Our journey through no sleep, bad sleep, terrible sleep, desperate sleep and beyond…
Anyone that follows me on Instagram knows the trials we’ve been having with sleep, certainly since well before Christmas, but really since the twins were born. That’s almost seven months of no sleep. Before the twins were born I was reassured by the fact that I didn’t need my sleep and that this would help get me through. And to some extent, for first three months, it did. I could cope with one and two hour blocks of sleep initially because I wasn’t doing much in the day except feeding and cuddling my snoozy babies.
Then, as the three month mark hit and the build up to Christmas began, things changed and the sleep slowly got worse and worse. By the 2 January I was sharing the twins’ waking schedule on social media in desperation for something – sympathy, advice, help, reassurance. I don’t know. Seeing it written down in stark black and white should have been enough impetus to do something, but we were still convinced if we could just change something, keep going, try harder that the sleep would get better. But it didn’t.
We debated formula and expressed milk endlessly, I beat myself up constantly about not making enough milk for my boys, we worried they were hungry, we tried changing their naps, introducing ‘Desperation Porridge’, put lavender in the bath, put lavender in their diffuser, music on, white noise, total darkness, nightlights, bath by candlelight, had appointments with health visitors, doctors, a cranial osteopath; we slept in bed with them, in the nursery with them, separated them into different rooms, put them in cots, Moses Baskets, Sleepyheads, bedside cribs and so on. One night it would be Felix screaming and waking constantly, the next night, Monty. I got more and more tired, I could feel the thin layer of my patience wearing down and down. R and I got to the point where we couldn’t say a nice word to each other. Every morning, which started really at around 5am, I would sit in the darkness and sob, feeling totally unable to face what the day ahead held for us. Elsa started to wake in the night and come up to us, disturbed by all the screaming and yelling – and it wasn’t just from the twins. One morning I remember waking up feeling as if I’d just been into battle – I was asleep with Monty in our bed, Elsa was asleep on a single bed in the twins room, Felix was in a cot somewhere and R was asleep in Elsa’s room. I still haven’t worked out exactly what shenanigans went on that we ended up in such an odd set up, but this was what our nights had become – the desperate circling around our house of crazy people in the darkness, accompanied by screaming, ending up crashed out wherever we could lay our heads.
At several points along this sleep-hell people have kindly suggested sleep training. I always resisted. I have never believed in crying it out, or leaving babies alone in the dark, crying and crying, thinking no-one is coming. I think Gina Ford was monstrous for some of the problems she gave to breastfeeding mothers and small babies. I don’t believe that children should sleep through the night within a matter of weeks. I don’t ever want my babies to think that if they need me, I won’t come. I have always tried to be a gentle, attachment parent whose prioritises love and kindness over discipline and behaviour, and I have always tried to make decisions that put my child first, not me. But – there are some other things I believe too. I don’t believe that living with two parents who are constantly yelling at each other is good for children. I don’t believe a four year old child should become the brunt of her mother’s exhausted rage. I also don’t believe that a four year doesn’t still need her mother to be there with patience and warmth and time. I don’t believe that small babies should be cared for by someone who is so tired she has almost lost interest in them. Or screams at them when they grizzle because the last shreds of her patience vanished long ago, sometime in January, one night, around 4am. I don’t believe that the stresses babies put on a marriage are always temporary – continued stress, biting, snipping, yelling at each other can take its toll. I don’t believe that a support network of kind and generous people who give up their time to try and help should always be rewarded with bitterness and temper.
I remember a friend said me during this time: “You keep going, until you don’t. Everyone has a point where they either realised they’ve survived it when they thought they couldn’t, or they’ve decided this was the time to do something to fix it. Either way, you’ll get there, you’ll know when your tipping point is.” There are mothers who have kept going beyond this point, there are families of twins who are still talking about horrible sleep at 10, 11, 14 months, there are people who co-sleep and bedshare for years and are happy. And there is the lady I remember from a twin forum whose post on her twins first birthday nearly broke my heart: “It’s the twins first birthday,” she wrote. “I should feel happy and amazed by our journey so far. But I don’t. I just feel angry. I feel angry because I don’t remember anything from the last 12 months. I have been tired and fed up and angry for a year now. I don’t remember anything about the twins being small, being babies, being little. And now they are one and everything is different.” I never want to get to a year and feel like this. Much of the past six months have been a blur, I have wished time away that I will never get back, and in wishing it, I have missed things. I have missed cute smiles, little giggles, cuddles, joy, moments of learning and bonding. I have missed them because I was so tired, so angry, so overwhelmed.
And so, with all this weighing on our minds, we decided to go down the sleep trainer route. We picked someone recommended separately by two friends, and someone who described her methods as gentle. She had lots of suggestions, mostly centred around a solid daytime routine with regular feeds, and some things to try at night. We didn’t just go with everything she said, cold turkey, straight away. We tried to introduce things slowly over a couple of weeks and it has made for a gentler process. So, for a two hour Skype session, this is what we took away and what has helped us. (Please note: This was advice, specifically for us, tailored to twin boys at seven months old and designed to fit in with what we felt comfortable with and what we didn’t. Some of this may work for you, some of it may not, but where you’re not sure, please seek actual professional advice.)
- From six months, babies sleep much better on their front: This has been really vital. Monty sleeps on his front anyway, but Felix was always a back or side sleeper, turning him onto his front had an almost instant effect. And he now snuggles down into his cot and goes to sleep quietly and happily. (Please Note: I am aware of the advice on front and back sleeping for infants, you must make your own choice on this.)
- Something to Cuddle: Introducing a cuddly toy now is a really good way to give babies something to hold onto and use as a comfort when they need it. We used two soft cuddly Jellycat lions the twins were given as presents. This toy should never leave the cot and should eventually become something with strong sleep associations for them. It also helps with…..
- …Ditching Dummies: The sleep trainer advised that if you are taking something away, you should replace it with something. Remove the dummy, replace with a cuddly toy. We weren’t prepared to go cold turkey. So we kept the dummies at night initially, but introduced the cuddly toys as well. We then started getting rid of the dummies during the day, using them only for naps. It was SO much easier that I expected. Within two days the boys had no dummies at all during the day, and only had them for naps. About a week after introducing the cuddly toys, we decided to try without the dummies at night. We put the babies down with their usual bedtime routine (see below), cuddling their toys and I was amazed when Felix went straight to sleep without even a whimper. Monty complained a bit about it, but was also asleep within minutes. This has continued for the past four nights since we’ve done it, and their sleep throughout the night has improved demonstrably.
- Knowing their Cries: Crying is communicating, but this also means some of it isn’t a cry for help or attention, it’s just talking or sharing. Having twins means I am much better at interpreting their cries and knowing what is distress and what is not. We had a system of being there if they were really crying, rubbing their backs, tapping their bottoms, etc, and we never left them alone for this. (We have instinctively done this anyway, so it helped them to feel soothed when we did it). But we were also clear about knowing when the noises they were making were tired grizzles and not big cries. And waiting for the breaks in their grizzling , which was usually a sign that they were falling asleep.
- The Whole Drowsy Awake Thing: This is a tricky one – because my boys are twins, I haven’t had the luxury of feeding both of them to sleep all the time, so they have had to be able to sometimes fall asleep without me, and, both of them have, on occasion, gone into their cots wide awake, or drowsy, and gone to sleep all on their own. This made the transition of the new system – feed, put down awake, zip into grow bag, turn over onto tummy, put cuddly lion under their arm, kiss them, snuggle them, say goodnight, turn the light out and walk away – much easier. It is important, though, to note that they didn’t always go into their cots awake, now they do, and they do sleep better, and the shift to doing this really wasn’t as hard as I had expected it would be.
- Daytime Routine: This was the thing we spent the most time working on. It was a surprise to me, as I am kind of anti-routine, but twins are a different ballgame and a routine has also spelled sanity for me. The boys now breastfeed four hourly, have two regular naps a day (30-90 mins), though we do one of these naps in the pram still as I want the flexibility of being able to leave the house; they have three meals and bath/bedtime takes half an hour and starts at 6:30pm and ends at 7pm ish. It doesn’t leave much time for anything else this routine, but every day I’m finding it easier to be flexible, work within the routine, get out and about, and again, it’s really helped with the sleeping.
- Night Feeds: Perhaps the biggest shift has been the decision to introduce two nightly feeds only, dream feeds at two of the four hourly intervals – 10:30 and 2:30am. Any other times the boys cry they are soothed back to sleep without milk, but with cuddles or support from us. I wouldn’t have considered doing this before they were six months old, especially as they are twins, and on the small side anyway, but at seven months old they feel more ready for it. For the first few nights we did this, R kindly agreed to take the lions share of doing this, so I only woke for night feeds. It was amazing, We initially did this while they still had dummies, which meant the soothing back to sleep was easy and natural. By the time we’d ditched the dummies and were waiting for them to settle themselves a little more, they were used to the new routine and took to it much more quickly than we had anticipated. Just a few days after ditching the dummies, and we’ve had a couple of all night sleeps, only being woken to feed.
And that’s it. I can’t say this isn’t without its blips and that it hasn’t been hard at times, it has. But it has never felt cruel, or harsh or too challenging. I was always clear I would stop if I didn’t feel it was right, and would have no hard limits about not doing what the boys needed. (Case in point, today, because I think he is teething, Monty had a dummy for a nap in his pram – he was exhausted, and sad and not himself, he needed something extra to make him feel cosy and sleepy. I think it was worth it, and I’d do it again if he needed it.) For now, things feel like they’re on more of an even keel. It’s still hard, but the glimmers of light are getting bigger.
If you want to speak to our sleep trainer, you can find more info here.