I have cried myself to sleep. In times of great emptiness, bereft or falling through a dark hole of sadness, I have wracked and sobbed myself to sleep. At the dissolution of relationships, after a near death car accident, from the loss of a life growing inside me. The crying was not from a need to exercise my lungs, or simply a noise I happened to be making. It was the disappearance of my world. The greatest feeling of wrongness, nothingness, a loss of myself and of falling through myself to find everything missing.
‘When a baby is left howling in her room;
• High levels of toxic stress hormones wash over her brain.
• There is a withdrawal of opiods (chemicals that promote feelings of well being) in her brain.
• The brain and body’s stress response systems can become hard wired for over – sensitivity.
• Pain circuits in the brain are activated, just as they would be if she was hurt physically.
(Sunderland, 2006, p 36)
‘Is she a good baby?’ Translation; ‘Does she sleep like an exhausted adult?’ Babies older than six months “should be taught to sit silently in the crib; otherwise, he might need to be constantly watched and entertained by the mother, a serious waste of time.” (See Blum, 2002, from Narvaez, 2011, Psychology today). When my daughter was born, pulled from me in the end, the curled weight of her on my chest was the beginning of another me, of a mother. I slept not at all that first night, propped up in a white bed with a stranger neighbor on the other side of a curtain. I didn’t sleep simply because to sleep would have been to miss moments of the top of her head, the soft brown swirl, the curl of her against me, the face that is now a five year old version of itself, the hands that plucked and stroked even then.
My perfect curl of life with her swirl head and her holding hands slept for no more than half an hour at a time. In hospital I lay defensive, waiting for someone to tell me off for sleeping with her in my bed. No-one did. ‘All primate infants, including humans, biologically expect to be in close contact and proximity with their caregivers. In fact, human infants at birth are not adapted to the outside physical environment, but only to what their mother’s body offers the infant. There is no such thing as giving a human infant too much contact or affection – they thrive on touch, and grow more the more they get of it! When deprived of these sensations, a baby will use her primary survival response – crying – and will produce cortisol, a stress hormone, as she attempts to attract the attention of her parents.’ (McKenna, 2009 p30 – 31)
At home I simply explained to my partner, a father newly born and worried, that when she was with me I knew that she breathed, moved, was warm and living. My breathing and living seemed to help her do these things. To put her down would be to be unknowing, unprotecting. So we slept, me and the tiny new breath of person, waking every half an hour, dreaming and sucking through halfsleeping nights. I certainly would not have coped any other way. ‘Cosleeping is not only normal, common and instinctive, but it can be in the best interests of the family when it is elected for purposes of protecting and nurturing infants, when safety is given a priority, and when the right type of cosleeping is chosen by each unique family.’ (McKenna, 2009 p21).
Daytimes I carried her about with me, or tried an endless parade of slings until I found, at last, a carrier that worked for us. Warm and attached to me, she slept in there for naps until way past two years old. The feeling appropriate to an infant in arms is his feeling of rightness or essential goodness. (Liedloff, 1975, p45). Gradually, imperceptibly, her sleeps lengthened. She slept an hour at a time at age two, woke three or four times a night at three, and by three and a half slept through the night, as she does now, deep and sound, safe still with her mother’s breath to guard her. She has never suffered sleep troubled by night terrors, and no-one ever needs to chase her back to bed. She just sleeps.
The day before her third birthday, twenty four hours to the minute in fact, my son was pushed out of me, onto a pile of towels on the back porch of the farm house we lived in. Named for the Norse god of thunder, he earned the nickname the Slumber God in his early months. Endless wakings were not for him, he embraced the bliss of sleep with warm enthusiasm, and woke no more than three or four times a night. Bliss. Warm sleeping hours with soft wakings to attach his tiny head to my nipple, then drifts back to sleep, or at worst, drowsy frowsy nappy changes then sleep again. ‘A baby is not born with an adult circadian rhythm. A newborn baby’s sleep cycles are spread throughout the day and night…’ (Pantley, 2002 p 43).
Until his first teeth started moving and our home did too. Dislocated, at three months the Slumber God began a torturous pattern of just drifting off to sleep then starting awake again in ten or fifteen minute cycles. This pattern would be on repeat for several hours before he fell into an exhausted sleep for a few more hours, then woke to repeat the it again. I resorted to facebook in the wee hours, sometimes reporting that my son was finally just falling asleep now, at 5 am. My patience was sandpapered from me, I came unglued and unstuck, unlovely and intermittently desperate. Cosleeping had always met our nocturnal needs, but now nothing was. I walked the floor, crying and at times swearing, lost to myself in the depths of exhaustion. It lasted eight months. But I never left him crying alone. ‘For species such as primates, the mother is the environment’ (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, 1999, in McKenna, 2009, p35) I could not physically have done it, could not have walked away from his need, no matter how deeply it was impinging upon my own.
Homeopathics. Tiny wee pillules of hope and relief eventually rode to our rescue and reset my little son’s slumber systems. Eight months after the horrible pattern began, he returned to a normal pattern of infant and toddler (for he was walking by now) nocturnal wakings, two to six wakings per night with hours of sleep in between, depending on teething, growth and developmental spurts, daytime activities. I was sane again, or as sane as I ever am. My efforts at self sustainability have triggered much pondering on the nature of things, on how we are meant to live. Meant to biologically, spiritually, emotionally.
My friends speak of community sustainability, individuals and families co-operating with each other to provide for the needs of the community. An individual trying to provide alone for her own needs is worked ragged, it is exhausting and somewhat alienating. We are interconnected, we thrive best in small, co-operative groups where trust is established simply by knowing each other. I have eggs and beans and potatoes, you have grapefruit buy propecia by merck and lettuce and pumpkins, let’s swap and we’ll both have more than we had before. But communities and families do much more than this. The people in a person’s world, and especially those in a baby’s world, in a child’s life, reflect reality to the child, their attentions tell her that she exists, that she matters.
Their touch tells her that someone is there, that she has value to them, that she is safe because she is part of this greater thing. Her very brain development reflects this. A mother baby dyad is just that, a unit composed of two parts, each feeding back to the other, mutually dependant for wellbeing. ‘Without the stimulation from maternal – infant contact and interactions – including nighttime sensory exchanges – neonatal brain cells are potentially lost forever.’ (McKenna, 2009, p20) ‘All primate infants, including humans, biologically expect to be in close contact and proximity with their caregivers. In fact, human infants at birth are not adapted to the outside physical environment, but only to what their mother’s body offers the infant. There is no such thing as giving a human infant too much contact or affection – they thrive on touch, and grow more the more they get of it! When deprived of these sensations, a baby will use her primary survival response – crying – and will produce cortisol, a stress hormone, as she attempts to attract the attention of her parents.’ (McKenna, 2009 p30 – 31)
Sleep is the most vulnerable time for an infant, a sleeping babe or child (or even a peacefully sleeping adult) stirs in us great feelings of tenderness and protectiveness. Many years ago I worked as a laboratory technician, inside a sterile white walled building with no exterior windows. I wore a crinkling white Tyvek suit and mask, I passed through several airlocks to enter a Clean Room to work. There we grew cells. Monkey cells, pig cells, calf cells. These were nurtured in plastic containers, first a few individual cells growing to a sheet that filled a tiny flask, then ‘passed’ into bigger and bigger vessels. I learned what they needed to survive, these isolated little lives. I learned that they can cope with being too cold better than being too hot. And I was struck, suddenly one white sterile day, standing in the airlock with a little flat plastic flask, that these were independently alive. That I held a little community in my hand. That each cell in a living body is independently alive yet utterly dependent upon each other cell, and upon the greater whole that they, together, comprise. And I saw the world unfold in a series of Russian Dolls, life as a hologram, each life existing within another and that in another, up and down in scale.
Babies need to be with their mothers for this very reason. Because we are all part of each other, and babies in a very physical as well as psychic and emotional sense are still part of the continuum of the motherbaby. When the mother half fails to respond to her baby’s signals of need, when the baby is left crying, unresponded to, alone, what results is more than stress. It is more than distress. It is an impression of non-existence, or lessened existence, a deep and abiding feeling of wrongness of self, of the world. ‘…the infant out of arms in a state of longing in the bleakness of an empty universe.’ (Leidloff, 1975). ‘…nothing in his evolving ancestor’s experience has prepared him to be left alone, asleep or awake, and even less to cry without a response from one of any one of his own people. …Without the sense of being right, one has no sense of how much one ought to claim of comfort, security, help, companionship, love, friendship, things, pleasure or joy. A person without this sense often feels that there is an empty space where he ought to be.’ (Leidloff, 1975, p 45). An empty space where he ought to be.
I am tired right now, my son has needed me unrelentingly at night for about the last six weeks. But suddenly, for the passing of physical pain or of emotional or developmental need, he has relaxed again. Hopefully with his need met. I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep, to feel that empty space where I ought to be. I never want that for my children. Babyhood, childhood, is the beginning of the social self, the place where the deepest sense of personality and community are nurtured, or not. Sleep is the place of ultimate trust, and moving into and out of it need to be basically peaceful and protected for that sense of self and rightness to evolve and flower.
As parents we give up a lot, we lose sleep, it is broken, we are tired. There are ways of mitigating this, of bringing joy to the experience, but ultimately being tired is sometimes just part of the deal. Being challenged and stressed and forced to evolve are just part of the deal. Parenting is not a sleeping doll in a frilly cradle. It is responsibility for the life, the feelings, the existence of the next generations of ourselves. It is big. We can seek support, reassurance, we can take a moment to compose ourselves, we can cry when it is too huge, when our own experiences have not equipped us with the feeling of rightness, with the confidence of being, that make the task more natural to us. We can be tired. But the one thing we can’t do is walk away.
REFERENCES Leidloff, Jean, 1975, ‘The Continuum Concept’. Penguin Books. Pantley, Elizabeth, 2002, ‘The No-Cry Sleep Solution’. Macgraw – Hill. McKenna, James J. Ph.D, 2007, ‘Sleeping With Your Baby.’ Platypus Media. Blum, 2002, from Narvaez, Darcia, 2011, Psychology today, December 11, 2001. Sunderland, Margot, 2006, ‘The Science of Parenting’, Dorling Kindersly.