My son hasn’t slept through the night in three years – I haven’t either


We’re a loving, happy family – with a secret (Picture: Sarah Whiteley)

My body stirred and I groaned as I rolled over while trying desperately to remain in my peaceful slumber.

But there it was again. The voice. ‘Wake up,’ it insisted. I kept still, hoping – praying – I was still dreaming. Then a little hand shook my shoulder. ‘Wake up!’

Feeling as if I was surfacing from the depths, I cracked open my eyes. My head spun and my body became a dead weight. There was only one word for how I felt. Tortured.

‘Hey Theo,’ I mumbled to my four-and-a-half year old.

I know now why sleep deprivation is used as a means of tormenting prisoners. It’s the cruellest thing you can do to someone. 

Over four years ago, my husband Tom and I had our son Theodore and then our daughter Imogen came along two years later – T and Immy to their friends.

Now before I say anything else, I adore my children. T never fails to say ‘thank you’ to the bus driver and makes friends wherever he goes. At two-and-a-half, Immy is already hilarious and loves putting on voices to make us laugh.

On the face of it, we’re a loving, happy family. But behind closed doors, we have a secret. One I’m fairly ashamed of and only confide, on really bad days, to my bestest of friends.

But here goes: For the last three years, I can honestly say Tom and I haven’t slept through for a single night. Read that again. Not. A. Single. Night.

It’s been really tough.

When you decide to have a baby, you know, theoretically, you’re going to be tired. You presume – ever so naively – that the newborn stage will be excruciating and gradually, things will get better.

We always end up in bed with one – or both – of the children (Picture: Sarah Whiteley)

For us, it was the complete opposite. Theo was a dream baby. He slept through the night from week two. It was just from 11pm to 5am, but that was winning compared to the other new parents we knew. And he got better too – soon it was 10.30pm he was going down, 5.30am he was waking up.

At first, we boasted proudly of our perfect little baba. ‘We don’t do anything, he just drifts off on his own,’ we’d share smugly. We presumed he got it from me – the tales of me going to bed at 4.45pm and sleeping through until 8am are legendary in my family, surpassed only by my sister, who went down slightly earlier at 4.30pm.

But eventually, we had to stop our arrogant anecdotes. They were causing too much anger. Other parents’ (tired) eyes would begin to burn, their fists would clench tighter around their baby bottle.

But nonetheless, for 14 months, we had it good.

Then, we put him into nursery and something in him just broke.

He hated being left there so he’d sob hysterically as the staff prised him out of my arms and it would be a good day if I left the nursery without crying too. ‘We haven’t been able to take many photos of Theo,’ I vividly remember his key worker saying. ‘He’s just too upset.’

As my guilt rose, Theo seemingly decided to punish us. He stopped sleeping – and there was nothing we could do about it. Because we’d done nothing to make him fall asleep in the first place, we had no idea what to do now.

That didn’t stop us trying, of course. Lavender bubbles in his bath, fresh pyjamas, warm milk, stories before bed. We altered his naps so he’d be tired. We played him soothing music.

We might as well not have bothered. His eyes remained, unblinkingly, open.

We’d end up sitting with him until he fell asleep but that only lasted until midnight. Then, he’d wake up again. And again. Maybe even again.

So we did the worst thing a parent can do, if you listen to some. We brought him into bed with us.

T and Immy prefer playing in Immy’s cot, rather than sleeping in it (Picture: Sarah Whiteley)

And while that may have helped him sleep, it certainly didn’t help us. For a child, he took up a hell of a lot of room.

Then there’s the fact he loves playing with my eyebrows. He’ll paw me continuously until he’s eventually in the land of nod. Once a complex human being with needs and ambitions, I’ve basically been demoted to a comfort toy.

When Immy came along, things just got worse. She’s maybe not quite as bad as T – it’s hard to tell. They sound remarkably similar in the dark.

But basically now, our nights involve four interruptions, minimum – whether that is just T coming in with us, Immy sobbing from her cot, one – or more – of us switching beds.

Some days are of course better than others. Not all of them involve either Tom or I pushing the other out of bed to have the first shower so we can have just another 10 minutes of rest. We don’t always wake up with a thumping headache, our ever-increasing wrinkles etched just that more deeply into our grey skin.

The only, ever so slight, benefit to our horrendous sleeping situation is that it’s made Tom and I closer than ever before. We cling to each other like rats on a sinking ship. ‘Please don’t ever leave me,’ we’ll beg at least once a week. ‘I couldn’t possibly do this alone.’

I keep reading about how important sleep is and, worse, how you can never catch up on it. Once those hours are gone, they’re gone. I’m terrified about what this means for our long-term health.

‘It’s all just a phase,’ I’ve told myself repeatedly, as T throws an arm out and clobbers me round the cheek at 3.45am. ‘I’ll miss them when they stop coming into bed with us.’

But on the really bad days, the ones where I can barely recognise myself in the mirror anymore, I can’t help but secretly wish for the teenage years. When they’ll lie in until midday – and so will Tom and I.

An older friend roared with laughter when I told her these secret wishes.

‘You’re forgetting about them crashing into the house at 2am after a night out,’ she reasoned. ‘Setting the smoke alarm off when they fall asleep cooking a late-night snack, the first boyfriends or girlfriends sleeping over. Believe me, it only gets worse.’

Oh, I guess I’ll just never sleep again.

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