Change your expectations, not your baby

By Justine van der Watt, Cherished Parenting Services

Almost from the moment someone finds out they’re pregnant they seem to be waiting for the next event – dating scan, anatomy scan, antenatal appointments, the birth. Then the baby is born and it becomes ‘when will the baby smile?’, ‘when will they roll over?’, ‘sit up?’, ‘crawl?’, ‘walk’, etc etc. It seems to be a life long list of milestones your baby has to meet.

Of course these are important – if your baby isn’t rolling over or sitting or standing by a certain age it can indicate an issue with their physical development. And if they don’t smile or babble then maybe there is something with their cognitive abilities that needs investigating. But one ‘issue’ or question that seems to come up time and time again, that may never have a ‘normal’ age of development, is sleep.

Yes, the big question of ‘when will my baby sleep through the night’….?!

I can remember asking this question when my daughter was about 8 weeks old. We had just started at a playgroup and the other babies were all about 4 months old. One of the first questions I was asked was ‘how does she sleep?’. I of course pulled a face and said ‘oh she still wakes up in the night! But she sleeps well during the day. When do they start sleeping through?’ I asked hopefully. One of the mothers said ‘my son started around 3 months, so you only have a few weeks to go’. ‘Great!’ I said.

But then 3 months came and went…6 months came and went….10 months, 12 months, 18 months!!! Still she didn’t sleep through the night. But for some reason by about 6 months I had become so accustomed to waking up in the night that I never really thought about trying to stop it. She slept in her cot next to my bed, if she woke up I’d give her milk or a bit of a pat and she’d go back to sleep.

Before having my daughter I had done a lot of research on co-sleeping. Having traveled so much I knew this was ‘normal’ in a lot of communities, but as a nurse and midwife I had been told that bed sharing was too dangerous and under no circumstances were we to encourage it or allow it. So we compromised with the cot next to the bed.

Through my reading I also learned that it is biologically normal for babies to wake up in the night – it might even be protective. Breastmilk is digested quite quickly (it has a half life of about 45mins, compared to 90mins for formula) and they only have small stomachs. This means they have to be fed often. For the first 6 weeks most breastfeeding text books will say between 8 and 16 feeds/24hrs is ‘normal’ and that the average is 10.6 times. But it depends on what you call a ‘feed’ – sometimes they may just want a few sucks, like you might want a sip of water. Other times they want a full meal.

But I digress….

In my reading I have been unable to find any good quality information that says a baby HAS to be sleeping through the night by a particular age…..

I want you to have a think for a minute – do you ever wake up in the night? If you do, what do you do? Check the clock or window to see if its time to get up yet? Maybe you get up and go to the toilet? Do you have a drink of water?

If you don’t ever wake up in the night then ask your partner if they do or your friends – I can guarantee you’ll find someone who still wakes up in the night.

Now think of your baby and imagine them waking up in the night…. Maybe they think ‘hmm where did everyone go?’, or ‘I could really do with a drink’, or ‘my nappy is wet and uncomfortable’. But they can’t get up to go get a drink or go change their nappy by themselves…..that’s what you are there for. Maybe they don’t need a drink or food, maybe they just don’t understand that its night time and everyone wants to sleep, they’re scared, so they cry out.

In our society we seem to be under the impression that when a baby is born they are suddenly an independent being – they should sleep in a cot, in a separate room, in the dark, by themselves…but think about where they have been since conception…inside their mother, in the warmth, with a heartbeat and voices surrounding them 24/7....

Yes, there will be babies who sleep through the night, or who will sleep quite happily by themselves, in their own room. My point is if you don’t get one of those babies – don’t stress! There’s nothing wrong with them, they are just them.

And yes, sleep deprivation can be a real issue and sometimes some babies go the opposite way and wake up excessively in the night or don’t nap well. Seeking help should never be frowned upon, that is not what I am saying - in fact, that is exactly my point....

When I started my midwifery training I meet women who would tell me that their mothers or mothers-in-law were coming to stay with them for 6 weeks. The grandmothers would be doing the cooking and cleaning, she would care for the new mother while the new mother's only job was to rest, eat, and feed the baby.

My initial reaction to this was 'What?! How lazy! Having a new baby isn't that hard, she's a grown woman and can look after herself!' (Let's keep in mind that this was before I had a baby myself.)

Then I had a baby and it dawned on me - they weren't lazy, I was mad! Having a new baby is hard work, it is a 24/7 job. My Mum helped as much as she could but after 2 weeks off work she had to go back. My partner went back to work after the first week and was often gone for 12hrs a day.

And so I was left alone with this small baby who had the power to prevent me from sleeping, eating, or even going to the toilet when I wanted.

But the other issue was that I had was this expectation of myself that I should be able to go out. I should be able to go the shops, to play groups, to the beach or the park. But the simple fact was that sometimes I couldn't. Sometimes I was just too tired to even get dressed!

Now I come back to my point about this being a cultural thing. In other cultures they recognise that new babies are small and can't look after themselves. And they recognise that new mothers need just as much care as the new babies. This is why their mothers or mothers-in-law come to stay.

There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to care for a new mother. But unfortunately we seem to have forgotten about this. Having someone around for the first 6 weeks, to even 3 months, could be life changing.

I have had a few mothers say to me (and I know I did this myself quite a few times) "sometimes I just go for a 30min drive so that I can get away for a while" or "I volunteer to go to the shops, just to have a break". And there is nothing wrong with this, but they often say with a guilty tone....you shouldn't feel guilty for asking for a break! It should just be offered willingly.

Postnatal depression is at an all time high (the latest statistic is that 1 in 4 mothers will display symptoms at some point in the first few months) - I honestly believe that this is due, at least in part, to the lack of support some women have to endure. I wonder what the rates are amongst more 'traditional' societies where help is offered and accepted without question....

So what is the solution? If you are a new mother ask for help - and don't be ashamed about doing it. If you are reading this before your baby is born - set up supports if possible. Know where to get help before you actually need If you have no close friends or family nearby ask your local child health nurse about mother's groups, find out about breastfeeding groups (like the ABA and Le Leche League), research postnatal doulas. If you are a new grandparent or other family member- offer your help willingly and without blame. If you are a friend and are going to visit a new mother and baby - offer to help do a chore before cooing over the new baby.

But, for new mothers, above all manage your expectations - its OK if you don't leave the house some days and you stay in your pajamas until 3pm, its OK if your baby doesn't sleep through the night, and it is OK to ask for help.

For help with breastfeeding consider seeing an IBCLC. Justine at Cherished Parenting Services is a midwife and IBCLC. She also has a newborn and breastfeeding class for during pregnancy, or maybe consider doing a HypnoBirthing course - www.cherishedparenting.com.au

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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