Us too

My son doesn’t fall asleep.

He crashes. Furiously. Ferociously.

Sometimes the journey to bed is calmer than other nights. He angrily asserts that he doesn’t want to sleep. His words are MAMA, DADDA, EDDIE, MINE and he yells them one after the other. I wish we could understand him. There’s a gulf between us at bedtime. And even holding him close to my chest I feel as if there’s water between us.

He dips and falls in his cot – holding his arms up reaching for us if we put him down. We respond with love. We quietly and evenly tell him he must sleep.

A shower.




A routine to the minute. We keep time and the clock holds all of the hopes for the night as well as signalling that there’s just so many open hours ahead of us.

Most nights it is a thrashing chaos. I hold my hand on his belly and shush him. I sing softly. I hold him in the chair – wedged into the corner of his tiny room. I lay on the mattress by his cot – with my hand through the bars, stroking his hair.

The mattress lives in the room by necessity. Sometimes we are so exhausted we fall asleep seconds after he does.

He cries. He screams. He coos.

My husband starts the first shift, then I’ll take over. Sometimes one of us has enough fortitude to give the other the night “off”. We’re quite equal – he seems to have no preference. He’ll drag either of us into the night. It makes little difference which one of us has to squeeze our eyes tight against tears in the dark.

When his breathing calms and I can feel his chest rising he is Schrödinger’s baby. In the dark I don’t know if he’s awake or asleep. I have to time my exit perfectly. If he’s awake and I leave I’ll have to start over. But I despair at spending more time than I need to in the tiny room of no sleep.

I think of all of the things I need to do. I become more frustrated as another half hour passes. Forty minutes. An hour. I try to swallow down and shake away the feeling that I have so much to do. I have to be here. This is where I need to be. But I don’t want to be here.

And then I think – what parent thinks that?

I feel guilt in treacherous waves. It feels like tempting fate to say I don’t want to be in this room of no sleep. The reason why we don’t voice our darkest parental frustrations is surely tied to the depth of our love for our children. What if I said something – that I didn’t want this? And what if? What if by some terrible cosmic force my beloved child was taken from me?

I touch a button when I see an ambulance. Keep the souls safe.

I am a sceptic, an atheist, and terribly superstitious.

After my baby was born I never stopped knocking on wood. The tap, tap, tap is my life now. The soundtrack to Life Parenting With An Anxious mind.

How could I live? How could I live without my baby? How could I live knowing he ever had a moment when I didn’t surround him by love? Even all the endless hours at night that he keeps us awake. All of those fucking terrible hours.

If I ever said the words what if somebody heard? What if something greater mistook the words for a wish? And they didn’t know that I just meant in that moment. That I just meant I’M TIRED. Please, I’m so very tired.

At my beloved aunt’s unveiling there was a haka. Beautiful and devastating. A powerful grief exploding. So fitting for a woman who was loved by so many. She wasn’t my real aunty. She was my husband’s. But I adored her and she loved me too. Really.

I miss her like we all miss the people who we imagined rocking our babies. Before you carried your baby you imagined a photo and they were in it and now you’re here and they’re not. And sometimes that seems absurd but it’s so ordinary – that sadness. The worst thing is how used to it you get, you shouldn’t get used to someone being gone forever.

During the haka I became overcome with emotion. I began to sob and I looked around me at the trees gently swaying in the wind. A kaumātua leaned over, I suppose wanting to help one of the few pākehā in attendance – he said, that’s our tīpuna, the ancestors, the family who were there before, they’ve come here for us. They’ve been called. And they’re all around us.

I felt like I was surrounded by love and I’ve felt that since.

I’ve felt it in the room of no sleep.

Sometimes I cry in the dark with my baby. After an exhausting day, after the night before of no sleep and no sleep before that and no sleep coming – I feel so overwhelmed and hollow.

I cry holding my baby’s hand through the bars of the cot. Imprisoned by the absence of sleep.

And then I’m calmed as he is.

I feel that feeling again.

I wonder if it’s all the love that we send each other at night.

The mamas all around the world who are so tired. Their backs sore from rocking their baby. Their throats raw from singing and shushing and a cold that never quite goes away because their immunity is shot from never sleeping. Their eyes red and sore. A dull throbbing headache. An aching neck. A longing for quiet and rest.

I think of them when I try to soothe my baby who won’t be soothed. I look past the curtains and picture Te Marama. And other mothers looking there too.

An invisible thread tying us together in this shared experience.

There’s a level of exhaustion that some mothers experience that cannot compare to anything else. It is expected and understood by most that babies are not great sleepers.

But at some point there stops being sympathy for mothers and fathers whose children don’t sleep. As if there must be some explanation. The rules haven’t been followed. It has to be someone’s fault. You just have to do the right thing.

Some mothers with children who sleep give advice on how to get your child to sleep. As if you haven’t tried everything already.

I met a mother once who said her baby slept and she didn’t know why. It was just luck she said. And she’d never ever give advice because who knows what makes a baby sleep?

I laughed and then began to cry. Big fat tears filled with relief. “Oh my gosh, what’s wrong with me?” I laughed again and coughed and sobbed. She pulled me into her arms – “It’s OK. You don’t have to be sorry,” she said.

Relief. Relief in the silence rather than the advice. The stupid advice.

You need to leave them to cry. They say. I did. They say. It only took three days to get them sleeping through the night.

You need to co-sleep. They say. That’s what I did. They say. It’s the easiest way to get them to sleep.

You need a routine. They say. The same bed time every night no matter what.

You need to look for tired signs. They say. They’ll rub their eyes and when they do – put them to sleep.

They need to be in the cot and you need to leave them and check every eight minutes, then every ten then every fifteen.

Don’t rock them to sleep. Just put them straight down.

Don’t hold them. Don’t make eye contact.

Don’t talk. Don’t sing.

They need to know bed time means bed time.

They say and they say and they say and I just watch their mouth moving as their voice becomes a hum as I hear the same words and I feel so tired.

They speak with such authority and it’s so tiring.

And each line is delivered as if it’s wisdom.

And if you react the way you want to with rolled eyes and say – our babies are different, I do have a routine. I’ve had one since he was four months old. I know what tired signs are – he’s my second child. I co-sleep. I have tried not holding him. I’ve tried no eye contact. I’ve tried everything there is. Maybe your child just isn’t mine.

Maybe children are all different just like adults are. And maybe my child is just like me. I can’t sleep. I lay in bed at night and count and then I think about the numbers and the sounds of the words that make the number and I think and I think and I think and all the thinking leads me to places that I don’t want to go to and I’ve always been that way.

Even as a child?

Maybe I’m not doing anything wrong.

Maybe this is just how it is.

And sometimes they’ll make comments like – well, when you’re tired enough you’ll change your mind. Or – I had to, I was so tired I was going crazy.

As if you’re not. As if you just have to reach some point where you say oh golly, I am tired! I’ll just try the newest sleep fad and I’m sure it will work because it worked for you. It’ll be just like a switch I flick. Once I’m tired enough.

And I start to feel so angry and frustrated and I want to scream and cry and I want to switch off all the noise. I’d rather be in a room with a screaming baby than listen to another person tell me how to get my child to sleep as if they know anything at all.

As if it’s not a cosmic joke which babies sleep and which ones don’t.

And then I feel calm. And I feel them.

The mums with the babies who don’t sleep. Who never give stupid advice. Who never assume you’re just not doing it right. Who never say when you’re tired enough you’ll do this.

They just smile and say – yeah. Solidarity. Mine is three. And she hasn’t slept through yet. Or – just – I’m so tired too. What I wouldn’t give for sleep!

And I feel safe with them. Like I don’t have to explain myself. Or lie. I don’t feel shit around them. I feel at peace.

My people. My mums. The mums like me.

The mothers of the never-sleepers who every night go to their rooms of no sleep.

I hope they feel the invisible thread.

I hope they see the moon too and know we are there. Us too.


26 Comments on “Us too

  1. My first baby was such a good sleeper. What a great mum I was! Then my second arrived. Ha. Haha. It had nothing to do with me.

  2. Hey mama, I’m one! My darling 20 month old still wakes every hour. I have crises of confidence every time someone says ‘is she still not sleeping? Toddlers need to sleep!’ But then read something reassuring like this post, and remember how happy and bright my daughter is, and I make peace with it again. Thank you for sharing your writing, it is a gift for mothers. Yours in solidarity.

  3. I’ve had six children. Two slept through the night from three months old. Two didn’t sleep through the night until two years old. One still doesn’t sleep well at eight. One slept through from 10 months. They are all different. All kids are different. It’s completely luck if they do or not. You said on the radio that it feels like it’s your job as a parent to create the ideal scenario for sleep, and after that it’s up to the baby. That is so true. My mother had 14 children and she used to say the same. All babies are different! Just like adults! When people suggest otherwise they’re hurting mothers and they’re hurting babies. The sleep industry scares me. This idea that it’s always the mother’s fault if a child won’t sleep is so pervasive and it’s so damaging. People need to stop. But too much money is being made for this to ever stop – sleep consultants and sleep experts and all of the products you need to get your child to sleep wouldn’t exist if we accepted some babies sleep and some don’t and there’s no reason for it. Thank you for a beautiful post.

  4. I feel as though every one of your thoughts has been a thought in my mind too. I loved reading this, I was in tears, I felt every single moment of it like it was yesterday. And now my little one is 4 and still needs a lot of help to go to sleep and stay asleep and people look at me like I’m crazy or it’s my fault and give me that raised eyebrow look and I just think – you don’t know my child. Thank you for your honest and real posts. They keep me soldiering on.

  5. Every time I read I think this time. This time, this post is your best, the most eloquent, the one that speaks straight to the core of it. But this time Emily. This time. I am so tired. I am so tired alongside you. Thank you. Again.

  6. I’m a mum of a 7 and 11 yr old and I’m in near tears of trying to get them to sleep . I feel your pain , Emily . Luckily,these nights are far and few between , but I’m catapulted back into those hell times when I existed as a zombie , feeling exactly that mix of guilt at wanting to leave the room of no sleep and terrified I have ignited a doom upon my child by feeling that way . Truth is – I still feel that . I’m not entirely sure it ever ends . There is hope, Emily – they will eventually sleep but then they will become teenagers and stay out late and once again we will be awake , worrying .

  7. Thank you for this. I feel that my lack of sleep has turned me into someone I don’t want to be. I am normally such a happy person and I always thought I would be this playful happy mother with lots of patience and tolerance. And every night I’m saying to myself that tomorrow I’m gonna do so much better at mothering if I only get some sleep. And me and my husband never used to fight, now we even fight in the middle of the night only because one of us offered help to the other….

  8. When people ask me if my bub sleeps ( 2 nd baby 6 mo) I say “god know – I don’t breed babies that sleep – smile- then shrug n say ” sleep comes”
    Im bone tired , exhausted but know that sleep does come but in the mean time I’m going to gaze at this beautiful face and absorb their innocence and love.
    Time will fly and soon they will be gone and I with miss this beautiful tiny person in my arms who refuses to be put down. Yes I’m tired good god am I tired but who cares it’s not forever right!

  9. There are THREE YEAR OLDS who have never slept through??? Oh no no no I can’t do this for another two years, when will I get some sleep?? 🙁 🙁 🙁

  10. Wow. What a post.

    I’m too tired to properly explain how much I needed this, today. 🙂


  11. This, so much this! It’s like the crying that “they” say you will figure out whether it’s a hungry cry or a lonely cry or a pain cry. Nope. Never figured it out. Just went through a checklist each time to see 1) diaper change? 2) food/bottle? 3) cuddle? 4) something else omg what else is it rack my brain until the baby just settles for no apparent reason?

    I know advice can grate but I think sometimes other mothers are not judging so much as they remember being desperate and someone else giving them a suggestion that they tried and it worked. Or at least, when I give advice it’s never “oh just do this and everything is fine and if it’s not fine then you’re a terrible person.” It’s more like “oh I have known that bone deep desperation of trying so many things and I hope perhaps this piece of advice helps you in some way because I would hate to hold the key to solving your parenting crisis and not at least offer it to you if no one else has.” That being said, I try not to offer advice unless asked because I know how it can come across.

    Being a parent is so so hard. There really is no manual and you fly by the seat of your pants and hope it all turns out okay. I wish more parents came out the other side with compassion for other parents.

  12. My daughter is very good at fighting sleep. She eats well, grows well, is healthy, energetic, friendly, happy, inquisitive, funny… if I had to choose out of all of those things and sleeping one thing for her to struggle with, it would probably be sleep – but her acing all of them would have been OK too! I love her, I’m proud of her, I enjoy her… but I still miss sleeping for most of most nights! The husband sleeps solidly and I don’t, and when she’s tired it’s mummy (and milk) that she wants, so the days she decides should start at stupid o’clock (1:30 am Thursday last week… she had an hour’s nap at 7:30 am and a half hour’s nap at 6:15 pm, and this is a toddler who doesn’t usually nap… but pretty certain that adds up to a lot less sleep than she should get!) are all on me…

    Also I have a concussion at present and it’s making me feel sleepy. It’s also gone midnight and the toddler’s still awake.

  13. When I got pregnant with my second child, we let our oldest cry. I was exhausted and couldn’t think of any other way anymore. I hid in the garden and cried almost as much as he did. It was just terrible and I still feel guilty for doing that to him. Falling asleep got easier that way, but he still didn’t sleep through the night most of the time. I would never advise it. My second one was a great sleeper, until the day I had to go back to work when she was 3,5 months old. I worked on nights with 4 or 5 hours of sleep (with lots of intermissions) for months. I did everything on autopilot and neither me nor my husband has made a lot of memories of her first 18 months. It’s all a bit of a blur. She was almost 3 when she started to sleep through the night more than once a month… Oh well, they are 4 and 6 now, and there a only a couple of nights a week left that get interrupted.

    For all the parents who are so exhausted: hang in there! There is no miracle method, there is no right way. Just hang in there, this too shall pass one day. You just have to make it there, one day at a time…

    When the youngest hits puberty I hope we can all just stay in bed and sleep until noon. So the future is bright 😉

  14. Oh man this makes me so sad. When you show your baby/toddler/kid how you want them to sleep, it’s like you’re asking them to do it. And when, for whatever reason they can’t or won’t, they can’t understand it, but they are choosing or expressing their need for you to parent a certain way during the night. And that means you will be exhausted during the day, and you will not be able to be the cool, fun, happy, patient mum you dream of being. And that is the sad bit for me. You can’t do both. If you have a terrible sleeper, and you are exhausted with sleep deprivation, and you are night after night trying to gently help your child sleep, mourn the loss of your chance to be an awesome day parent, but don’t feel guilty about it. You and your child and family are not getting the support you need. It’s not your fault. And if you can muster the energy, get radical and creative with how you manage. Maybe put your kid in daycare earlier or more often than you would otherwise like, and get some extra sleep then. That might buy you enough energy to get some other good ideas for how to get through – it’s so hard to think clearly when you are exhausted. We can’t fulfill all the parenting ideals all by ourselves in our little nuclear families, let alone solo parents. It seems crazy in our privileged lives that as parents we so often have to accept that just fulfilling the basics must suffice because actually, our society is not centred around what is best for our most vulnerable members or what is best for families.

  15. Oh emily. It’s so tough. I have twin girls who refused to sleep… Until about 18 months. And then, they just did. And I am so grateful.

    Being tired is hard enough without feeling that it’s somehow something you’ve done…or not done.

    It’s the luck of the draw.

    I hope you get a dose of luck soon xx

  16. This article has made me feel so empowered by my experience. Every word so exactly describes my life my thoughts and my hopes. This morning I feel so in love is my son and with our journey together.

  17. Its so good to know i’m not alone, am so fed of people advising CIO but then ive been so sleep deprived ive consider paying a maternity nurse to sleep train my son.
    Some days are awful and i make mistakes at work and start the day at 4am crying cos im so tired.
    I was a sh*t sleeper i didnt sleep through the night till I was 4 so its prob just karma!

    Sleepy dust to all!

  18. This post is hard to comment to, as it is sooo ON for me. I have a 10 month old boy, my second reflux baby, and sleep deprivation has been and is the single hardest aspect of parenting for me. I don’t know what I might be like as a mum if I was clocking up more z’s. What a wonderful post Emily. Last night after reading it was easier for me, as I thought of all your other commenters, and yourself, and the many other non-sleeping mamas there must be out there. I couldn’t see the moon but it didn’t matter, I just didn’t feel so alone as I often do, as if the whole world is asleep other than us. I also didn’t just jump straight to”what am I doing wrong to cause all this distressed waking in my son?” I just accepted it. Thanks x

  19. My baby slept perfectly. One wake up at 4:30am for a feed, then we all slept in til 8. Until one day, even though nothing had changed, he didn’t. And now we are on hourly wake ups, co-sleeping out of necessity as it maximises sleep, and trying to not worry about the dishes/the broken sleep/the large amount of work emails I’ve been ignoring.

    It’s hard. It’s so hard. Made worst by sleep consultants that prey on vulnerable new mums & make them blame themselves. Some babies don’t sleep well, just like some adults don’t (that would be me too). Mums need naps, mums need to know they are doing a kick ass job, and mums need someone to make sure there is always coffee in the house. Mums don’t need advice on what worked for your best friends neighbours daughter in law.

    Loved this blog post. So well written it made me tear up – not out of desperation or frustration, but because it was so nice to read something from someone that gets it. Love your work.

  20. OMG! This is the most beautiful and devastating piece of writing on parents of non-sleepers that I have ever read! I cried and I cried and I cried as each poignant line resonated with my very core. Stay strong mama warrior. We’re out there. More of us, like you, in that room of no sleep. Thank you for these words. These words that simply get it. May sleep come to your home soon. Soon. Very very soon. xxxx

  21. Thank you. Just thank you for letting me read this today. I needed this.

  22. Another non-sleeping mama here. My four and a half year old is just starting to sleep through after waking every two hours til he was at least two and a half and I have a 15 month old still waking every hour (every two on a good night). It’s a lottery. But oh so nice to read this and “feel” the others out there on those lonely nights!

  23. Thank you for this article. It resonated enormously with me. I’ve never read anything that describes what I went through until now. I read it carefully, had a big, big cry and now I’ll share it with my husband. It’s lovely to be past this time and to know that at the time I did what I could and gave all the love I had to our cheeky, wakeful monkey. So glad he sleeps now though! They don’t stay young for ever (regrettably and thankfully)…

  24. I couldn’t of read this at a better time! My first baby now 3 never slept throughout the night until he was 18months old and even then it wasn’t ever consistent. When I found out I was pregnant with my second I thought of the hell I went through with him because of “all the things I did wrong feeding to sleep,rocking,co sleeping ect” and I vowed I wouldn’t do it with this baby. When she was 8weeks old I started teaching her to self settle by controlled crying. And guess what… she learnt how to self settle perfectly for every nap and night time sleep but by 7months would still only sleep 30min naps and wake constantly at night. So even though this time i had done everything ‘right’ she still just doesnt sleep and i think that just goes to show there is no right or wrong!! I now co sleep with her and rock her to sleep because she actually sleeps better! When she is rocked. This post was amazing it is so good to know there are other mama’s out there going through the same thing. But one day they do grow up and they do sleep as my son has taught me and it’s given me hope for this wee girl. In the mean time I will soak up every tired night of sleepy cuddles with her while she’s little because they really do grow to fast!