Surviving the non-sleeping screamer
"At this stage you’re bewildered and naive. You have no idea that you may not sleep through the night again for years. Embrace that."
3:18AM. I thwack my husband over the head and he heaves out of bed with the resignation of a hundred times before. He trudges to the boys’ room and uses a high-pitched tone to hush the screaming infant, Felix. Quiet comes. I hear him sit down next to Felix’s cot. Then the scream, ‘I WANT MUM!’ The little hand had come through the cot bars and touched his face, destroying our cunning plan of deception.
Felix was about two and a half when this happened, and by then I hadn’t slept for more than three consecutive hours since his birth. If anyone had told me it would be another 18 torturous months before I’d get a night of uninterrupted sleep there’s a fair chance I would have permanently retired to the library.
Having a Non-Sleeping Screamer (NSS) changes you for life, in that you never judge anyone’s parenting ever again. Well, at least not with the same holier-than-thou vigour you used to be able to muster. The phrase ‘whatever gets you by’ becomes your mantra.
The first part of surviving a NSS is to ensure there’s no medical cause or exacerbating factor, such as chronic low-grade ear infections, reflux, respiratory ailments or heart conditions. You get to know your GP, baby health clinic nurse and ear-nose-throat specialist very well.
At this stage you’re bewildered and naive. You have no idea that you may not sleep through the night again for years. Embrace that.
You then buy every single book on the subject and ask every other parent you come into contact with for any tricks or techniques they used. I call this the Double D zone: desperate and in denial. You’re cornering strangers in the park, reading books advising you to build a new wing, while muttering, ‘This can NOT be happening’ ... even though it is. Every single night.
Moving from Double D to Code Red is a mercurial transition, but you’ll know when it happens because anger and bitterness taste different. Let’s face it, extended sleep deprivation makes you one seething mass of cranky. You call in the big guns, such as Tresillian or an equivalent support service, and arrive at the mother lode of maternal guilt: controlled crying. For many, the heartbreak and guilt you feel during this process are totally worth it when your child sleeps for more than 40 minutes at a time.
By now you’re living in your trackie pants with a hairstyle more akin to having been pulled through a hedge backwards than any of this season’s trends. Welcome to resignation. Up until this stage your sanity has been pinned on the burning hope that tonight, this week, this month will be an improvement on the last. You don’t even have that anymore.
This all sounds very grim, and on many levels it is. But you do get through it. You will survive. You find little things that make your life easier, by making allowances and compromises and quirky little rituals that get you by. You might get a night here and there when your child sleeps for at least a few consecutive hours, even occasionally going the whole night. The days after those nights are when you solve world hunger and broker an Israeli peace deal.
And then one day you notice that the occasional full night sleep shifts from a rarity to the norm.
For us it came when Felix was master of his toddler domain, able to talk coherently, feed, dress and go to the toilet by himself. It was as if his brain wouldn’t rest until all the developmental boxes were ticked.
A friend’s mother once said to me that the hardest of babies brought the most reward. At the time I wanted to slap her, but it turns out she was so very right.
Felix is almost 12 now. He still doesn’t need as much sleep as any of the other boys (we have four), and I’ve had to accept and make allowances for it. He’s a deep thinker, wise beyond his years, with a sophisticated sense of humour. Now he rocks my world, and I can’t help but wonder if our relationship is as tight as it is for all those nightly battle of wills.
So here I stand, a survivor, a parent of a NSS. You can do it, you will do it and you will be a stronger person and parent for it.
Did you have a non-sleeping screamer? Comment on the Essential Baby forums.