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Baby crying, mother in background

ParentsNovember 14, 2016

When you’re tired enough: on the hell of having a child who just won’t sleep

Baby crying, mother in background

‘A good mother would do this. A good mother would get her child sleeping through the night.’ Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes shares a wrenching account of life inside a chronically sleep-deprived household.

At night my home is a horror film.

Screams reverberate off the ceilings. There is no peace.

My son came into the world screaming and every night since he has screamed as if he is being forced into the world all over again.

During the day he is a mostly happy little boy whose hobbies include putting things on top of things, collecting shoes, giggling, cat chasing, and eating grapes.

But he will not sleep. Especially at night.

And every time he does fall asleep he wakes terrified. He screams for us, his little heart racing, his face washed with tears.

Every night we are wrenched awake up to 30 times a night by horrific, blood-curdling screams. It has been like this every night for 21 months.

The only times my husband and I get any sleep is if we sleep away from home. My husband’s mother’s house is our respite care. We take turns sleeping there every now and then, when we just can’t cope anymore. The soft pillows are a refuge from the horror down the road. We don’t think about the one left home, coping alone with our son’s wake-ups. It would be a waste of that person’s ordeal for the other to stay up anxious during this rare chance for sleep.

We pop a sleeping pill and black out until the morning.

Our eldest son also sees his nana’s house as an escape. After a particularly bad week of wake-ups from his brother he will tell her direct: I need a sleepover nana.

She has also taken the baby who will not sleep. The house felt so quiet without him. It was a delicious peek into a life that isn’t ours. A life where night time isn’t to be dreaded. The guilt that followed those feelings tears at my heart still.

Whether he is in bed with us or in his cot or on the floor on the mattress by his cot he screams in the same way.

We have seen sleep consultants, of course we have. They have sat in our lounge as we tried to explain the screaming. Here, we said each time, you’ll hear it in about five minutes. He wakes like clockwork.

On cue the screams filled the lounge through the baby monitor.

They’re always perplexed by the screaming.

Even when he’s in bed with you and you’re holding him he screams like that?

Yes. Even then. No matter where he is.

Pull his bedtime forward by half an hour. That’s about the only thing you can do as you’re doing everything else.

We did. It didn’t work.

Have you tried a chiropractor or an osteopath?

We tried the chiropractor. Five visits. It didn’t work.

We did not try the osteopath or the healing crystals though we did consider it. Which I think shows the desperation. We steadfastly refuse to consider whether past life trauma is behind the screaming.

Have you tried just telling him to go to sleep?

Yes. It doesn’t work.

We went back to the GP again and again and again. You don’t understand we said, pleading…

We are exhausted.


Help us.

The spiel is always the same. Babies don’t sleep. As if our problem is just not understanding this simple fact and adjusting our lives accordingly. As if we haven’t given up almost everything to function. As if our oldest son is an apparition and we are just first time parents who expected our baby to sleep through from six weeks old.

And even if that were the case – can’t we be treated with some empathy?

Believe us.

We are told to leave him to scream 7pm till 7am. Shut the door. Don’t go in. Put some towels in the cot for vomit. Bumpers for the crib if he bangs his head. This advice is repeated often.

Yeah, I’m not going to do that I say.

When you’re tired enough you will, the GP replies.

When you’re tired enough is the chorus that surrounds us constantly.

It is as relentless as the wake-ups in the night.

In another appointment I sob and fall over my words. I want to tell the GP about being too tired to drive now. About the blurry vision I’ve been getting. The headaches. My husband’s back. He is always sore.

She prescribes anti-depressants and I feel like a failure.

I am too tired to remember to take them anyway.

We are constantly told to leave him to cry as if this is The Answer. And we’re just too stupid to do it.

Smug faces spew out advice that we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Predatory sleep consultants want to be the ones that fix our child. They talk about him like he’s a dog that just needs the right trainer. Like he’s broken. When I turn them down gently their true colours show.

I guess you need material for your blog and if you got help for your child’s sleep then you wouldn’t have any.

The same sleep consultants post in mum groups encouraging people to train their three week old babies. They talk about “respecting” your baby by teaching them to sleep.

A good mother would do this. A good mother would get her child sleeping through the night.

Posts about sleep on Facebook make me cry. Inevitably someone always turns up to the conversation as the wise old parent who has been there and done that.

We left them to cry – if you’re tired enough you’ll do it.

The co-sleepers want to claim me though I hate co-sleeping and do it only by necessity. But at least they’re not as aggressive as the Cry it Out brigade. I feel more aligned with them though I don’t want to march under anybody’s flag.

A new study came out about sleep training. It was sent to me dozens of times. Shared all over Facebook. I commented on one post, something I know I shouldn’t do:

Unless you’re in it – you don’t really know what you’ll do. And what works for one child likely won’t work for another.

And then of course when you’re tired enough comes again.

I’ve developed a tremor in my hand. I’m told it relates to exhaustion. People see me and say you don’t look well.

Finally we get an appointment at the paediatrician. We get tests. It’s not behavioural. Meaning we haven’t caused this.

I feel like this should bring me relief. It’s what we have wanted to hear for so long because it’s such a tidy ‘fuck you’ to everyone who said when you’re tired enough.

But it means nothing, because they still don’t know how to get him to sleep.

We drug him under the orders of the paediatrician. For a blessed few days it works. Is this what life is like? Everything feels manageable. It’s beautiful. We chase ducks. We have energy. We smile more.

Colour comes back to our cheeks. I finally shake the cold I’ve had for months. It is glorious.

After four days he becomes immune to the medication and he continues to wake.

One night neither of us can physically get up. Suddenly the screaming stops and we hear crying.

I go into the room and my oldest son, just three years old, is standing on a chair he has pushed toward the cot.

He is holding tight to his brother over the bars of the cot. They cling to each other. Both are crying.

My oldest turns to me, shaking and unable to get the words out he says them with anger.

This is our baby.

He is furious and devastated. Fat tears are tumbling down his face and he puts out an angry hand at me swatting at the darkness

You are not kind

Our baby was crying


You are not kind

This is our baby

His words cut through. I lift our baby out of the cot and hold my boys on my lap. My oldest slowly stops shaking, his breathing calms, but he will not let go of his baby brother’s hand.

I’m sorry. Mama is just so tired. I couldn’t wake up. I’m just too tired.

They each lay their heads against my chest. Our heartbeats slow and join.

This is our baby.

It’s not going to change.

This is him. And we have to accept it.

We’re tired enough now.

This is it.

Emily Writes is editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out February 27. Pre-order it here. Follow her on Facebook here.

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