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Learning to Love Nighttime Parenting

shutterstock_72557686By Jean Merrill, Maryland

As mothers, we know what it feels like to be woken yet again by our babies at 4 a.m., realizing that the last sweet hours of restful darkness are almost over. This wake-up call is especially excruciating when we recall that we haven’t slept longer than a 45-minute stretch all night or even all week! Still, we haul ourselves out of bed, and with bleary eyes pull our babies in close and offer the breast again. We smell the intoxicating baby scent and feel the weighty warmth of their tiny bodies, and our weary hearts melt despite our bodily exhaustion.

Before becoming parents, we are warned about sleepless nights. We hear the phrase “your baby will nurse eight to 12 times a day” so many times that it becomes a recording that our brain flippantly dismisses. The reality of what these words mean are lost on us until we are drenched in the exhaustive sea of the experience. That bone-tired-slightly-crazed fatigue can’t be forewarned, nor perhaps, should it. We might scare off all future parents.

In the early weeks, a community of extended family and friends comes to us.  They bring food and might even assist with errands and chores. It is all too easy to take this early help for granted; we are still intoxicated by early motherhood and eager to show off the masterpiece we have been growing for nine months.  By about week four, the all-consuming business of new motherhood is no longer as enthralling. It is exhausting. Baby is at the breast constantly—all day and all night—and we have yet to sleep like we did before baby arrived. The reality sets in that there is no pause button; there will be no vacation. It is at this point that the utter desperation hits; new coping techniques have to be learned—and fast.

shutterstock_75258274Where do we find these coping techniques? Turning to a resource like Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West, Linda J. Smith, and Teresa Pitman has given hope to many, many tired parents and, as the title suggests, has helped mothers and fathers to learn to love nighttime parenting. Many new (and not-so-new!) parents find it helpful to shift their assumptions about their expectations concerning sleep. Before we welcome a newborn into our lives, we feel entitled to a full night of sleep. Coming to the understanding that those expectations need to change takes some letting go. We learn that it’s best to abandon the resentment and focus on how to keep on keeping on. Amazingly, once we are able to shift the spotlight from the amount of sleep we aren’t getting, we might just find ourselves sleeping much more soundly and feeling more rested. Removing the anxiety about it allows the sleep we do get to be better quality, and, importantly, remembering to sleep when the baby sleeps (and really do it) helps to fill in the gaps. These changes help us to focus on the quiet hours spent with our unbelievably wonderful babies—in our arms and at our breasts—where we continue to nurture a new little person.

Many mothers find that once they are able to shift expectations about sleep, they find themselves much more open to nighttime mothering. In those quiet, dark hours, the lack of distraction is actually quite calming and refreshing.  Baby’s needs tend to be simple: to be held and fed. Mothers are experts at both of those things, and the ability to so completely meet the needs of our amazing baby is profoundly satisfying. We think of all of the other parents that are up with their babies at the very same middle-of-the night moment and take comfort in the thought of each of us cradling our babies in the dark of our homes, together in shared experience. Rather than feeling isolated and exhausted, we feel connected to the other tired mothers that are awake. The cycle of nighttime parenting is as old as motherhood itself and is a common experience to every mother throughout time. I enjoyed feeling connected to my own mother, who with tenderness and love met my nighttime needs just as I met the needs of my own babies.

261653 ML Algebra1 2007So, to all of the tired mothers out there, breathe in and breathe out. These days are intense but short lived. Both you and baby will both be sleeping more soundly before long. For now, rest when you can. Cuddle your babies, nurse them, love them, mother them no matter what time the clock says. The lovely baby you rock tonight someday may have the opportunity to be gazing at the stars while holding a sweet baby of her own. She will be thinking of, and appreciating, you.