I had a fairly run-of-the-mill first delivery — sixteen hour labour, overnight of course, episiotomy, forceps. Then I was rewarded with my baby, a purple bundle in my arms. Obviously we’d never met before, yet she was so familiar. And when I spoke, she turned her head towards me, slow-motion-like, searching for me, as if she recognised my voice after hearing it for nine months from the inside.

A brand new, and very happy, family.
A brand new, and very happy, family.

She spent the first night beside me and slept for 12 hours. I, of course, barely slept at all. I stirred at every gurgle – I had no idea babies were so noisy. And, as the euphoria subsided — or maybe it was just the Pethidine wearing off — my anxiety grew. The enormity of what I’d done started to hit: a real, living baby was now in my care, 24/7. Never again would my life be mine alone.

Sometime around five o’clock in the morning, she woke. In the pre-dawn light, I lifted her out, sat on the side of my bed and put her to my breast. She took my nipple and fed. There wasn’t much, only colostrum, but she didn’t seem to mind. She sucked for thirty to forty minutes, then fell asleep, and I lay her back in the bassinette.

A short while later, a nurse came in to check on us.
‘Call me when she wakes,’ she said as she was leaving, ‘and I’ll help you feed her.’
‘Oh, I’ve just fed her,’ I said.
She spun around. ‘Was someone with you?’
‘Don’t feed her on your own. We need to show you how, to make sure you’re doing it properly. Bad attachment can cause all sorts of problems.’ Which she then listed. ‘Call me next time she wakes.’

She left and my eyes filled. I sat on the side of the bed, gazing down at my sleeping baby, worrying that I’d done the wrong thing and fed her the wrong way.

My daughter woke a few hours later and I buzzed the nurse. In she came, and propped me up on pillows. I undid my buttons and she positioned the baby on my arm, then took my nipple between her fingers and pinched it. With her other hand, she held my daughter’s head and pushed it towards my breast. My daughter opened her mouth and in went my nipple.
‘No, I don’t think she’s attached right,’ she said, and broke the baby’s suction.
My daughter began to cry.

She repeated this manoeuvre a few times, as she talked about redheads and pale nipples and how they’re much more susceptible to cracking. I sat watching my nipple thrust in and out of my baby’s mouth, feeling detached and disconnected, as if I was a bystander.

My daughter wailed each time the nipple was extracted—she just wanted to be fed.

And I wanted the nurse to go. To leave us alone and let us work it out together, all by ourselves.

Later, a phone call from my mother. ‘What times has she fed?’
‘Five, then nine.’
‘Four-hourly — that’s good. You just need to shift her forward an hour, to six and ten o’clock.’

We left hospital and at home, my daughter didn’t want to sleep. She cried when I put her down, then woke after forty-five minutes. Exactly forty-five minutes—I could have used her as a cake timer. And she didn’t settle for the night until eleven o’clock.
‘Babies should sleep longer than 45 minutes at a time.’
‘It’s abnormal for a baby to be awake at that hour.’
‘You should only be feeding her four-hourly.’
‘There’s something wrong with her. Maybe she has reflux?’
‘Maybe it’s something you’re eating. I couldn’t eat cauliflower when I was breastfeeding.’
‘It’s the chocolate. You shouldn’t eat chocolate.’
‘It’s your stress. Babies pick up on that, you know …’

It was getting harder to smile …

The Parenting Centre came to help me with my daughter’s sleep problem.
‘They need to sleep,’ the nurse reminded me. ‘That’s their growing time.’
‘Isn’t she growing fine?’ I wanted to say. ‘She’s on the 97th percentile.’

I was told not to pick my daughter up and feed her when she woke, but to keep her in her bassinette and rock her back to sleep, to ‘train’ her into sleeping longer. So I stood there, rocking and rocking, trying to get her back to sleep. Eventually she would, sometimes after an hour-and-a-half of rocking. Twenty minutes later, she’d wake and back in I’d go. I tell you, sometimes that bassinette was ‘shaken’ rather than rocked.

After weeks of this, and my daughter still not sleeping longer, I decided I’d had enough. I was sick of spending hours a day rocking a bassinette. I couldn’t do it any longer. When she woke after her forty-five minute speed-sleep, instead of rocking her, I picked her up and sat and fed her. She fell asleep and I stayed sitting in the chair, holding her. She slept for a couple of hours in my arms.

And that is what I did from then on. Every day, I had a couple of hours just sitting holding her while she slept. Meanwhile, I did nothing but read a book or watch her.

‘You’re creating a rod for your own back,’ I was told. And, yes, maybe I was. But it was worth it.

She was fine without sleep …

With the next baby, I didn’t bother with the advice. I was a lot more confident and I knew better how to listen to my baby and my instincts. I hid how often I was feeding her or how short her sleeps were from people who I knew would judge.

At the time, my babies’ sleeping habits were a big worry to me. Am I doing the right thing? What if they’re not getting enough sleep? What if their brains aren’t forming properly? But here we are now, more than seventeen years down the track and my non-sleeping babies have all turned out fine. All that fretting and angst, and they were ‘normal’ after all.

The thing is, I eventually learned to go with my maternal instinct. But it’s hard to hear sometimes, that instinct. Mine was buried. Buried under the way I was parented; buried under the talk of experts; buried, even, by my own desire to do the right thing. I was trying so hard to follow the experts’ advice.

In the end, it felt wrong for us, and I went with what I felt was right for me and my child.

As time went on and with our subsequent children, I’ve learned to follow my maternal instinct more, and it’s worked. The more I’ve been able to tune in to it, the louder and clearer it’s come, and the easier it’s been to hear. I just had to stop letting the other ‘noise’ interfere, so that I could hear it. It was there, latent, but it was there.

I know there are exceptions but I believe that most times, maternal instinct is the best compass. After all, it’s had millennia after millennia to evolve.

I look back to feeding my baby that first time after she was born, alone together in the hospital room, and somehow, without help, I knew instinctively what to do. We both knew. I wonder if the two of us had been allowed to find our own way, without advice or direction from others, how much easier it might have been.

The thing is, we need to listen to ourselves and our babies, and trust our maternal instincts. 

Yep, it looks like missing that sleep has sure left its scars …