Throughout the nine months of my pregnancy Jon and I were warned constantly by other parents to enjoy sleeping while we could. Many of our friends even suggested that we stock up on sleep, as if it were something you could seal in a Ziploc bag and toss into the freezer, something you could warm up in the microwave and mix with a little creamer on the nights when the baby refuses to sleep. I’d really like to smack those parents right about now because not only was that particular piece of advice unsolicited, it also wasn’t helpful at all. You can’t store sleep in your jowls for the long winter ahead, so just stop patronizing soon-to-be parents with that absurd suggestion. Just say what you mean, which is Your life is going to be miserable and I will take great pleasure in seeing you squirm.
If there is one thing I would tell soon-to-be parents, one thing that no one ever took the time to tell me, one thing no book or doctor or nurse cared enough to tell me, it would be this: If you plan on breastfeeding your baby, the longest stretch of sleep you will ever get in the first month of your baby’s life will be four hours, and you will be very, very lucky if you can actually score four in a row. You will most likely sleep in two hour blocks at completely random times throughout the day. The best way to deal with this torture — and it is torture, the worst torture you will have ever endured — is to realize that this is just what evolution has produced. You have to look at it in the face and accept it, wholly and completely with every tired limb of your body. There really is no way to prepare for this, and the only way to find ANY comfort is to come to terms with the reality of it.
(note: It doesn’t matter if you pump or whether or not you have someone else take over a night feeding with a bottle, during the first month YOUR BOOBS WILL WAKE YOU UP after four hours.)
The last time I got more than four hours of sleep in a row was the second night in the hospital when the nurse took the baby to the nursery for the night. Since then the longest I have slept in one stretch is three hours, one lucky night a few weeks ago when Leta slept from 10 PM until 2 AM (it took me an hour to fall asleep). My complexion is terrifying and I could use the bags under my eyes to haul groceries, but I have to believe that living this way will not cause any permanent damage to my long-term health. It may, however, traumatize my baby as she will have to grow up with the ugliest mom in the neighborhood.
Please do not misinterpret this post as a plea for you to send me suggestions on how to sleep better. I have PLENTY of emails with ideas on how to get a better nights sleep, and I really appreciate your experience and your willingness to share with me what has worked for you. But here’s the deal: The deal is that when Leta was born all these maternal instincts were slammed into the ON position — the instinct to protect, to nourish, to comfort. And no matter where she is sleeping or pretending to sleep, whether it be in our bed, on top of me, in a bassinet beside the bed, or in her crib all the way over in her own room, I am having to re-train my body to sleep. My instincts tell me that when I sleep Unknown Things happen, and my body totally resists the urge to fall asleep. Instinctually I am listening for the sound of her breathing or to the sound of her swallowing, and if those noises sound okay then I’m listening to the sounds of the house to make sure monsters don’t come out of the walls to hurt her.
I have every reason to believe that this instinct will become numb with subsequent children, but Leta is my first-born, and I have no idea how to turn it off. She may sleep for four hours at night, but I will only get two of those four hours because it takes me an hour to fall asleep, and I instinctually wake up an hour before she starts crying. Am I torturing myself? Probably, but I don’t know how not to. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this is that I don’t know how much longer this will continue. I can honestly say that I don’t expect to sleep in a full four hour stretch for at least another couple months, and by that time I may be such a lunatic that I will be crouched in a corner, drooling, scratching sores that don’t exist, mumbling to myself What was so wrong with our old life that we had to go and do THIS to it?
I am writing this right now instead of sleeping because I know that once I put my head down and get to a point that I might doze, Leta will wake up and I will have to fight that doze and it will hurt. I hate that dozing hurt. It’s the worst hurt, a very hurtful hurt. So I’m sitting here writing this and hoping that someone out there who is expecting her first child might read this and three weeks after her baby is born when she’s gone 50 hours without sleeping she’ll think about this post and remember that someone else has gone through the exact same thing, and that the only way to get through another wakeful hour is to just accept it. Swallow it. Spread some butter on it and lick your fingers. It’s just the way it is.