Sweet dreams, little one

Nights are tough, of course. Sleep has been our biggest challenge , but that’s hardly saying anything groundbreaking is it?

Now nearly 5 months in, I finally feel like we are coming out of the other end of the tunnel. I look back at what I wrote nearly three months ago, and realise things have actually gotten easier, although at the time it felt like it may never end. But of course it doesn’t end. I know I know. Being a parent is a never ending journey of torment and suffering, with brief intervals of joy scattered on the way to keep you going; a parent’s favourite sentence starts with ‘wait until..’ followed by whatever makes the current complaint insignificant in comparison.

But here I am, as a new mother, looking back at the past few months, it feels like a lifetime has gone by.

After the euphoria of bringing a new baby home had subsided (or overtaken by the haziness of sleep deprivation), I had dreaded the nights. It felt like endless torture. Night after night, she would cry what felt like every 10 minutes, I had tried everything I could think of to soothe her, rocking, patting, holding, bouncing, walking, everything worked until I stopped. I would nurse her to sleep, then force my eyes open for fear of causing her harm, she would cry and cry and I would eventually give in. Sometimes after hours of trying to soothe her, all I could do was to sit there, staring at a bright red screaming baby in my arms, feeling completely defeated.

Both David and I have demanding jobs. Long hours and sleepless nights weren’t anything new to us. Plus the last three months of pregnancy had prepared me for fragmented sleep, or so I thought. That’s why it was somewhat surprising for me to realise just how different real sleep deprivation felt like. How quickly our energy reserve was depleted, and how utterly drained and helpless I had felt at some particularly low points.

By the time she was about two months, we had tried different shift patterns and settled on something that both of us felt was sustainable. We would alternate shifts between us, swapping at 3,4 am each day. Whoever was on duty would be in the bedroom with her, and the other in the spare room. During the changeover, we would walk past each other silently, hardly exchanging a word or eye contact, no precious seconds of sleep wasted. There was no need either, we knew the drill by then — any important information would have been logged in our baby tracker app.

It was still tough, but I no longer felt like drowning. On a good night I even felt that I could probably live like this for the foreseeable future. So when I went into the bedroom at 3am, carrying all the bottles I needed for the night — one for feeding, one to collect letdown of breastmilk, one or two for pumping, and a huge water bottle to ease my unquenchable thirst (gifted by my friend who had it in her survival kit) — I didn’t dread it any more. I even looked forward to this moment. I would have been apart from her for nearly 8 hours, and I had missed her. Her little body would be twisting and turning in her bassinet, eyes open just a little and still too sleepy to cry. I would pick her up and hold her in my arms, my cheek against hers. I cherished that moment of reunion, breathing in her smell eagerly. She would entertain the cuddle for no more than a few seconds until she protested loudly out of hunger.

At this time of day she could only manage to keep her eyes open for a couple of minutes before she had to shut them. I would tickle behind her ears and pinch her cheeks to try to keep her awake during the feed. She would open her eyes just a tiny bit and sometimes all she could manage was a frown, but she would start to feed again for just a bit longer. Her tiny hands no longer held in permanent tight fists like in the early weeks, but would sometimes rest on my breast, fingers stretched out and lightly pressed against me, like a kitten kneading her mother’s breasts for milk.

I was usually very tired half way through the feed. To keep myself awake, I scrolled mindlessly on my phone just so my eyes stayed open. Every now and then I would become aware that I had been staring at my phone rather than my baby for the past 10 minutes, and felt a pang of guilt for not cherishing those precious intimate moments. She would often be asleep on my breast, like a little lamb, cosy and snuggly. But as soon as I took her off, she would wake, wriggle, protest and fight sleep.

One of those more challenging, but not atypical, nights, I was on the first shift. By 1am I had already been awake for two hours, having counted more than 10 times to get up to pop the dummy back in her mouth.

So many decisions needed to be made at that time of the night: How long do I wait until I give her the dummy (experts all say you have to wait to give the chance to learn to self soothe, even though it didn’t look like they were learning anything at all)? How long do I wait until I take away the dummy (experts also say that you must not let them sleep with the dummy, otherwise they would grow to completely rely on the dummy to fall back asleep, and that would be the end of us)? Do I feed her now, and if I do I will end up having to feed her again at 4am, which means I won’t get any sleep really; And if I feed her now do I use up the bottle or do I feed her on the breast? If I do breast, I won’t know how much she’s taking, but if bottle, I’ll have to pump… I lay awake in the dark, staring at the ceiling, unable to make any decisions.

She was finally quiet, dummy not in the mouth (success!), and I managed to take my finger out of her hand without waking her. I slowly rolled back to bed not making the slightest sound despite the white noise playing next to her bassinet. I put my headphones on to play white noise to myself and let out a small sigh of relief.

It took all but two minutes before she started to stir and cry again. Then I repeated the whole process.

Around 4am, she would start to grunt and whine loudly with a few occasional short sharp cries. If I had entered just the right level of depth in my sleep, some of the quieter noises would have been muffled by the white noise in my ears, so I could sleep a few more minutes. But the grunting would eventually turn into an unmissable loud cry. I rushed over to check on her. Her little body often wriggling like a worm, legs going up and down in her swaddle, arms already breaking out of the swaddle. Her eyes were still shut but she was clearly unhappy. Then I was back again soothing her until she calmed down and ready to fall back asleep. Sometimes I drifted off to sleep a bit, and woke minutes later to the crying wriggling little body next to me. I gave her the dummy, put my hand on her tummy, leaned over to shush her in her ear. We repeated this until it was time for her to get up.

It was exhausting, for sure. But I also cherished these nights with her, to be so close to her, and to feel her intense needs to be close to me. I already missed the days when we cuddled to sleep, her on my side or on my chest, little body finally relaxed against the warmth of my skin and the familiarity of my heartbeat. That was of course before I convinced myself, following all the sleep expert advice, that doing this was both deadly dangerous and morally wrong — establishing bad sleeping habits, jeopardising their ability to learn to be independent and possibly setting her down the wrong path for life. I allowed myself the rare treat every now and then, and brought her to bed with me when it was nearly time to wake up. She would still move around and wriggle but only just a tiny bit, enough to wake me but not herself. Through my half-open eyes, I looked at her face so close to me. She looked perfect. So peaceful and precious.

I started to understand that motherhood, parenthood, was a constant state of conflict and contradiction — I long to be with her when I’m not, I dread the sleepless nights with her yet I miss her when I struggle to fall asleep in the quiet spare room; I couldn’t wait for time to go faster so she would be less fragile and more independent, yet I mourn for the lost days when she couldn’t be separate from me for a minute. But whether we like it or not we had to let go a little bit of her every day. Soon she was not falling asleep on our chests any more, and she preferred to be in her bed in the dark. We got to stare at the monitor screen instead, watching her little belly going up and down, with Ewan the Sheep, the white noise machine, hung above her head, two bright big eyes watching over her.

Now nearly 5 months later, some changes have settled in our new life. It has become second nature to us to avoid specific spots where the floor boards creaked, carefully shifting weight forward releasing every inch of our feet in a slow motion. We learned to use a gentle scraping motion when serving food at dinner, and always open a soda can slowly to let the air out quietly. We always catch the deliveroo driver before they have a chance to knock. And our cats have finally learned to not jump on us all night when we are sleeping on the living room sofa.

As I go through the mundane repetition of our daily routine, folding tiny clothes, sterilising the bottles, feeding, burping, changing nappies, same walk around the same park, days turning into nights in the blink of an eye, time sneaking away from me so quietly that I barely noticed, I would sometimes wake momentarily from this trance, and notice that she was no longer that tiny wrinkly creature that came out of me on the hospital floor. She was already an entirely separate being from me, a perfect little human grown somewhere else and just happen to be in our house right now. I miss her tinier self, from a month ago, from a couple of weeks ago. Only the photos confirmed that she did once sleep on my chest for hours on end, yet I am already losing the memory of the weightlessness of her tiny body, and the sweetness of her smell in those early days.

For the first 2 months of her life, she had always been very sleepy in the morning when I fed her. She would keep her eyes firmly closed, sometimes drifting off to sleep, sometimes protesting loudly if I tried to burp her. One morning, she paused from feeding, looked up at me and smiled. Her smiles were already conscious and responsive, so I knew it was for me. That moment I felt so privileged, that whatever I was doing, whatever we have given her, was not worth this precious, purest, and uncompleted love she gave me.

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May Li

May Li

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