My Child Isn’t Sleeping
Do Child Sleep Challenges Disproportionately Affect Professional Working Parents?
I’ve long held the view that professional women are often hardest hit by some of the challenges that motherhood throws up – none more so than when their little one just doesn’t seem to have read the sleep memo. I understand because I have been there. When I fell pregnant with my son, I was in a well-established legal career. I was used to making decisions and giving advice that affected people’s liberty. It was a lot of responsibility but it didn’t faze me, I knew that a combination of good instincts, diligent research and hard work made me good at what I did. I assumed motherhood would be the same to some extent, although never having spent much time around babies, I did question how much instinct I would have for my new role. I compensated with extra research! Having read what felt like 3,000 parenting books, even making notes and colour-coding, I felt pretty prepared for what lay ahead.
The uncomfortable reality
Eleven months into my parenting journey, when my son was still waking twice a night and managing only two 40-minutes each day, he was clearly exhausted and I felt I was letting him down. I’d read pretty much everything the internet has to offer on child sleep yet despite the most thorough research I could manage in my sleep-deprived state, I was failing. It was an unfamiliar feeling and whilst I hadn’t expected to be a natural earth-mother, I did spend a lot of time thinking, “I am a competent person, why is this so hard?” Like many professional parents, we were part of an NCT group where sleep was always a hot topic of conversation – the fact that several of the other babies were sleeping better than my son made me doubt my parenting skills.
Nature versus nurture
There is an increasing body of research showing that the pregnancy and birth journey fundamentally affects a child’s early years. Stress in utero can have far-reaching implications. The obvious question here is “how much stress is too much?” and realistically we don’t know the answer. Yet with an increasing prevalence of mothers-to-be carrying the responsibility of being in a high-performance career and often a comparable or higher wage-earner, the potential for a pregnancy being stressful is very real. This is relevant as some interesting research has linked higher than average maternal stress levels during pregnancy with the likelihood of a baby suffering with colic – and it is safe to say that colicky babies typically do not sleep well!
Add into this that professional women frequently delay starting a family until well into their thirties. According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the increasing age of mothers is one of the main drivers of the UK’s rising rate of complex pregnancies and caesarean births. Whilst caesareans are not performed lightly and can be literally life-saving, there are measurable impacts from this mode of delivery that are now known to affect sleep – for example altered gut microbiome and, in the case of planned sections, babies being born at a younger gestational age.
The environment in which many of our generation raise our family is an important factor in how we feel about our child’s sleep. Many university-graduates remain away from their childhood home and by association often some distance from their immediate family. This typically means less consistently available practical help, which if on hand can give new parents a very welcome opportunity to catch up on sleep. But there is also a more subtle effect. From the moment we even start to think about starting a family, we are at best awash with, and more likely overwhelmed by, information on what we “should” be doing. Yet unlike previous generations when much of the advice we heard came from relatives and close friends and perhaps the odd book, nowadays we have largely unlimited access to every theory, approach and suggestion going. It is physically impossible to digest all of the available information and even if you could, much of it is contradictory.
Old habits die hard but don’t always serve us well
Yet as professionals we often feel as if we should be capable of finding the answer to our problem. And so we research and try method after method, often with little or no positive effect. During their initial contact with me, most parents report that they have “tried everything” to help their child sleep better. Many have tried one or more approaches to sleep-training. Several have invested hundreds of pounds into the vastly increasingly array of gadgets that promise to help children sleep soundly. When none of them have led to the peaceful nights anticipated, parents again feel frustrated.
With my own clients I often find that parenting books with their promises of routine, predictability and consistently appeal to professional parents. We are typically used to having control over our lives and seeing our achievements manifest in tangible ways whereas as a new parent you can spend the entire day feeling run off your feet only for the house to look as if a bomb exploded and not having found enough time to clean your own teeth. The lure of having your little one on a reliable schedule, especially when accompanied with the usual promise that baby will be happier for it, is understandable. Yet a 2017 study found that around one half of parents are unable to make these regimes work for their child, often leaving mothers in particular feeling more anxious than before they attempted to implement the routine.
Light (or rather sleep!) at the end of the tunnel
Whilst the challenges discussed are not exclusive to professional parents, in my experience both personal and professional, there is a particular mix of nature, nurture and perception that can often make sleep challenges hit this group especially hard. Professional women, who are used to being in control of their lives can find the unpredictability a baby brings very hard to adapt to. Throw sleep-deprivation into the mix, which is after all used as a means of torture, and it’s not surprising that I frequently find myself on the phone to tearful mums telling me they have lost all confidence in their abilities. So often I hear variations on the same theme: “At work I manage a team of twenty”, “I’m so sure of myself in my career but with this I’m useless”, “I followed the approach I read about exactly but now it’s worse than before, I don’t understand”. To be able to reassure these parents that they aren’t failing, that their child isn’t broken, to ultimately be able to guide them to helping their little one learn how to sleep well and to hear mums report that they have rediscovered their confidence is a truly heart-warming aspect of my work.