Raising Roo: Sleep

It’s two-thirty in the morning and I am stretched out on the couch, the orange glow of the outside street lamp illuminating the living room curtains, my boy swaddled and sleeping in his baby nest on the arm of the L-shaped couch beside me. I’ve caught maybe forty-five minutes of sleep and my wrist watch is vibrating to tell me that’s all I’m going to get. 

I sit up, careful not to disturb my couch companion, tip-toe to the bathroom to splash some cold water over my face, before heading into the bedroom to inform my wife that her breasts are once again required. Sadly, this is not some clumsy seduction but a much more practical application of said breasts. Alex stirs, sits up on the edge of the mattress, head hanging and shoulders slumped, and nods to indicate that the message has been received and that she will meet me in the living room once she has scraped together enough crumbs of motivation. This non-verbal communication is just one of the ways our bond has deepened since having a baby. They say a shared trauma will do that.

We are four weeks in to this parenting game and, at least when it comes to sleep statistics, it’s safe to say that we are losing. One column that is in our favour is the hours of sleep obtained by our tiny cherub, but the columns dedicated to Alex and I are deeply in the red. 

When we first arrived home from the hospital, relieved to be in our bubble as a trio for the first time, we were optimistic. Alex and I went about figuring out our tasks and habits for caring for our new roommate, while our new tenant pulled his weight simply by existing. We were high on the euphoria of creating life and feeling pretty good despite the almost complete lack of slumber in the past seventy-two hours. We launched ourselves into our first night at home on the eddies of this high and when morning light broke the sky, we told ourselves that we had done well, you know, given the circumstances.

Our friend/midwife, Christina, arrived for the first home visit, asking all the questions and getting all the cuddles, well-earnt given she had guided the little man out into the world just days before, and eventually broached the question of sleep. With all the casualness and confidence of ripe rookies, we informed her that we had gotten, accumulatively, around two hours of sleep throughout the night. We looked at each other and nodded, reiterating that we had done well, you know, given the circumstances. 

Christina was quick to correct us of this preconception.

Apparently sleep is an important component to health, particularly for a woman recovering from spending twenty plus hours pushing a melon-sized baby out of her body, using muscles she didn’t know she had and drawing on resources normally reserved for life or death situations. Not to mention the dinner-plate-sized wound on the inside of her uterus where a placenta was previously adhered and has since been torn away from the force of contracting uterine muscles. All of this is to say that Alex was justifiably pooped and in need of a good kip.

Christina explained this to us in patient and simple words, necessary given our sluggish sleep-deprived minds, and we eventually twigged that the current set-up wasn’t sustainable if we wanted a healthy milk-producing mother able to keep both her baby and herself alive. A large early lesson in parenting is the need to remain flexible, to ditch preconceived ideas and advice if your baby just doesn’t fit that particular mould, and to come up with something new. Our something new entailed Alex walling herself off in the bedroom come nightfall to attempt to get whatever rest she could between feeds, while the boys set up a bachelor pad in the living room. 

The need for this separation was due to the fact that a new parent cannot sleep deeply when their baby is beside them. This is because, this early in the game, you are convinced that every squeak and snort the baby makes requires immediate attention in order to avoid fatal consequences. The attention usually involves jerking upright, leaning over your happily snoozing baby, watching for some sign of life before laying down again, only to repeat the process five minutes later when your baby smacks their lips together or farts in their sleep.

The second reason to have walls between Alex and Roo is that babies are damn loud sleepers. Somehow in all our prenatal research we missed the class that informed to-be-parents that their baby will make as much noise as an overweight eighty-year-old who never got around to having their sinuses looked at and is prone to murmuring in their sleep.

And it worked. Mostly. That is to say, Alex went from having two hours of sleep in a night to somewhere more around five or six. These hours were still broken, of course, but at least the times between having an infant suckle at her chest were spent in quiet solitude. Given my lack of mammary glands, my job was as a prep and pack man. I would prepare the environment for the incoming mama, which entailed turning on a glow lamp to its dimmest setting, unswaddling our baby burrito, and running a cloth under water should my other role as awake-keeper become necessary. Alex would take her throne, a single-person armchair bought for just this purpose, and feed Roo, occasionally passing him off to me to burp, a job I knew I had done well when I felt a spill of warmth down my back on the up-chuck cloth slung over my shoulder. 

Once she had fulfilled her responsibilities as life-giving-sustenance provider, Alex would attempt to get some much needed restorative shut-eye in the bedroom while I packed away our little man for another stretch of sleep. This involved changing his nappy under the soft orange light of the heat lamp, doing my best to move cautiously and quietly in an attempt to preserve the lazy lasitute that a good feed brings on, and then wrapping him up like a sausage roll, tucking him into his baby nest, and returning to the couch.

If he had perked up during my ministrations, I would stand in the dark and rock him in my arms, a bundle of baby boy, a miracle of life breathing and blinking up at me, and I would stare back in wonder and love at this impossibility, a person where there had not been one before, a child made of Alex and I and surely some magic, because what other word can you use when something is made from nothing, and I would smile and whisper soft reassurances and crinkle tired, so tired, eyes and rock my exhausted limbs back and forth at this stupidly early hour of the morning until my son fell asleep, and I would finally lay down with him, bones aching, and feeling so very very lucky.

This stratadigm of sleep worked in that Alex was afforded enough rest to recover from nine months of manufacturing and then expelling a person. However, at the end of the month the accumulation of broken nights added up and we both knew we would have to adapt yet again if I wanted to be able to function enough to operate important machinery like our car or the coffee machine.

And so with my return to work, I also returned to the bedroom. We had decided that we would split the night, each of us sleeping on the side of the bed with the attached cot for half the night, the hope being that the person furthest away would still be able to get some of that sweet sweet REM. Additionally, all the books said that at this point in his development, three-hour feeds were no longer necessary at night, and that he could be stretched longer and longer, essentially being left alone and only feeding him when he woke.

We were a family reunited, exhausted yet proud that we had summited first-month mountain, sure that the worst was behind us and that sleep-filled nights lay ahead.

It was around this time that Roo learnt to really put his lungs to use, we learnt that leaving a baby to wake on his own doesn’t necessarily mean he wakes any less and, most importantly, we learnt just how truly naive we were.  

But that is another chapter in the Sleep Saga and will have to wait for another time. Right now, I’m too tired. I think I might just lay down for a spell. 

Next week’s topic: The cost

Raising Roo: New Roommate

Recently my wife suggested I write a series of posts about what it’s like to have a child. I did a similar thing when the curtain of doom that was the COVID-19 pandemic first descended on all our lives, closing us off from the outside world and forcing us all into the digital sphere, where in my little corner of it I attempted to relate the suddenly universal experience of logging into work in your pyjamas and rolls of toilet paper inexplicably becoming the new gold standard.

So, as our child furniture walks towards the big one year mark, and with almost twelve months experience as an apprentice parent, I decided to take my wife up on her suggestion.

It’s rather fitting that my previous series focused on a viral pandemic, because the experience of first bringing a baby into your home is not too dissimilar. This might sound like a hurtful comparison to make, drawing parallels between a voracious virus that leaves you feeling sick and exhausted and a beautiful new baby boy, but replace the word “virus” with “baby” and you’re not far off the mark. 

Here in Austria, the standard paternity leave is one month, and so for that first month, much like during the early days of the pandemic, my wife and I closed our doors, pulled on our pyjamas, and bunkered down. Instead of becoming obsessed with graphs and tallies of rising case numbers, we found a new obsession in the contents of nappies and the secretions from my wife’s breasts. Rather than watch governmental updates and bingeing on Netflix, we watched the rise and fall of our boy’s chest (still breathing = successful parents) and binged on the curves of his perfect round face. Rather than acquiring the new skills of baking bread or mastering Zoom calls, we became experts on the face he makes when pooping and schooled ourselves on swaddling our son until we could eventually make the perfect baby burrito.

And, much like someone who eventually succumbs to the virus plaguing the planet, we found ourselves at the end of it all in a state of physical deterioration. 

The problem was the cycle. The cycle is the rotation of tasks required to ensure your newborn continues living for the foreseeable future, which is an objective we strived for as new parents. 

The cycle begins with us gently coaxing our newborn to wakefulness. I know, you’re thinking, “Well, if you just let the damn thing sleep, you’d probably be in a much better state. No one to blame there but yourself, mate.” And while I agree with this logic, and can’t argue that there were times I was tempted to wrap myself in a matching swaddle and join him, the problem is that babies sleep too much. Again, I see you rolling your eyes and raising your hand, “Make up your mind, buddy, are you getting rest or not!” But let me lay out my case and this sleep paradox will untangle. 

Babies, or more specifically newborns, are mad for sleep, they can’t get enough, they’ve mastered it in the womb and see no reason to change their habits just because they’ve been ejected out into the big bad world. The issue is that the womb is the equivalent of first class — it’s temperature controlled, the lights are permanently dimmed, and sustenance is delivered through a tube directly into your circulatory system. (Okay, I don’t know if first class technically has this last feature, I’ve never actually flown first class, but it can’t be far off, right). But now the baby is down here in economy with the rest of us schmucks and he can’t quite wrap his head around the idea that he has to eat his own food. I don’t have the heart to tell him it only gets harder from here.

Our new son would have contentedly dozed the day away, comfortable in the presumption that his nutritional needs were being met, and slept right through breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And dessert! As previously mentioned, the objective is the ongoing survival of your infant, and so while we were tempted to let sleeping babies lie, we would instead do the responsible thing and wake the lazy little man up. 

Rupert, my son, was understandably upset with this arrangement, a slumbering first-class passenger being poked awake and hustled out into the cold reality of economy, and would take some cuddles and bouncing and a nipple or two before calming down, a situation we’ve all found ourselves in.

Alex, my wife, took to mothering like a bird to the wing, and it was inspiring to watch her soar on the updraft of her new responsibilities. Thankfully, her body also slipped into mum-mode and started producing the colostrum needed to transition from arterial-provided sustenance to the more traditional oral technique. Alex would take our sleepy son and nurse him, administering the ingredients for life from her own body, while I would flutter around and try to make myself useful. 

One service I provided during these early feedings was as awake-keeper. The aforementioned addiction to sleep extended even to the act of feeding, and there were times when we would be merrily chatting away, feeling very proud of ourselves and our successes at this whole parenting thing, only to realise that it wasn’t a feed a little man was catching but some Zs. The little sneak remained latched, but all sucking would cease as he surreptitiously snoozed under our very noses. This was my call to action, damp cloth at the ready, dabbing the cool material to his forehead and neck while he scrunched up his face and squirmed, and I apologised all the while, doing my best to explain the importance of a healthy and robust diet.

Because of his sloth-like tendencies, a full feed could take a while. We would juggle our son back and forth between us, Alex easing the milk into him and me burping it back out, until we were satisfied enough had settled into his belly to ensure he would remain comfortable until the next feed time. 

We would then make our way to the bathroom for the next stage of the cycle, dealing with the opposite end of our son’s digestive tract, the changing of the nappy. As we disrobed our boy under the mesmerising glow of the heat lamp and removed the soiled diaper, Alex and I would discuss the weight, colour, and consistency of Rupert’s offering like two artists admiring a piece by one of the Great Masters. Healthy bowel movements or particularly weighty nappies would be met with cheers and heartfelt words of praise, assuring our little man that he had accomplished something wonderful and was destined for great things.

Once cleaned and redressed, we would put our culinary skills to work and burrito-wrap our baby in his swaddle and then settle in front of the TV for some cuddles and come-down after the excitement of the diaper change. Roo would drift off to the sound of canned laughter and Jim Parson’s deadpan delivery as we re-watched the Big Bang Theory. Once we were confident he was under, we would transition him to the bedroom and his small crib attached to our bed where one or both of us would join him in catching what shut-eye we could. 

If we opted not to join him, we would instead madly rush around attempting to tend to those activities of daily living we had recently performed for our son, only for ourselves. Once fed, showered, and toileted, we would collapse, alarms set for an hour’s time when we would have to wake and prepare for the next stage of the cycle. Pumping.

To encourage along the milk production, as well as to allow me the pleasure of administering life-giving nutrition to our baby even given my lactation deficit, we invested in a breast pump, which, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like. Alex would drowsily strap those suckers to her chest and they would chug away while we made conversation as if being milked in your living room was a totally normal thing. Which it quickly became. 

I would collect the produce from Alex’s efforts and measure it out into a feeding bottle with the care and accuracy of a scientist handling volatile material, ensuring we did not lose a drop of the hard-earned liquid. Once both breasts had been mechanically stimulated, we would tip-toe into the bedroom to restart the cycle and gently coax our boy back into the waking world.

For those of you playing at home, you may have already noticed this cycle leaves little room for anything else, such as, oh, I don’t know, sleep. The cycle, which approximately lasts three hours end-to-end, wheeled its way throughout our days and nights, twenty-four seven, completely uncaring that humans are not traditionally nocturnal creatures and actually prefer a good eight hour stretch if given the chance. Our son was afforded approximately two hours of sleep for every three hour cycle, but us chumps in charge of the prep and clean up were happy to catch an hour here and there when we could.

And so, at the end of our first month of our self-imposed quarantine, eyes perpetually  red-rimmed and heavy-lidded, we found our obsession slipping from all things baby to just one central theme: Sleep.

Next week’s topic: Sleep.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 21

A fun little fact about me: I often suffer from insomnia (maybe fun was overselling it). Not every night, and not so severely that I’m so exhausted during the day that I end up in wacky situations wherein I’m on a date and fall asleep face first into my soup bowl and come up sputtering, my date asking if I’m okay, and I deliver some witty line like “Sorry about that. It just smelt so good, I couldn’t resist”. Look guiltily to camera B. Cue the canned laughter. But it happens enough for it to be a thing.

Alex and I have a pretty set pre-bed routine: do the dishes, read for a bit, lights off, snuggle down and watch an episode of a comedy show until we feel sufficiently drowsy to commit to another night of rest, asleep by ten. Winning at life.
#earlytobedandearlytorisemakesamanhealthywealthandwise 

But about once a week we’ll go through this procedure, Alex will whisper a goodnight, roll over, be asleep in approximately four seconds, and I will lay there in the dark quietly resenting my sleeping wife, already knowing that the sandman has overlooked me yet again. Now, I’m not a great sleeper on the best of nights, but usually if I wait it out for about an hour my body gets the message that I’m not just killing time here and I’ll pass out. But on an insomnia night, it’s as if my ability to transition into unconsciousness has been turned off. And the worst of it is, I don’t really know why. 

The easy solution would be to blame the ol’ ball and chain for stealing all the blankets, but the Austrians are a sly people and have gotten ahead of this problem by agreeing as a culture that everyone gets their own doona. As such, Alex curls up all cosy in hers and I burrito myself in mine and nobody wages a silent tugging war for major territory rights over the duvet.

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Another go-to explanation could be that I have nagging doubts and anxieties keeping me awake, only I’m not really all that anxious a person. I have considered that perhaps I have squished and crammed my anxieties deep into my subconsciousness where they are bubbling away beneath my notice, robbing me of sleep when attempting to slip into that altered state of consciousness, but if that is true, and all it costs to have anxiety-free days is a little lost sleep, then I am reluctant to rock that boat.

So, rather than deep and profound dives into my subconsciousness to challenge the foundations of my id, I play rain sounds on my mobile phone. A duct-tape solution, maybe, but it works like fifty percent of the time. 

I figure that with everyone holed up inside watching endless news cycles about the growing number of cases and deaths, and given that the future is an unknown entity and the ability to make plans and feel secure has been robbed from us, I’m probably not the only one losing a little sleep at the moment. I’m not one for bragging, but I’ve been struggling with sleep for years now and have put in my 10,000 hours, which makes me something of an expert. As such, I will happily walk you through a few techniques I use to wrestle my way into dreamland.

  1. Make it rain! As mentioned, I use an app on my phone to simulate the sound of rain. Having a consistent noise to focus on can stop the inward focus of cyclical thoughts, of replaying your to-do list, or reliving that time in 7th grade when your crush caught you picking your nose and you told her you were only scratching it and tried to prove it by putting your finger up there again and this time all her friends saw too and you realised you made a terrible mistake only it was too late, far too late.
    Instead, your focus turns outwards to the peaceful pattering of rain.
    Of course, it doesn’t have to be rain. Some people enjoy the sounds of a babbling brook, crashing waves, whale song, or the wind. Some also claim to enjoy falling asleep to the sound of radio static, but these people are clearly psychopaths. Don’t trust those people.
  2. Mattress mathematics. People have stated that maths puts them to sleep, so why not turn that to your advantage! The classic option is to count sheep, but having an endless queue of livestock marching through my imagination isn’t a particularly restful image for me, so I count my breaths. This also helps me focus on taking long deep breaths, which has been shown to help bring on sleep. Doubling this up with the rain sounds will help as the noise from your app will drown out the sound of your deep breathing in case you share your bed with someone who is just straight up mental about breathing sounds coughAlexcoughcoughIamdefintelytalkingaboutAlex. Cough.
  3. Have fun with futility! Lay awake staring at the ceiling and consider the enormity of the universe and the scale of time that has passed before you winked into existence, and hold in your head for just a fraction of a second how infinitesimally minute and short-lived your life is against the backdrop of everything. Once full comprehension of how small and powerless you are is achieved, a sense of peace will wash over you and you’ll be snoozing like a baby in no time! (Disclaimer: This technique can have the opposite effect on some individuals and result in lying awake in a cold sweat until the sun comes up. Use with discretion.) 

Losing sleep at a time like this is a completely normal, some might say even logical, reaction to life in the time of COVID. It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety wave of statistics and uncertainty and to just get dragged under. For some, the slowing down of life has opened up pockets of time that didn’t exist in their previous hectic routines, providing space to contemplate fears and scenarios that were normally buried under the next item on their to-do list.

Sleep and mental health are a tied knot, so do try and take some measures to ensure you’re able to switch off at night. Meditate before bed, keep a normal schedule, try and exercise throughout the day, and, if necessary, do what the Austrians do and get two blankets for the bed. It may seem like a sacrifice of intimacy with your spouse, but you won’t care when bundled up like a burrito and sleeping like a baby.

And if all that fails, then at least lay back, relax, and listen to the rain.

On Friday: Celebrations. (Tomorrow is Alex’s birthday, so I will be dedicating the whole day to fulfilling my husbandly duties towards the birthday girl).