Between a Baby and a Brick Wall: What Nobody Told Me About Sleep

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The baby shower was beautiful. The nursery was polished. The diapers were neatly stacked. I was sure that I was ready. Until I got home with her.

That tiny, fragile creature in my arms was the most precious work I had ever accomplished and I was in awe that my heart could still beat while it now lived outside my body. Even though I loved her fiercely, I was afraid of her. Or rather, I was afraid that somehow there had been a divine mistake and that this perfect being had been sent to a novice such as myself in error. This delicate flower was meant to bloom in a more experienced gardner’s Eden.

Afraid to put her down, I held her while she slept and I breathed in her scent. I held her while I fixed a snack. I held her close to me while we both struggled through breastfeeding. I held her while we ventured out into the wiles of my sleepy neighborhood for a short walk. I held her until my arms grew strong enough to not shake after hours of swaying.

The nurses had told me to sleep when she slept, so I did. With my tiny Rachel on my chest. For nine months this pattern continued. I grew more confident in motherhood. I came to accept that what I so desperately wanted to be true, WAS true. She had been sent to me, I was intended to be her mother. There had been no divine dice roll.

It was safe now to relax a little. However,  when I tried to lay her down in her crib once she fell asleep, she would rouse and demand to be held again. In fact, she would demand that I hold her through her entire nap, or overnight. And not just hold her, but breathe onto her face. And she needed to wind her hands into my hair. She would only sleep for 15-30 minutes at a time, day or night. This was completely exhausting. I was between a baby and a brick wall.

What I needed was a postpartum doula. What I got, was a visiting doctor.

We had gone to the 9 month well baby visit for Rachel’s usual visit, but instead of seeing her regular pediatrician, we saw a visiting physician. Dr. Knowl had never asked about sleep, and I was too exhausted to think of mentioning it. Ironic, isn’t it. But this angel doctor, who we only met for 15 minutes and then never saw again, was aware.

She looked at me, not at Rachel. She commanded, “Tell me how sleep looks. Describe a typical day and night for me.” So I burst into tears and poured out my frustrating sleep situation. She listened and then said, “You need to teach her how to sleep. Here’s how you do it.” Then she handed me an info sheet and walked away, never to be seen again.

She might as well have handed me the Holy Grail. I clutched that single paper the whole drive home then devoured every word on it. It listed the “typical” sleep milestones at different ages and listed various methods for gently helping baby to establish comforting sleep patterns. I tried some and abandoned them. I tried others and altered them. I kept going back to the now crumpled, torn, stained paper as though it was my lifeline to sanity. And it was.

Eventually we found a strategy that worked for all of us, and in the process we found ourselves as mother and daughter. The resentment that had started to build was now washed away. Had I known then, that a postpartum doula could have held my hand through that process, could have seen firsthand what was happening and which strategies would have worked, I could have saved 8 months of frustration and exhaustion.

I’ll never get back the 8 months of rest and peaceful mother-daughter bonding that might have been. But now, I am in a position to share that same lifeline with other mothers. Mothers bear a tremendous responsibility; but you don’t have to do it alone. That’s what we’re here for.