January 2011 Archives

The thing everyone says to new parents is "So, how's the lack of sleep?". This is particularly common from those all-knowing parents who've had 12 kids already and all sleep in a big family bed, and indeed talk about sleep patterns on the Internet does often veer alarmingly into attachment parenting and co-sleeping. However, we're bad parents and Sophie still needs to be bottle fed anyway so this kind of slightly scary familial utopia is beyond us.

What has made it work for us so far is wildly different circadian rhythms. Years ago I'd happily stay up until 4 in the morning playing with computers then crash for a few hours, but now even on days when I don't have work in the morning I'm still happier being in bed before midnight. This is probably due to the conditioning effect of working day jobs for the last 15 years. Sure, I can still stay up all night if needed, but by and large, yeah, reasonably early nights please. I can even do a reasonable impression of a morning person at times. What I also am, though, is a light sleeper - I'm easily awoken, so the first baby whimpers will have me out of bed even if she was just making a passing remark about the weather and is in fact still fast asleep.

Tara, on the other hand, is an academic through and through. When she doesn't have any fixed morning commitments she'll happily stay up working long into the small hours before sleeping until midday. And when she's sleeping, she sleeps soundly and doesn't wake up for trivialities. If Sophie starts actually crying, she'll be there like a shot, but the usual gurgles and whimpers don't disturb her.

Sophie seems to be more like her father. The current regime she's imposed on us is a feed in the late evenings, then sleep, then a feed sometime around the 2:30-4 mark when she wakes up, then sleep until she wakes up again around 7. This is as close to sleeping through the night as you can expect a month-old baby to get - two solid lumps of 5 hours or thereabouts if we're lucky. I am certain she'll change the rules on us sometime, but we're definitely fortunate to not have her waking up every 2 or 3 hours angrily demanding milk.

What this means is that at least for the time being, we can operate quite a reasonable shift system. Tara takes care of business until going to bed at 4 or (hopefully) earlier if Sophie's had the small-hours feed and is settled, and I take over from there for the morning having hopefully got a good chunk of sleep already. I'm sometimes sleeping on the futon in my study just to make sure of not being woken up by the gurgles. We're both bleary-eyed, but less so than if we were both the sort of people who just have to be in bed by 11 and sleep for eight hours. It's going to be interesting when Tara is at home by herself with Sophie in the daytime as I need to go back to work, but we'll work something out.

The one weird thing is the way in which the quality of my sleep has been affected. I guess it's something to do with an instinctive "is the baby OK?" thing, but I often wake up tense, covered in sweat and with my heart racing. At other times my sleep is shallow and punctuated by vivid dreams. The dreams aren't always pleasant - I woke abruptly at 6 in the morning yesterday from a dream about Social Services taking the baby away (they have no reason to do so in reality, I assure you) and had a minor panic attack which was possibly exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that Tara had got out of bed a while before and so wasn't there. I assumed Social Services had taken her along.

In the very first week after Sophie came home I was stressed enough as to hardly sleep at all. Even when ordered to go and sleep because I was useless otherwise I'd just lie down, close my eyes and not be able to get my brain to shut up. Everything was flashing through there - fragments of songs, random thoughts, hallucinatory flashes before the eyes, you name it. If I dropped off to sleep it would be shallow and fleeting, punctuated with unpleasantly vivid dreams which shocked me back awake again in a shaky, sweaty state. Once the rest of me calmed down over the first couple of weeks my sleep did too, but I've been left understanding how some people might just choose to avoid sleep rather than have that sort of experience.

Still. All going well, in a few months reasonably regular sleep will return. And then we, too, can start making those nostalgic noises at other new parents-to-be about "how those first weeks are so magical", before cackling evilly and running away.

I've been meaning to write something on the subject of having become a parent before As anyone who's ever done so can confirm, though, becoming a parent itself tends to drive other stuff out of your mind for at least the first few weeks. Our daughter Sophie is now four weeks old, having been born at 2:15 in the morning on December the 9th after a lightning-fast labour that surprised everyone involved. One of the most surprised people was Sophie's father, who nearly missed the birth of his daughter by nipping out for a pee. We're getting used to having her around, and she's getting used to being around. The world is clearly still a place with which she's not entirely impressed, though - she has to use her digestive system now, for instance, which regularly causes her to howl with anguish for the lost days in the womb when it was all taken care of for her.

It's a total cliche to say that nothing can quite prepare you for the first week or two at home with your first baby. It's also absolutely true. A newborn baby is driven pretty much by their brain stem alone - it's instinct, instinct, instinct and it's at least a few weeks before the frazzled parents get rewarded with the first coos, gurgles and smiles that suggest there might be an intelligent life form in there after all. Mix into this the stress of disrupted sleep, not having time sometimes for even basic things like showering and eating, and trying to sort out breastfeeding and it's understandable that many parents don't feel they are bonding properly with their newborn and wondering why the hell they got themselves into this. A lot of romantic twaddle has been written on the subject of the first weeks of parenting. I suspect it's been written by people who either haven't had children or who had theirs long enough ago that they're looking back through a nostalgic haze and have forgotten the shattered nights, colicky screaming sessions and utter frustration of the novice parent.

New babies start developing slowly. It takes them some time even to get back to their birth weight, as they lose weight in the first couple of days after birth. The pace of development does pick up, though, I'm assured - they pile on weight and grow and guzzle more milk and grow more and pile on more weight. They start responding more consistently to the world around them, and generally start being fun to be around. Compared to other mammals our newborn young are remarkably helpless and physically undeveloped and remain so for a long time after birth. It's all a tradeoff, though. So much energy and effort is going into maintaining and developing the amazing large brain which makes them human that other stuff has to take a back seat.

This is why I was delighted to realise that Sophie had been born very close to the winter solstice. There's a nice little parallel between the shortest, darkest days of the year and the first days of a newborn baby's life. As the days pass after the solstice they start to get longer, and after a couple of months they're stretching out rapidly as sun and life returns to the world. In the same way, the first days of a newborn show little development or wakefulness, but little by little, starting slowly but then speeding up, they come alive, grow and start to look at the world around them. And once they start doing that, there's no stopping them.

Winter has its charms, but we're all looking forward to spring.

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