In search of sleep

 I am in my third trimester sitting in a hospital lecture theatre enduring a spiel on the ‘joys’ of labour when the truth is revealed in 3D horror. The educator stands before us and sadistically pulls a large doll through the entrance of a very small tight sock. "This" she demonstrates dramatically "is what the birthing process is like". I slap my hand over my eyes, groan and slide my heavily pregnant body down into the chair. Next we are shown epidural needles, forceps, and a graphic birth video.

Just when I think it can’t get any worse the torture continues. "On day two" whispers the educator "babies begin to recover from the labour process and wake up. They are hungry and need to be fed constantly… this can last for 24 hours!"

I feel frantic. As if the upcoming birth wasn’t enough, I am a 9 hour girl and need my sleep. How will I cope having to feed a baby for 24 hours straight? My husband squeezes my hand. "Don't worry" Harry reassures me, "It will only be for a day".

And thus, as we enter parenthood our ignorance borders on lunacy.

For us, parenthood begins with an all night labour that sees me craving sleep from the start. By day I know I should be resting but the urge to stand and gaze at our new baby is overpowering, and by night I am up every three hours feeding. Then, when we return home I break the first rule of 'Staying Sane with a Newborn' and try to get things done during our daughter's naps.

In the first few hazy weeks we err on the side of craziness and decide to buy our beach side apartment, so between breastfeeds, changing nappies and settling an ever awake baby I negotiate deals with real estate agents and solicitors. Our sleep deprivation is so acute neither of us have a clue what is going on outside our bubble. One night over dinner I casually mention Australia has a new Prime Minister. "Who?" Harry demands incredulously.

"The third month is the turning point" states my cousin emphatically. "The baby will start sleeping through". I hold this assurance tight like a shipwrecked refugee clutching onto a life boat. I am at sea; tired, lost and afraid of drowning. Over the ensuing weeks I wait… and wait. Our baby not only refuses to sleep through, she slides backwards and by the time we hit the four month mark Daisy reverts to newborn sleeping habits and is waking four times each night.


My husband retreats to the sofa to escape the incessant nightly activity that pervades the bedroom. I am either stumbling out of bed, clawing my way back into bed, or moaning in desperation as our baby calls for room service. I visit Karitane, a daily sleep school where they identify the problem is Daisy's inability to self settle. I meet a lovely nurse called Kate who explains the baby should be placed in the cot wide awake so she can learn the art of putting herself to sleep. Ah ha!

Kate then demonstrates. She begins by placing an alert Daisy in the cot and informs me my first error has been to try and rock her to sleep. She then places a firm hand on the baby's tummy accompanied by lots of "shhhhhhhing". Daisy looks up at Kate and laughs. Kate urges me to leave the room and we stand at the door listening to the theatrics that begin to take place. My instinct is to step inside and comfort Daisy but Kate holds me back. "Not yet" she instructs and we continue to hover. After ten minutes of antics we enter the room to an apparently distressed baby, only to have her laugh the minute she spots us. Damn!

I slink home from the sleep and settling school armed with a list of instructions. I type them out then plaster them up onto the wall for my husband and I to follow like sleep school zealots. I become committed to finding the solution to finding us more sleep. Obsessed, even. I buy several sleep books, devise daily routines and devote myself to The Cause. I take the baby on 2 hour long walks, introduce solids, visit the baby chiropractor (to ensure everything is perfectly aligned) and pamper Daisy with nightly lullabies and massages.

Despite our best efforts we continue to be woken up four times a night and I begin to fret. 'How long will this go on for?' There is a baby the same age as ours next door and another downstairs, and both have been sleeping through the night for months. I am so tired I have a relentless unshakeable headache and my husband leaves for work each morning looking like trash. We need a miracle!

Soon after Harry arrives home with some enlightening news; A girl at his work has returned from a Fijian getaway with night nannies for $2.50 an hour. The following morning I email our travel agent. "Can you book us a trip to Fiji?" I plead.

A couple of weeks later we arrive at Wananavu, a natural Fijian retreat 2 and a half hours north of Nadi airport. We are introduced to our nanny Kelera who swoops 5 month old Daisy up in a warm and motherly embrace. "Do you have any kids of your own?" I venture. "Yes, three boys" answers Kelera in her soft and melodic Fijian accent. My husband I move into a beachside bure and book the adjacent one for Daisy and her new nanny. They are close enough for us to hear them but far away enough for us to relish in some much needed r&r time.

Over the course of the following week, Harry and I enjoy date nights while our nanny feeds and settles Daisy to sleep. We bask in our bure savouring uninterrupted nights of sleep whilst we hear Kelera singing Fijian lullabies at 2, 4 and 5 am.

After nine nights of the good life we return home and it is sobering to find myself on night duty again. Several weeks later I am completely zombified and desperate for some respite. I call Kate from Karitane explaining I don't know how much longer I can endure such chronic and relentless sleep deprivation. Kate realises the situation has become critical and promises to organise us a residency spot.

A few weeks later I joyously enter the pearly gates of Karitane Residential Clinic. Once admitted I am introduced to the nurses and pediatrician and shown around the facility. A dual access nursery adjoins my room which allows the nurses to settle Daisy if needed. We spend the first day unpacking and becoming accustomed to our surrounds then on day two the fun begins. After breakfast I join the other mothers in a communal play room filled with colourful toys, a childcare worker and piped kiddy music.

To my relief the other intakes look as war torn as I do and we begin to share our stories. An attractive finance executive with twins tells us she waits on her verandah for her young male next door neighbour to arrive home each afternoon. "I invite him in for a cup of tea" she confides "then I hand him a baby."  Pauline, a heavily pregnant muslim woman with a two year old says she hasn't slept through the night since her toddler was born, and a striking woman with five children says she often has regular memory lapses because her brain is so fried. We all agree mother's group is too hard 'when yours is the only baby that doesn't sleep.’

After play time I carry Daisy to her new nursery accompanied by a reassuring nurse called Janet. Janet instructs me to offer Daisy her dummy, place her in the cot, give a few reassuring pats and then exit the room calmly. Together Janet and I hover outside Daisy's room listening intently to the squeals emanating from the nursery. The trick is knowing which cries to go in for and which ones to ignore. Apparently plain old grizzling is okay but when the cry escalates in pitch and volume it's time to go in, give a few reassuring pats through the bars of the cot, then exit again once the baby is calm.

  "Being calm, confident and consistent is key" says Janet reassuringly. After 15 minutes of listening and re-entering the nursery twice Daisy is asleep and I am ecstatic! That evening we repeat the process and within twenty minutes Daisy is down. She wakes a couple of times through the night but I am told to allow her to self settle — and she does! The following night a lovely nurse called Kim leads Harry through the process, educating him on the various cries. Within twenty minutes Daisy is asleep and Harry and I have our first full night of sleep together in months.

Three nights later I jubilantly exit the doors of Karitane. Alas, our run of 11 hour sleeps is fleeting as Daisy catches a virus and begins calling for room service hourly. After that she learns to pull herself up in the cot, is unable to get herself down and I am summonsed several times a night to rescue the standing baby.

Eventually things settle down; Daisy learns to plonk herself onto her bottom and I buy her a sleeping bag to alleviate the temptation to stand. But despite eradicating the night feeds and teaching Daisy to self settle I still find myself up several times a night crawling around her darkened bedroom searching for the wanton dummy.

When Daisy is eight months old I happily accept a writing job and then am then forced to withdraw a few weeks later. I admit my brain is so tired I struggle to complete my normal tasks yet alone indulge my passion to write. Additionally my vision of typing happily away whilst my baby sits contently beside me is shattered when Daisy demands equal rights to the key board.

I discover the motherhood gig isn’t as easy as I initially thought, but eventually things settle down, I luxuriate in my regular nine hours of sleep and begin to feel like my former shiny self. I confess to my husband I am glad my zombified days are over, and that’s when I discover I’m pregnant with my second baby.


Vanessa Waters began her writing career at 16 by winning the SMH's Gold Commendation for Young Writer of the Year. She later enjoyed a decade-long foray in newspaper and magazine publishing, authored a book for Random House, represented Australia (as an international media delegate) at the United Nations and lectured at The Sydney Writers' Centre. She lives and writes by the beach in Sydney.


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