My little boy came home from the neonatal unit with a great sleep pattern. Sleep issues came later and I was not prepared for them at all. It can be so hard and I realise that his sleep issues are not as bad as others. In this blog I will cover what we have done and I have two experts who can help if you need further help.

After 73 days on the neonatal unit we were finally discharged and free to come home. I hadn’t spent a night with my son yet so I didn’t know what to expect as I was also a first time mum. The unit had offered us to stay the night as a practice night but I had declined. A conversation from a few days earlier had stuck with me at how far some parents were having to travel to see their baby’s. The mum had told me how grateful she was that there were rooms available for them to use. I felt guilty taking one of those rooms when I only lived a 15 minute drive away.

Discharge day was a long day! We were told at 10am that our son could go home that day. It took until 7.30pm to complete all the discharge paperwork, do the car seat challenge and order medication (some of which needed to be specially made up). We walked through the door at about 8pm and straight away I had to unpack all my sons medication and draw up what was needed for his next bottle.

The first night home

I made a timetable for all my son’s medications. I then set several alarms to go off 15 minutes before every feed so that I could draw up the medication into syringes, prep 2 bottles of milk and change my son’s nappy. The first bottle was all his medication and 15ml of milk. Then we would move onto the second bottle.

Lisa at home with her son
Lisa at home with her son

I was used to getting up at night to express but I slept solidly when I went to bed. That first night of having my son home I didn’t really sleep at all, I kept checking on this miraculous baby boy who was sleeping soundly. It was a night of cat naps. I rigidly stuck to the 4 hourly routine the NICU had gotten him into.

As the week went on we got into a little routine and I got slightly longer stretches of sleep. On the fourth day, after going into respiratory arrest, my baby boy was rushed back to the hospital and I spent the next week with him on the children’s ward. The ward is nothing like the NICU, the nurses don’t look after your child whilst you go home. You look after your child. I was exhausted, the doctors had deemed it necessary change the 4 hourly feeds to every 2 hours. Between nappy changes, sorting medication, expressing milk, keeping family updated and sorting myself out I had little time to sleep. I was on my own too.

On a few nights one amazing nurse took over a few night feeds. I was so grateful to her. It was clear they were busy. The recent pandemic has highlighted how hard the NHS work. They are over worked and underpaid. I could see that happening during this week long stay.

The unexpected sleep issues

The first 18 months of my son’s life we were in and out of hospital. When he was 13 months old I rushed him in as his breathing wasn’t right. After a few hours the monitor showed his oxygen saturation levels dipping. The stay was a little different to other stays as it was the week before Christmas. The staff work tirelessly to try and get as many family’s home for the Christmas period.

Baby wrapped in hospital blanket. Photography credit: Unknown
Baby wrapped in hospital blanket. Photography credit: Unknown

What turned out to be the last night of my son’s stay wasn’t a pleasant one. The bed next to my son’s bay needed to be moved. The nurses moving it lost control and the bed hit my son’s cot with some force. It took me over an hour to settle my little boy back down. Then there was a shift change. My little boy had nasal prongs delivering oxygen. The prongs kept turning the wrong way. I had an agreement with another nurse that an oxygen mask would be near by while he slept and I would keep an eye on his oxygen saturation levels.

I had nipped to the bathroom and when I returned the new nurse on shift was trying to turn the prongs the right way round. My son woke up and panicked that someone he didn’t recognise was in his face, in trying to wriggle away he hit his head on the metal railings of the cot. Next a nurse decided to take off the tape and reattach the nasal prongs. The tape on his cheeks was removed too quickly making his cheeks bleed. The next morning we went home. Later that night my son went to sleep as normal but come 10pm he was awake. This was not the norm.

Sleeping through to awake every night

Our little boy had gone from sleeping through the night 7pm to 6am to waking up from 10pm and not settling unless he was held. I had routine every night of bath, bottle, book, bed. I didn’t have rigid times though. We were reaching exhaustion and noticed that if we lay him down on my side of the bed he settled quickly.

From this point on the bedtime routine started every night at 6.30pm. It didn’t help. We reintroduced night feeds and this would buy us a few more hours but he still wouldn’t sleep through the night on his own like he used to. We are lucky enough to have 2 double sized bedrooms both with double beds in them. I made the decision to move out of the bedroom with my husband and I researched co-sleeping. As soon as we did this our son started sleeping through the night again. Any night I don’t sleep in there he wakes up between 10pm and midnight and comes to find me. He’s now 3 and a half.

Woman on the bed with a baby. Photography credit: Kevin Liang
Woman on the bed with a baby. Photography credit: Kevin Liang

No matter how many times we put him back to bed, for weeks on end he just refused to sleep alone. We had to find something that worked for us as a family and this method meant that everyone got a peaceful and restful night of sleep. This was especially important when we had to go to work the next day. What may have started out as nightmares from his hospital experience turned into a habit. I’m still really strict with bedtimes and sticking to the routine (given chance my husband would ‘ease up’ on my military timings). It might not be perfect but it’s working for us.

Tracy Hannigan – The adult sleep expert

I got in touch with Tracy as I know her to be an amazing sleep coach for adults. She comes highly recommended by people who are very grateful for her services to help resolve their sleep issues. Here’s what Tracy had to say:

Naturally, quite a lot of focus is placed on young children sleeping well – in part because parents want to sleep well. One of the biggest killers of sleep is anxiety about sleep and trying to ‘control’ it. So as you work to support healthy sleep in your child, try to not be anxious about your loss of sleep to prevent a vicious circle of sleeplessness from getting established and developing a life of it’s own. Tracy Hannigan, a sleep coach for adults with insomnia.

Tracy Hannigan, a sleep coach for adults with insomnia

April Knell – Postnatal specialist and Doula

April is an fantastic postnatal specialist and Doula. She supports new parents in those early weeks to navigate the fog and phase and gets you to a place where you are confident of your choices. When I got in touch here is what she had to say:

Sleep is always a big one for new parents in those early weeks, and often plays through minds leading up to birth. How much sleep will I get? Will I cope? Will my baby be a good sleeper? I believe it helps massively to understand baby sleep norms so it can give us confidence that we are capable (another question that runs through the minds of new parents) and so we can manage our expectations. Babies will wake often. They have shorter sleep cycles. Babies will have ‘active’ sleep – so thrusting or moving around in their sleep. Their tummy’s are tiny (size of a marble in those early weeks) so they will be looking to feed often. It’s thought babies also wake often as a protective measure against SIDS. Babies sleep patterns usually mature around 3/4 months.

They have come from the womb with no routines; they need time to transition to their new outside world. For more on the fourth trimester you can read it here. As a doula I’m often signposting, and for sleep this site is mentioned a lot Sleep is can be a tough one for new parents.

3 tips would be:

  • rest in the shorter gaps of time that you have
  • work together with a partner to ‘tag team’ in those early weeks
  • get support in, especially in if flying solo – family, friends, paid for, even a cleaner to take some of the load off

And remember with babies there are lots of phases – they flow in and then they flow out. It’s not forever, just for now.

Did you see…

Our blog on PTSD triggers in every day life.

Also did you see that our NICU diaries are now available on Amazon! There are 5 diaries to choose from:

Green diary with duckling, dinosaur and giraffe
White diary with duckling, dinosaur and giraffe
Duckling diary
Dinosaur diary
Giraffe diary