When preparing for the birth of my third child last year, I spoke to lots of experienced third time mums.
I asked what the transition was like going from two to three and the overwhelming advice was positive. "The third one fits in, I mean he's got to right?!" "Often I'd put number three down and go and referee the other two. When I got back she'd have fallen asleep on her own. She was a breeze!".
'Great,' I thought. 'I've got this. I've done this parenting thing before, the third will be a walk in the park.'
What an idiot. I was as naïve as a first-time parent who thinks their baby will just fit into their life. As a parent, you should never rest on your laurels. As soon as you think you're nailing it, some curveball will turn up and everything will turn on its head.
Babies like to be held. All the time.
Like many newborns, our baby loved being in our arms. I was ok with that, she'd spent 9 months curled up in my body, she needed the security of being close to me. My firstborn was similar so I looked forward to lots of babywearing as I went about my day.
But no, that's not how she wanted to be held. She wanted to be cradled in my arms, preferably while standing up and bouncing. Which, as you can imagine, is not incredibly practical when you're also trying to get snacks ready and do after school readers.
For the first few weeks, it wasn't too bad. Most of her naps were in our arms and we carried her around the house as we did other things. She was small enough to cradle and the kids found her adorable.
But of course, the bigger she got, the less practical it became. Plus she became more alert and was harder to settle. Every nap was accompanied with her (and sometimes us) crying while we rocked her vigorously until she was finally lulled to a restless and usually very short sleep.
I'd come out of the room to a literal queue of the other two children who had been waiting patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) for my attention. The toddler started yelling "Put the baby DOWN," when she needed some time from me. Where was this easy-going baby that everyone had promised me?
What was wrong with my baby?
The thing was, I knew all the things I was meant to be doing. My firstborn wasn't a great sleeper, but we got there in the end. My second born was always a wonderful sleeper and easily slotted into a routine from a few months old. I had even worked on baby sleep for work – as a freelance writer, I wrote a few pages of the Tresillian Sleep Book and read it cover to cover.
I started to think that I'd lost all my baby settling skills. This kid refused to sleep in the car, the pram, the bassinet, baby carrier, in certain wraps and with a dummy. I couldn't pat her, shush her, rock her or hold her calmly to get her to sleep.
Back when my first was a baby, it was all about Tizzy Hall and Gina Ford. These days, there are myriad online sleep consultants that promise their sleep routines are the bee's knees. I went on a googling frenzy. I read about a thousand articles, from militant sleep training types to co-sleeping advocates. I watched countless Q&As on Instagram from sleep experts, I rang up helplines, I downloaded sleep programs.
I tried some of the most popular routines that had glowing online testimonials. Everyone talked about how easy it was to implement. When things were really bad, I went the other way and read anti-sleep training forums that suggested co-sleeping and family beds.
'I felt like a failure every single day'
Nothing was working. I was too soft to leave her to cry but didn't want to go the other way and have her attached to my boob all night.
I felt guilty that I couldn't hold her for all her naps. Guilty that I had to put her down and listen to her scream because one of the kids needed me. Guilty that I was desperately tired and therefore wasn't particularly patient. Guilty that I wanted my baby's precious early days to be over.
I consistently tried to get her to sleep in her cot for weeks on end. In the end, it was taking 90 minutes to get her down for a 20-minute nap. I was literally crying out for help, real tangible help, not something that came in an online forum or an Instagram story. Someone who could tell me what it was that I was doing wrong.
In the end, I managed to get a week-long residential stay at Tresillian. The nurses confirmed what I knew inside – I was doing all I could. She was just an alert baby in a busy household. It's hard to look out for subtle tired signs when you're also making lunch and wrestling with a toddler. When you do a school pick-up then go to swimming lessons with a baby who won't sleep in the car, of course she is going to get overtired.
I know how lucky I am that I managed to get this time to dedicate to my third baby. Instead of following some online program, I followed her cues. I worked out a routine that suited her and settled her in a way that was gentle but also taught her to sleep on her own. At seven months, she's now a smiley baby with a very determined personality who (mostly) sleeps quite well.
I spent months wishing for that easy-going third baby who would just fit into our life. However, our little firecracker is a delight and is the perfect final piece in our family puzzle. I'm certainly not against routines for some babies, they definitely worked for my second child. But my third baby reminded me that following the crowd doesn't always work in parenting and we shouldn't feel like a failure if we need to try different options.
Ultimately, our children are individuals and we need to find out what works for each beautiful personality.