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How I Took on Sleep Deprivation and Won

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It was a bright and beautiful afternoon. The sun was out, not a cloud in the sky and the children in the park across the road were playing chases. Not that I knew any of this. I was inside, still in my pajamas trying to get my baby to sleep. I banged my head hard against his cot in frustration.

Fast forward a few days.

It was midnight. I was sitting on my bed trying to feed my baby a bottle of expressed milk. He didn't want it. He also didn't want to go to sleep, and nothing I could do would make him close his eyes. I threw the bottle across the room in frustration.

Fast forward a few more days.

It was 6:00 a.m. I had been awake since 2:00 a.m. trying to get my baby to sleep. I was sitting in front of the fireplace in a recliner arm chair, ABC kids had just started on TV. My baby finally drifted off to sleep. I didn't dare move. I slept sitting up right in that recliner for another hour and a half until he woke up. I was exhausted. Utterly exhausted...

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I once wrote a blog about how happy I was my baby didn't sleep through that night. I loved the sense of closeness those night feeds brought us. Just bub and I, sitting up feeding while the world slept around us. I longed to be that person again. But I didn't resemble her. Not now.

I was sleep deprived. I understand now, if only in a small way, how sleep deprivation can be a form of torture. It is hard.

"I walked around with a forced smile"

Usually I am calm, understanding, empathic, tolerant, friendly, approachable. Sleep deprived, I am cranky, short, irritable, intolerant, and walk around with a forced smile on my face. I never knew this person existed. If I'm honest, it frightened me. It made me sad.

It came to head when hubby went overseas for work and I went to stay with my mother. I knew it was going to be difficult without him. I was already so sleep deprived when I landed on my mother's door step. Apart from bub waking every 1.5-2 hours during the night, we had been doing a lot of traveling; 12 hours in the car one day, two domestic flights across Australia the next. Still, I put on a brave face.

"You need to get some sleep or you're going to crack"

Mum was great. She got up during the night to help, but this was also difficult as bub only wanted his mummy. She let me sleep in when she didn't have to work -- one day she got bub up in the morning and let me sleep in, I woke at 11:00 a.m.! I felt drowsy and guilty, but appreciated the chance to sleep.

"I felt like a failure as a mum and needed my own mother to help me be a better mum"

Three weeks after we arrived, three weeks of still hardly any sleep, my mother said to me something to the effect of, "we need to do something, you need to get some sleep or you're going to crack." I wondered if I already had. She told me I was doing a great job and that I was a wonderful mother. I cried. I didn't feel like one. Ironically, I felt like a failure as a mum and needed my own mother to help me be a better mum.

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As a coping strategy I ate my mother out of house and home. Every ounce of chocolate I could find I ate. And when there was none left, I bought some more and ate that too.

So we started sleep training... sleep training for me. So many people blame babies for not sleeping well, but I believe for the majority of people (maybe not all) but certainly a large proportion that babies don't sleep well because parent's form bad habits. This was certainly the case for us. Our little man had been a good sleeper from 6 weeks to 4.5 months, but then we formed bad habits as we traveled around Australia staying with friends or in conjoined apartments. As a self-confessed perfectionist, I didn't want my baby to wake up the people we were staying with, so as soon as bub would cry at night, I would pick him up. Over time, he "unlearned" how to self-settle, and learned that if he cried, mummy and daddy would give him attention. Essentially, we had lost our rhythm and had forgotten how the game works. Soon enough, we found ourselves sleep deprived and overwhelmed.

"We had lost our rhythm and had forgotten how the game works"

The first night was difficult, bub cried and I cried. But the next night was easier, and the night after that easier still. By the end of three days, bub was only waking twice a night. This I could manage. Also during this time we introduced formula feeding to top up my breastfeeding. My milk supply had been dwindling for months and expressing several times a day instead of sleeping when bub slept was making matters worse. Plus, I wasn't eating well, wasn't drinking enough water and I was tired and stressed, a typical precursor for poor milk supply!!

Fast forward three weeks.

Hubby has since returned from overseas and we are back in Canberra again. I talked with him at length about what our nighttime strategy is with bub, I was not going to fall back into our old habits again. Not under any circumstances. The new strategy is something like this, give bub a chance to self-settle first. Then go in and calm him down, but don't turn on the lights. Change his nappy, feed if he needs it, a quick cuddle and put him straight back down. He likes a dummy in his mouth and in each hand.

And this strategy seems to be working, at least for now anyway. I understand it may not work for everyone, each baby is different, but it is a gentle approach that suits our little bub.

I am pretty much back to my old self now. I am happier, more cheerful, eating less chocolate and exercising regularly. Plus, I am now able to enjoy my night feeds again which is such an important thing to me.

Have you experienced something similar? How have you overcome sleep deprivation.

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