her first year. When she was ten months old, I was still spending much of my day nursing her, and then was up until 10 or 11 most nights, nursing her and waiting for her to fall asleep, and then ever so gently trying to put her down – and often having to nurse her one more time. She was still waking up once or twice at night, and each time I would again go through the nursing and the sleep-nursing and the challenge of putting her down without waking her.
The sleep deprivation was catastrophic for me. I was tired all the time, and in poor health; I remember having a cough that I couldn’t shake for a month (a particular nuisance because I couldn’t hold back the cough and it would wake the baby from her sleep-nursing.) I discovered a nasty temper that I’d never seemed to have in pre-baby days.
The baby was tired too. After having my second baby, who has always slept well, I was fascinated to see that her behavior when she misses a nap is very similar to my first child’s behavior during the first year of her life. I’ve since learned that sleeping in a mom’s arms can mean poorer-quality sleep, leading a baby to become overtired. Overtired babies are cranky and dependent, and need to be held all the time.
Holding her and nursing her all the time meant I had almost no time for self-care or for housework. I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t clean the bathroom, and I routinely cooked or washed dishes clumsily with the baby on the front of me in the Ergo carrier. Anytime I was baby-free for an hour, I was filled with anxiety over how to use my time, and was crushed when the baby woke up again. At the end of many days, I felt guilty and embarrassed that my house was so messy.
The crazy thing is, I had no idea how unhappy I was, how dysfunctional my life was. I simply thought – parents are tired, and don’t have time to themselves. That’s just the way it is, right? I had a friend with a colicky baby, and I knew her life was hard, but mine? If the baby cried, all I needed to do was nurse her. No problem. Except it really was a problem. Exhausted, unhealthy, angry and anxious is a problem.
It didn’t last forever. After breaking down in tears one exhausted morning when a friend at church asked how I was doing, I finally realized I needed to get the baby’s sleep in order. I’ll tell you all sometime about that part of the journey. For today I just wanted to tell the story of that first year, because while it didn’t last forever, it lasted much too long.
I’ve wondered many times what I could say to a new mom to help her avoid having a first year like mine. Part of my problem was certainly being over-attached to the idea of breastfeeding, but mostly I think it boils down to I didn’t know a thing about how babies were supposed to sleep. I assumed – and I do think that various attachment-parenting sources I had been reading implied to me – that babies would figure out their own schedules, without interference from their parents. Maybe that’s true for some babies, but it certainly wasn’t true for mine.
So, to a new mom or someone preparing for parenthood, I would say:
- Learn about how babies sleep.
- Be aware of your own need for sleep.
- Long-term sleep deprivation is not normal.
- Don’t be afraid to change the way you parent if it’s interfering with sleep.
Next week I’ll tell you about how we got our first to sleep, and how we helped our second to be a champion sleeper. Until then … sleep well and God bless you!
(And a little PS here: as I looked through old photos to find some for this post, I smiled a lot looking at my sweet girl when she was less than a year old. It was a hard year, but there were some happy moments too. Thank you, Lord, for my sweet baby girl!)