When I was pregnant with my first child, so many people told me to “sleep while you can” and once the baby comes, “sleep when the baby sleeps”. I’d nod and say something like, “Yes, for sure!”, but after a while it just became repetitive and basically the one big piece of advice anyone would give. I get it, I started to think… we will be tired. I’ve been tired before, we’ll be fine.
But, I didn’t get it. We would not be ‘tired’. Tired is a word reserved for how you feel on a Friday after a full week of work. Tired is what you are in your 20s after you stayed up until 3am and got up at 9am. Tired is a mild fatigue easily cured by sleep. And when you have a newborn, you are not ‘tired’. You are exhausted.
Ex. Haust. Ed.
You WISH you were ‘tired’. Cause you’re really beyond exhaustion, you are actually incredibly sleep deprived – and it affects you in everything you do. And once you feel that sleep deprivation, you understand why so many people tell you to sleep whenever you get even a small window to do so. Not only do you understand it, but you have to fight the urge to channel Billy Madison and grab both sides of someone’s face when they tell you they are expecting and tell them to, “Sleeeeep… sleep as loonnnng as you can!…. Cherish it!!”
But, you fight that urge, because no matter how many people say it, it’s hard to really comprehend the level of sleep deprivation until you are IN IT. It’s simply impossible to really convey just how exhausted you will be and just how many factors play a role in getting a good sleep. Now, I know this isn’t the case for EVERY family with a newborn, but if you were lucky enough to get lots of sleep in this stage, well, this post isn’t for you. And quit bragging.
What people don’t tell you is that even if the baby is asleep and you are exhausted, sleep may not easily come. That you might lie in bed, riddled with anxiety that if you fall asleep, something might happen. Or that you may lay in bed, staring at the bassinet, looking for the rise and fall from your baby’s chest to reassure you all is well. Or that you may finally drift off, but then be startled awake by a little exhale or grunt from your little newborn. Or that when you finally do feel like you’ve surrendered to sleep, their little squeaks and stirrings that then turn into hungry cries will enter your subconscious, blending in with your dreams to pull you awake, while so much of you is fighting it, begging you to stay asleep – because you’ve only just got there. But wake you will, of course, and then battle that drowsiness as you go through the motions of feeding, changing, burping, and rocking the baby, day in, day out, night in, night out, in a repetitive cycle that’s reminiscent of Groundhog Day.
With my first two daughters, I always got up in the night on my own because I was nursing. I was usually careful not to wake my husband, Travis, while he slept. He didn’t need to get up, so why should he? And then he could be fully rested and ready to take the baby after their earliest wake up so that I could go back to sleep for an hour or so. It worked for us. But, there were nights when through the lens of bitter exhaustion, I would stare at him with a mixture of jealousy and disdain as he let out a content snore while I was up for the fifth time feeding… and maybe I wasn’t so careful to be quiet. I didn’t purposefully throw things at him and say, “Oh, you’re up!” like Harry does to Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber, but some nights I was definitely tempted. Cause no, my babies were not what you’d call ‘good’ sleepers. And well, sometimes it’s true… misery likes company (and by ‘misery’ I am referring to the lack of sleep, not spending time with my beautiful babies – I love that part).
With my first, I remember waking up anywhere from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours after putting her back down. I remember experiencing low lows as I rocked her, wondering if I would ever, ever sleep well again. I remember blinking back tears when I was out for coffee with some other moms, and they were talking about how their baby woke up a lot the night before. Finally, someone else who gets it, I thought. Someone to commiserate with who understands what I’m going through. But ‘a lot’ ended up being once or twice, after they had slept a five hour stretch. (And trust me, I am not begrudging anyone for complaining about lack of sleep, no matter how few or how many times you were up – it’s not a competition!). But, my heart fell upon hearing this and I knew I couldn’t hide my eyes widening in disbelief. A five hour stretch was a pipe dream for me. It was winning Set For Life. It was the moon.
I remember it all. The sleepless nights. The brain fog. The forgetfulness. So, if nothing else, when it came for round number three, I knew what to expect. My husband on the other hand? Not so much. I tried to give him some credit when talking to others and say he got up a few times with me during the other baby stages, but he always interjects, “No, I didn’t. Not at all.” Once the toddler stage came on the other hand, he definitely put some time in on our daughter’s floors on a pillow bed or was the first one up when they got up way too early. But, he still completed a few REM cycles a night! Something I could only dream of (but, not REALLY dream of). All this to say, when we found out we were having twins, we realized his days of escaping the sleep deprivation that comes with all night feeds… were over.
I mean I’d be lying if I didn’t say a small part of me didn’t feel a little happy to have someone really going through it with me. To help me feel not so alone. Cause let me tell ya – it’s hell. I mean there’s a reason sleep deprivation is an actual form of torture!
For the first couple months, the twins had to feed every two hours, even during the night. They were born at 36 weeks and weighed 5lb 12oz and 5lb 10oz. Because of their early birth, low weight, and some low blood sugars, they were started on formula right away. I had exclusively breastfed my others, so this was new to me. That is a whole other story, but basically for that first while I was in a special state of feeding hell that included a combination of pumping, bottled formula, and nursing. So the feeds took.. a long time. In the very early days, I’d wake up 20 minutes before the two hour mark, pump milk, divide that into two bottles, then wake up Trav. We’d each have a baby, feed them their bottle of pumped milk, then they’d get their ‘top up’ bottle of formula. Then we’d burp, change diapers, and hold them upright for 15-20 minutes before laying them back down in their bassinets. Usually, when I stole a glance at the clock I’d be lucky to have 30 minutes before I’d have to get up again (and 50 minutes before he’d have to get up). I mean I know you can all tell time and do the math but basically if I was able to go to bed right after all the kids were asleep and got up at 10, 12, 2, 4, and 6, I was really only getting around 2.5 – 3 hours of nonconsecutive sleep a night, and Trav was getting just over 4 hours.
Not. Great. The other factor is that we were rarely able to snag any naps during the day. We tried to sneak them in when we could, but it was mid summer with our other children at home, so…. Yeah. And this was every night, for at least two months. After that, the babies started to get up every three hours, and then eventually had some longer stretches. So to say we were sleep deprived is pretty accurate. You could even say the Young’s were restless. The Young’s were very restless.
Again, for me, I was on auto pilot. I knew it would eventually end. I went through the motions and tried to soak up the newborn smell as much as I could. Although I was still very anxious, I was so beyond exhausted that I literally fell asleep as soon as the babies were back in their bassinets or cribs and as my body fell into the bed. There were no thoughts. I was lucky if I got between the blankets sometimes.
For Trav, it was a whole new ball game. In the hospital, we had the nurses checking the babies frequently, bringing us formula, and waking me up to pump if I slept through my alarm. Or sometimes, waking me up to STOP pumping. That’s how I know I was really more than tired – cause being hooked up to a double breast pump isn’t exactly… comfortable. If you can sleep through that? Ouch.
So, at the hospital, we always had reinforcements. You could feel the support and the diffusion of responsibility. I mean yes, we are their parents, we are responsible for them, but we knew we had helpful and watchful eyes to help keep them safe. The nurses even took over the formula feeds a couple nights when I was in rough shape (again, another story for another day). But once we left, we knew it was all on us. No one would be making sure we got up – except the babies of course. Yes, they would certainly let us know if they were hungry. If you think it’s hard on the heart to listen to one baby cry, just try to imagine two. Luckily, somehow our timing has worked in our favour and there were only a few times that both babies were in a full on meltdown. It only needs to happen once to make you work very hard to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We both survived the 8 night hospital stay because we actually could sleep when the babies slept – even if for only a small amount of time. Our older children were staying with my parents, and even with Travis being able to leave to see them daily, he would still manage at least one nap.
But, once we got home, well, there were rarely naps. I mean, it’s all a blur in hindsight of course, and I know there were some naps, but I would say very, very few. Once I moved away from pumping and was able to drop that step of the feeding, and we moved to concentrated formula for top up, our routine switched up a little. As soon as my alarm went off or a baby started to stir, I’d get up with that baby and start nursing them. I was only ever able to produce enough milk for one baby, not two, so we continued supplementing with formula which definitely added a layer of inconvenience (making formula, sterilizing bottles, warming bottles). I’d nudge Travis to go get the bottles ready, which entailed going and grabbing two premade bottles from the fridge and sticking them in the bottle warmer and bringing them up. Then, when he returned, he would feed that first baby the top up and I would nurse the second baby, then give them their bottle before changing their diapers and burping. We got into a good little routine – as good as it can be for getting up every 2 (and eventually 3) hours. Some nights we’d sit side by side silently, with the glare of our phones lighting the room and helping to keep us awake. But scrolling your phone isn’t exactly exciting and we needed something to keep us awake, so we started turning the TV on during some wake ups. Other times, it just wasn’t worth it. I usually kept a snack and lots of water on my bedside table because I’d have to keep my calories up, and that usually helped wake me up. But Travis wasn’t having any snacks.. and he was having a hard time fully waking up.
In early days, when we kept the ready feed formula and bottles upstairs for quick access, he would come around to my side of the bed to get a baby from me or bring the other baby to me. Let me preface these stories by saying he has given me permission, and even encouragement, to do so. One time I woke him up and he came around the bed and sat down. I was just sitting up, feeding, trying to stay awake… we weren’t talking. I kept wondering what he was doing, and he was holding his arms in a weird way. I tried not to get annoyed (because patience is thin at 3am). What was he doing? Why wasn’t he getting up? I finally caved, and asked slowly, “What are you doing?” He looked down into his arms, and then jolted up – “Huh? I… I don’t know…! Ugh.. I thought I had the baby already!” He had been sitting there, bouncing a non existent baby in his arms for several minutes. Oops.
Other time, he was standing over the foot of the bed, clawing at it slowly. I kept watching him, again, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt… but eventually I couldn’t hold back anymore and asked, “What are you DOING?!” Exasperated, he said, “I’m trying to pick up the baby!” To which I replied, “The BABY is IN THE CRIB!!” and he quickly realized why, in his mind, he was having trouble picking the baby off the bed: it wasn’t a baby. It was a pillow. He was trying to pick up a pillow. At least he wasn’t trying to feed it a bottle – we’ve got enough laundry to do.
Of course, along with these vague midnight memories, he was also sleep walking through the day – we both were. Sleep deprivation puts you in a semi permanent fog. But once Trav started having to walk downstairs to get bottles, he said it helped wake him up a bit. The few minutes he spent waiting for the bottles to warm could be spent using the bathroom or getting a drink. But, apparently that wakeful feeling only lasted so long.
One night, I woke him up, same as usual. He jumped up and headed downstairs. I was sitting up in bed, leaning against the wall, feeding one of the twins. I could hear him downstairs puttering. Time went by… it had to be 15-20 minutes. I was wondering what on earth he was doing but time is also tricky when you’re in that state. It just seemed like a long time. The way our second floor is arranged, when you go up the stairs and turn right, you go right into our bedroom. And the bed is facing our bedroom door. So, I was facing the bedroom door, and had full view as he rounded the top of the stairs holding something in his right hand. Of course, we tried to keep as many lights out as we could, so I could just see his silhouette backlit from the hall light. I could also see the shape of a low, wide bowl of something that he was balancing up in the air, the way a server might bring out a tray of drinks. But, Travis has never worked in a restaurant a day in his life. There was a split second when I felt a twinge of excitement and thought, “What is he bringing me?” For some reason, I thought he had been down there making me some special snack or something (don’t judge me, nursing moms are famished most of the time). He came in the room, stopped a couple feet from me, and then slowly reached up with his left hand like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I watched with amused anticipation. But, there was no rabbit,…nope. Instead, he picked something up by the stem, and then very carefully and slowly he placed it on my nightstand, as if presenting me with room service. It was when the object was ‘hovering’ about mid air that I realized what it was and started to form my now familiar question.
Beside our fridge (and the bottle warmer), we have a large pasta bowl that we use as a fruit bowl. About a week earlier, my dad, a produce farmer, had brought over some items. I don’t remember specifically, but I’m sure it was the usual: cucumbers, peppers, and this time, an oddly shaped “patty pan” squash. Their oval, orange, unusual appearance leads them to also be called, “flying saucer squash”. Neat. Well, for reasons we’ll never know, THAT is what my sleepy husband presented to me, one September night, in the wee hours of the morning. You can’t say his gifts aren’t unique.
I looked at him with incredulity and said once again, “WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING?!”
He looked at his hand, still touching the squash on my nightstand, then at the fruit bowl he was balancing up in the air, and shook his head – hard. “What?… I donno! I’m an idiot!” (his exact words) and he quickly grabbed the squash and bolted back downstairs. I mean, I don’t even know how to react to that one. I sat there, shaking my head and laughing in that kind of low, embarrassed giggle that you are trying to suppress at inappropriate times. But, I mean, this was just too good. When he came back, I reminded him the babies weren’t eating solids yet, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Tears were streaming down my exhausted face, and he just kept shaking his head. The greatest mystery to us is what he was doing downstairs for the 20 minutes before that. He had no recollection. I had heard him walking around, opening the fridge… I mean at what point did he reach out and grab the fruit bowl to bring it up instead of a couple bottles? Then, this wasn’t even an isolated incident, as the next night he brought me a half eaten apple my daughter had left on the counter (I know I said I was always hungry but I do prefer whole apples) – but at least that time he remembered the bottles. I found the apple on my nightstand the next morning and in a cruel form of continuous confusion, stared at it, perplexed. Did I eat that? Did I put that there?
We can laugh about this now, but honestly, it’s also a little scary! When you’re that sleep deprived, in that kind of a fog where you are basically sleep walking, and can’t remember your movements, it IS a little freaky. The truth is, when you’re up for the fourth time feeding a baby, you’re awake but you’re not truly awake… the states of sleep and wakefulness blend together like an unenjoyable intoxication. You’re aware of what’s going on, but there’s a part of you that is still asleep, still dreaming. It’s like you’re in a place of no return, trying to claw yourself out of a deep hole to some form of alertness. Little snippets sneak into your head, like the eerie theme music from The White Lotus that you were attempting to watch during the last feed. It mixes with random thoughts and as your head gets heavier and drops down lower and lower to your chest, you snap it back up while hearing the little boy from Jerry Maguire say, “the human head weighs 8 pounds!”.
It’s intoxicating in the most dangerous way, because you have to fight your way past it, force yourself to stand up, wake up, so you can take care of your baby. It’s terrifying because you know you’re exhausted and the crazy things you do while sleep deprived are funny – until something bad happens. And with two babies to keep track of instead of one and two older kids sleeping in the next room, sometimes you don’t trust your own brain. Did I leave water in the tub? Was that light green or red? Why can’t I say the word ‘potato’? Throw in the worry of falling asleep with the baby in your arms and some nightmares about waking up with the baby stuck in the sheets and you’ve got yourself in a state. When you really count up the minutes of sleep you are running on, it starts to make sense why your head is always pounding and you forgot picture retake day. Your brain is working overtime – on less.
Now, at just over four months old, the twins are sleeping well enough that I am back to waking alone, but not as frequently, and Trav is *usually* getting a full nights sleep. I’m happy for him. Really!…..Or maybe, *usually*.
As I sit here holding a sleeping baby over my shoulder, writing in yet another attempt to stay awake in the middle of the night, with the print coming in and out of focus – picking up on different thoughts here and there and realizing my eyes shut a little too long last time – I can’t help but yearn for the nights that will come with minimal interruptions to my sleep. Where the biggest interruption is hearing a thump, followed by fast little feet running into our bedroom and squeezing their way in between us. But that means wishing it all away, and I don’t want that. I want to remember every moment, even the really hard ones.
So I’ll somehow revel in this sleepless state, as torturous as it is, as long as it goes on, because it’ll be my last…
…at least until the teenage years.