My son Frankie has just turned 6 months old. If I had known the strange combination of joy and difficulty that these past few months would bring, I am not sure how I would have felt exactly, holding his perfect little body in the operating theatre where he was delivered onto my chest. I suspect I would have gritted my teeth, got my head down, and got on with it. A few months of pain for my beautiful boy is hardly a tricky exchange. So. Probably it would have changed nothing. Still the contrast between now, and everything I didn’t know then, is one I occasionally find myself meditating on.
For the first few weeks of his life, I floated in a sleepless bliss bubble. After months of severe pelvic pain as I juggled pregnancy, work, and an increasingly emotional 2 year old, the simplicity (not the ease) of newborn life was like a cool breeze. I sat and fed. I lay and fed. I ate. I watched the sunrise with his tiny warm body beside my heart and I fell in love. When he wriggled around in the early hours, I was glad to be disturbed. Each day, no matter what was happening, with family downstairs, friends in the garden, visitors bringing food and wisdom, he and I climbed up away from it all and lay down together. I had some of the most peaceful hours’ sleep of my whole life in our bedroom on those bright spring afternoons, waking up to watch his face.
He was awake a lot in the night, but wasn’t that normal? Gradually as we moved into his 3rd month, the 3am whatsapp group with my antenatal friends grew quiet. Frankie’s crying got worse. His eyes were often swollen and red, his little legs bending and writhing in what I imagined must be pain. If he was awake, he was unhappy. Was it colic? It was never an evening event, always in the morning, once for five hours straight. I sat on the phone to the ambulance service, unsure what else to do, as they shouted their questions over the volume of Frankie’s cries. Sometimes in the early hours, he was so tired he would fall asleep between yells, as I held him, desperately whispering ‘what’s wrong? Please can you tell me what’s wrong?’ His 999 cry we called it. It returned day after day, Christian messaging, ‘I’m on my way home from work now, how is he?’
‘999 Crying. See you soon.’
I spoke to the doctor, convinced that something in my milk was burning Frankie’s insides. The doctor laughed, ‘you do know babies wake up a lot in the night?’
I felt silly. My daughter had slept. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for newborn sleep. Maybe this is what ‘regular’ babies did. Still, I harboured my suspicions. One morning I ate a bowl of strawberries and Frankie cried for four hours. I stopped eating strawberries.
When a lactation consultant told us that Frankie had restricted tongue movement that could be due to a tongue tie, I felt relief. I held him and together we watched as he repeatedly alternated between settling and writhing around in pain. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘you’ll get this sorted soon. I’m not suggesting that you wait and deal with this for longer than another week or two.’ When she left I cried, at the fact somebody other than myself had deemed it ‘a lot’, had seen that it was unsustainable.
But then a misdiagnosis plunged us into the hardest few weeks of my life. Five hours of settling for eleven minutes of sleep. An hour and a half of settling for fourteen minutes of sleep. Two hours of settling for thirty five minutes of sleep. The more tired he got, the more he wanted to feed. The more he fed, the less he slept. The sun rose. The sun set. The weeks flew by as one never-ending day. The most schizophrenic I have ever felt: every day I woke up and I loved him; every night I wished for my life to go back to how it had been before sleep was taken away from me. His smile lit up my heart, but in the dark I felt more alone than I have ever done before, feeding him easily to sleep and then watching as his little face grimaced, his limbs starting to twitch and then to flail until he was awake again, crying. I still felt sure that my milk was making him ill – a poison that he lovingly accepted, greedily rooted for, but that somehow kept him from rest.
My family described him as ‘an uncomfortable baby.’ In hospital when he arrived, the doctors kept saying they would come back to do their checks ‘when he was more settled’. I didn’t really know what they meant. This was just how he he was. Only I knew how to hold him, keeping my body statue-still in the see-through shallows of sleep. I saw every hour on the clock, every night, for months. I held him in pain and discomfort, never able to move him further than an inch or so away from me before he was awake again. His cot stood empty, his Moses basket full of folded muslins and towels, his sleepyhead tucked away in a cupboard. Family suggested that he should be put down more, that he should be left to cry, that he should learn to sit alone in his bouncy chair and watch the world go by. But in my heart I knew that his cries were of pain, that something was wrong. It broke me, responding to each and every one, but it would have killed me not to.
I convinced myself that it was my fault. I was stressed and overworked for much of the pregnancy; I’d heard that high stress during pregnancy is more likely to lead to colic. I had asked for a caesarian; I was repeatedly told that ‘C section babies are often congested’, ‘C section babies often have tummy trouble’, ‘C section babies need probiotics’. Dutifully I pipetted him his five drops every day.
I tried to remember what month it was, how my life usually felt, tried to summon even the convincing appearance of joy in the morning as my daughter bounced out of bed. I developed a near-permanent migraine. My incision swelled and itched. People told me to get more rest. How? Two children. Christian back at work. Living on a 24-hour clock. I would spike a fever for no reason. My eyes became infected. I couldn’t believe what Ella was having to deal with, how patient she was, how unfit to be her mum I felt most of the time. I couldn’t fathom how people did it with 2, couldn’t work out why it was so hard this time around. Was Frankie just a difficult baby? This didn’t sit right with who he had been in the womb – a calm little fish who would dance and jiggle and make me laugh. ‘He’s going to be so funny’, I had said to Christian almost every day. ‘I can just tell he wants to have fun’.
Each morning I woke up to find another part of my body was giving up. Mastitis set in, my milk supply ebbing and flowing, Frank raging at the breast for more, falling asleep frustrated and waking up 10 minutes later. I texted my health visitor, ‘Help. How do I get him to sleep?’
Friends with children were there for me in a way that nobody else could possibly be, arriving with deep understanding in their eyes, refusing to accept even a cup of tea unless they made it themselves, leaving presents for me on the front step (booze and bubble bath, a winning combination), forcing me to bed, reminding me that they had been in their own version of ‘here’, that it would end and I would survive. That it was okay if I couldn’t find my love for him at 3am when I was blind with tiredness, because it was my love for him that was powering me through. They were the reason I didn’t disintegrate; I will be grateful to them forever.
And then one day, a passing comment from my cousin penetrated my exhaustion. I was explaining that Frankie was so tired he had bags under his eyes, and she said that this didn’t necessarily mean he was sleep-deprived. She said there were lots of reasons for his skin looking like that. He might be allergic to something, for example. Oh really? I said. Yes, but that wouldn’t be the only symptom. He’d be congested or something, or you’d notice that his immunity was quite low. But he was, and it was. I found a study online looking at the links between cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) and insomnia in newborns. I started following the NHS elimination diet for babies with CMPA. 48 hours later Frankie was sleeping sprawled on his back, his arms thrown back in an expression of pure bliss.
Frankie was now easier to settle, but the duration of his naps and sleeps wasn’t much improved. I was still tired enough that one evening, alone with the children, I decided to bottle feed him expressed milk from the freezer because I didn’t feel that I had enough in me to give him a decent bedtime feed. I thought that bottle feeding my breastfed baby would be weird and sad, but it was the calmest, easiest and most beautiful feed we’d ever shared together and I knew immediately in that moment that he was tongue tied. Finally, a second osteopath agreed this was the case, the cause of my dipping milk supply, his hunger, my recurrent mastitis. The osteopath watched me breastfeed, sighed, and said Frankie was swallowing more air than milk. He snipped it there and then. I held Frankie down. I didn’t mind at all, rocking him through his bloody-mouthed tears – I was just excited to be rid of this piece of tissue that had robbed me of properly enjoying these precious early months.
Gradually, sleep returned. I looked forward to the night feeds again, stroking his silky little head, knowing that he would fall asleep quickly and stay asleep for a few hours. I could breathe him in again, desperate not to miss a single second of his chubby-fisted, gummy-smiled gorgeousness, no longer fantasising about his teenage hands slamming the bedroom door in my face. My incision stopped hurting, finally on the way to being healed. My love for him bubbled up like a spring. I felt as though he was born again, delivered to me anew in that fifth month, that I could see him clearly and that he was every inch the relaxed and smiley sun-seeker I had known for all those months inside me. I could squeeze my daughter again each morning, be there for her again. Something as simple as sleep, as basic as rest, allowing my life to bloom once more around me.
What I have survived is A Nothing. My baby was healthy. He was always safe, even when I worried that he was too unhappy to learn how to smile. He was always ultimately okay; people go through so much worse.
On his 6 month birthday, Frankie woke up beaming in our holiday home on Fuerteventura. I sat him on my bed in the pathway of a thick rainbow beam of light that appeared each morning across the room. He reached out to grab it, and looked up at me, smiling but confused, trying to work out what it was and why he couldn’t hold it in his hands. I walked to the corner of the room, to the tall bedroom window where the rainbow appeared from, seeing if I could work out what was casting the spell: It was the join between two pieces of glass. The windows had been attached together messily, little tiny cracks and marks in the glass either side of the join. It was a mistake, an error, that had created the rainbow.
I watched Frankie swiping at the light like a cat, his fists opening and closing in the air. The sun inched its way overhead and the rainbow evaporated. Elusive, fleeting, gone. It will return again tomorrow at sunrise.
The lovely and brilliant lactation consultant who first spotted Frankie’s tongue was Sue Freeman. She is an amazing lady and every new mum should have her in their life!
The amazing lactation osteopath who correctly diagnosed and released Frankie’s tongue tie was Dr. Simon Prideaux. Simon was one of the only medical professionals I spoke to who understood that a feeding issue is still a feeding issue even if your baby is gaining weight, one of the only people who looked at the whole picture, including the mental health of the mother and the functioning of the whole family in his approach.
Since we identified Frankie’s CMPA and tongue tie, some of you who follow me on social media will know that we also bought a ‘magic lamp’ to help him sleep. By the time the feeding issues were all sorted, we were stuck in a fairly unhelpful ‘hyper vigilant’ place with his sleep. I was so used to him crying out in pain, that I ran to him at the slightest noise, and I was so used to him only sleeping in short bursts that I found it really difficult to stay asleep myself for longer than about an hour. The Glow Dreaming lamp (pink noise, red lamp, oil diffuser, humidifier) has been the final piece of the jigsaw for us, and generally speaking – excluding last night’s teething marathon – Frankie is now waking 1-3 times a night and napping really well. If you know me, you know I am cult-level evangelical about this lamp: buy it!