If your child does not sleep through the night, you are going to love this article! Until recently I was lucky to get four or five broken hours shut eye…

Anyone who follows this blog will already know that severe sleep deprivation has been a major part of mine and hubby’s lives the entire time we’ve been parents. I’m not just talking about a few months here and there when the kids were tiny, I’m talking not having an entire week of unbroken sleep in over eight years. I’m sure most will agree that is a very long time.

Prior to our eldest daughter Polly’s autism diagnosis in 2015, we honestly thought we were just clueless parents, convinced that we must be missing a trick. We had to be going wrong somewhere along the line. Why did everyone else’s kid sleep through the night but not ours?

There’s no way to dress it up, right from birth Polly was a terrible sleeper. We didn’t know any different though, and took it on the chin in those early days. Things got really bad for us when I was heavily pregnant with our second daughter, Clara. After a hideous night of almost no sleep at all, I went to work and cried my eyes out, begging my old boss to let me start maternity leave a few weeks before I was due to.

sleep through the nightBy the time our new baby came along we were dreading the sleep side of things, and totally expected the worst

Fortunately for us we were blessed with an incredible sleeper. With no intervention from us whatsoever, Clara was getting a solid twelve hours by the time she was three months old. Polly however was up every night, seriously distressed, having monumental meltdowns. Her behaviour during the day was beyond challenging, and I look back on this time with immense sadness.

Everyone was miserable and it was definitely a turning point for us as a family. I went into frantic mama bear mode. Having suffered with gastro problems myself as a child, I became convinced that Polly’s issues were linked to allergies. Turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong, because just before her third birthday she was diagnosed with a food intolerance list as long as your arm. Cue two years of strict exclusion diets, as well as our third child.

The clean eating certainly helped, but it didn’t solve Polly’s sleep problems. By the time Freddy came along we’d read every website and parenting self-help book we could get our hands on. No matter what we tried nothing seemed to help Polly sleep through the night.

That is until our first autism assessment, where we heard two words that would change our lives: sleep hygiene

This term had never come up in anything we had previously read, but it instantly felt like we were being handed a gift. Sleep hygiene is essentially a series of bedtime (and for us nighttime) habits that need to be set in place and stuck to rigidly. It sounds so simple, but let’s face it, especially in hindsight, it always does.

The reason I feel qualified to share our experience now, is because we’ve been doing these things for more than two years and have ruled out any happy coincidences. I can put my hand on my heart and say that they definitely work.

Create good sleep hygiene, to help your child sleep through the night, using these steps

“Figure out a bedtime routine that suits everyone, and stick to it like glue.”

Our paediatrician Dr. K’s words now sound like a complete no-brainer. Trust me though, having sat on both sides of the fence, I know how hard it can be to devise, implement and adhere to a routine. With the best will in the world, life gets in the way doesn’t it? The thing about a sleep problem, is that it really needs to be given top priority within the family. When your child is sleep deprived, so are you, and we all know that it’s a form of torture.

Give yourself at least three months to put these steps into place, without expectation or changes to the schedule. We started seeing improvements in Polly after the first week, but once we’d been at it for three months real progress was evident.

 

Calling all parents: How affected by sleep deprivation are you right now? If the answer is very, and you’re at your wits end because you feel you’ve tried everything and nothing has worked long term, you are going to love my latest blog. ♥️ When her sleep was at its worst, Polly was waking up, on average, ten times a night. This went on for years, with all the usual tricks either not working or only being effective in the very short term. The article is almost 2000 words long, but I’m certain there is something in it for every desperate parent trying to figure out sleep solutions for their exhausted children. ♥️ Disclaimer: we were gifted our gorgeous bunk beds which are being built here by the lovely people at @warrenevansbeds but the blog post is entirely about our personal story…

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Things to consider before anything else

Creating a good sleeping environment is just as important as the routine itself. A dark cosy room, which isn’t full of distractions is a must, especially for children on the spectrum whose minds can be more difficult to quiet at the end of a busy day. Polly had her own room for years, and our younger two shared, but we moved her in with Clara about a year ago and it improved Polly’s sleep even further.

Something we hadn’t banked on was that sometimes Polly was waking in the night because she felt lonely, and now that she has the presence of her sister in the room that isn’t the case.

The girls adore their bunk beds from Warren Evans*, and devised a rota among themselves for who sleeps at the top so there are no arguments. They agreed that Polly could go first as she’s the eldest, then after one week it was Clara’s turn, then Polly, etc. During the first week they actually decided they liked the Polly up top/Clara at the bottom set up and have not been arguing about swapping.

For those considering bunk beds for children who have a fairly small age gap, and will find any excuse to argue, I can highly recommend thinking about a rota.

Things to do before bedtime

sleep through the nightIt’s easy to say keep stress to a minimum, but it does massively impact the witching hour. In my experience stress has always been the number one trigger for meltdowns during bedtime. The trouble is, once stress hormones have been stirred up, it can be very difficult to get your child to go to sleep.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that calm is the most important factor in getting a decent nights rest. Even once a child is asleep, the quality of that sleep will likely be poor if they’ve stressed themselves out beforehand.

My children usually watch a film in the early evening, and we don’t allow small screens past 5pm. We have at least half an hour, if not longer, downtime between the TV going off and the kids going to bed. This allows them sufficient transition time from one task to the next.

Things to do during bedtime

I take my hat off to those who have multiple children of varying ages, and manage to stick to a routine at the exact same time every single night. For us we aim for certain things to happen within a time frame, but with the best will in the world it isn’t always possible.

We also find with our kids that a routine will work for a few months, then things will start sliding and need to be changed. We have structured our evening quiet time around playing LEGO, colouring, doing jigsaw puzzles and reading stories. At the moment they are enjoying meditation sleep stories in bed, which help them relax before dropping off.

It’s also vital that Polly gets to tick everything off her mental check list before going to sleep, otherwise she feels like something is missing. She needs to have fresh water in her bottle, she needs to know the details of what will be happening the next day, her hair has to be tied up in a certain way, and she absolutely must get goodnight kisses from the entire family. It took us a long while to realise that not ticking everything off her list was causing her serious anguish.

Things to do for night time wake ups

The million pound question for us c.2015 was what to do in the middle of night when Polly woke up distressed for whatever reason. The answer was getting to the bottom of what she needed and finding a solution as quickly as possible.

When we started out, Polly was waking on average ten times a night, often having bedtime-like meltdowns in the small hours. We were advised by Dr. K to silently guide her back to bed, without interacting with her, even if it took all night. My husband and I were absolutely dreading this, and the first few nights were indeed horrendous, but by the end of the first week we saw a massive improvement. By the end of the month we were astonished at how far we’d come, and by the time we had hit the three month mark she was consistently sleeping through the night for the first time ever.

Nowadays Polly only wakes in the middle of the night if she needs the toilet, or has had a scary dream and wants some comfort. I honestly cannot remember the last time she was up for more than fifteen minutes in the middle of the night.

sleep through the nightAn overview 

Bottom line is, if your child is a poor sleeper, you are going to be sleep deprived which adds an extra layer of difficulty to your days as a parent. Here are my biggest tips to help your kids get some Zzzzz’s: 

  • eat a healthy balanced diet of real food 
  • rule out any medical problems 
  • limit small screens, especially in the hour or two before bed 
  • ensure their sleeping environment is comfortable, a good quality bed is an absolute must 
  • keep stress to a minimum 
  • structure your bedtime routine around doing quiet activities to wind down 
  • read or listen to stories while your child is in bed 
  • make sure their mental checklist has been completed 
  • meet their needs in the night quickly with minimal interaction

*About Warren Evans

You cannot underestimate the importance of a good quality bed, and comfortable mattress. You honestly cannot go wrong with Warren Evans, who have 38 years of award winning experience handcrafting beds. Their superior service and quality products, at a fantastic price, means you get great value. For more info please read my article about how I fell in love with my Warren Evans bed and TEMPUR mattress.

Warren Evans was rated by Which? Members as the ‘Best Mattress Retailer’ in 2017. For great sleep tips see Warren Evans’ blog.

**Disclaimer: we were gifted our bunk beds by Warren Evans in exchange for this honest blog. For my full disclosure policy, please click here.**

 

A Letter to My Family at this Super Difficult TimeDear Andy, Polly, Clara & Freddy,

My family, it should go without saying that I love you all to the moon and back, but there’s no denying that we’re experiencing a really difficult phase. 

I’ve ummed and ahhed over whether or not to press publish, and have decided that this needs to be said. Out loud. On the record. So here goes.
For Andy

There’s no way to dress it up, these last few months have been exceptionally tough. Your new job has taken up a lot of your time and attention. Ditto going back to off-site training. We’re either ships passing in the night, or bickering on an epic scale.

It can feel to me that you’re being distant, moody and uninterested in what’s going on in my life. It’s not a good way for a wife to feel about her husband, but in fairness you probably think the same about me. Let’s face it, I’ve always been terrible for feeding off your negative vibes. It’s really getting me down though, my love. Riding the storm has become par for the course.

We go through a monumental amount of stress on a daily basis, and are still as sleep deprived as most brand new parents. It’s not going to be easy is it? It’s been horrendous watching friends separate, divorce and suffer mental breakdown over the last couple of years. We joke about the mid-life crisis, but it’s not funny. No-one is immune. As our anniversary approaches, I’ve been thinking of past celebrations. The ridiculous amounts of fun we’ve had, and the adventures we’ve been on. Last year’s weekend away replenished us, and I can’t wait for our weekend away next month. I’m certain it’ll do the same.
For Polly

A Letter to My Family at this Super Difficult TimeMy darling girl, you have the ability to make the entire family smile and laugh their socks off. You’re also able to bring us collectively to our knees, with exasperation. Seeing how amazingly well you took to GAPS at the start of the year made me so proud. You aced it during those first couple of weeks, but it didn’t last. You quickly got back into the sugar cycle, and your body just can’t handle it. Even though you only eat natural sugars, they still make a difference to your mood and ability to control your emotions. It’s awful watching you become so angry and irate over things that were passing you by.  

So we’ve gone back to being strict again, and although it’s only been three days, I can already see improvements. The bottom line is that no behaviour intervention we’ve tried works as well as clean eating does. I am more confident that ever that this is what we need to do. The best thing is that now you’ve had a taste of how wonderful life can be, you’re fully on board with GAPS. You haven’t been pestering me for treats and lashings of honey on pancakes in the morning. You’re happy to eat the kind of breakfast I do, and are back to eating with gusto again. We’re going to own GAPS this time my girl, and we’re going to get you on track for good.   

For Clara

It’s been a tough few months for you my sweet little girl, hasn’t it? Watching how much of a negative effect school has had on you has been absolutely soul destroying for me. Six months ago I was certain that you needed to go to school for your independence, now I’m almost certain that I was wrong. It’s beyond heartbreaking watching you become so nervous and anxious.

However, in the face of all this, I still see glimpses of the happy go lucky gorgeous girl you are deep down. You and Polly are getting on better, which is wonderful to see. I’m so pleased that you can finally play together for longer than five minutes without it turning into a fight. It’s lovely when you sit at the table and create masterpieces of artwork together. You girls could be the best friends if you showed each other a little bit more love. 

For Freddy

Even though at three you are still a complete sleep thief, you are also a little ray of sunshine. It sounds silly to say please don’t change, and totally futile, but I can’t help myself. You’re the most sweet natured, loving little boy I know, and I’d like to keep you this way forever. I try not to let my mind race when you jump up and down, and cry your eyes out over the smallest things. What will be will be, there’s not much more to be said on the matter. 

For all of my family 

They say the days are long but the years are short, and I’m feeling this sentiment a lot right now. The days are so very long, and so very challenging. Outings to the local park have descended into meltdown recently. Restaurant lunches have caused more problems than they’re worth. Plans have been cancelled this half term, or altered to make them super easy for us.

This mama is exhausted by life, and is going to be taking the path of least resistance for the foreseeable. It’s time to concentrate all our energies on coming together as a family. No more complicated days out, and expensive activities that seem like a good idea at the time. I’m going to embrace a smaller life, and you know what? I think it’s exactly what we need.

Much love to you all. Always ❤

 

Today’s been super hard. I started my day on a sleep deficit, after being up for hours in the middle of the night with F. The girls have been cranky to put it mildly. All three have spent the day on a knife edge, kicking off at the slightest thing. Tears on the way to the park, more tears on the way home. It’s been exhausting, and my head is pounding. 💖 I used to pride myself on my together-ness, but days like today push me to my limits limits. My mind starts drifting off into a bleak future, and I think f***, if I can’t cope now what will it be like in a few years time? I start worrying that the foundations of my marriage aren’t strong enough to take the strain of this pressure cooker environment we call life. 💖 Then I remember to breathe. And I remember that the days are long but the years are short. I count my blessings, and think of the empty armed mama’s I know, who’d sacrifice a limb for what I have. And I remember that I’m made of tough stuff, but I’m not a robot. 💖 Is parenting the toughest gig of all? I’m starting to think that yes indeed it is. We can only do our best, and hopefully our best will be good enough.

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An Open Letter to the Parents of Neuro Typical ChildrenDear Parents,

I see you, biting your tongue and trying not to roll your eyes at me. I know you think I’m precious and over the top the way I plan my family’s life to the last second. You don’t think I do myself any favours by saying no to seemingly ‘kind offers of help’. To be completely honest, before our diagnosis, I myself thought I was being OTT most of the time, so how can I possibly expect others to not view me this way? Also I’m probably rather paranoid when it comes to these matters – not sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time for years on end will do that to the best of us.

The thing is, because your own kids are neuro typical, you could never fully understand what it feels like to walk in my shoes; nor would I expect you to. Parenting is challenging enough, constantly juggling and trying not to drop the many balls you have in the air. I haven’t written this to create some kind of ‘them and us’ divide, really I haven’t. It would be great if a little more empathy was displayed though, because it can feel at points that no matter how much I explain why we do the things we do, I still pick up on these vibes.

As you only see tiny snippets of my girl, you are usually privvy to a perfectly ‘normal’ child holding it all together. It must be almost impossible to imagine her in the middle of a sensory overloaded meltdown, like the ones she was having every single day after school towards the end, that were lasting up to two hours. It’s probably tricky to get your head around the idea of a six and a half year old who often sleeps worse than a newborn baby. One who is capable of turning on her little brother and sister for apparently no reason, and in a split second spitefully cause them such pain. How small amounts of food she doesn’t usually eat can impact her for a week; or how a slight change to the normal routine can throw her little world into chaos. Just because you don’t personally witness it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

I can’t even articulate the extra weight that I carry on my shoulders, and the agonising that goes on inside my mind. My fears about her future, as if growing up in this world wasn’t going to be hard enough. I try not to let my thoughts drift too far though, for the fear that she’s going to get chewed up and spat back out in the harshest of ways. With all our early intervention strategies I sincerely hope this isn’t going to be the case obviously, but people with no experience of autism telling me that “she’ll be fine” does very little to make me feel better.

I hope this note goes some way to helping you understand us a bit better. Please don’t take offence, or search for hidden meaning behind my words, because truly there are none to be found. I’m not blaming you for your lack of insight into our world. How on earth could I, when I’m still getting to grips with it myself?

Forgive me if I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I’ve been teetering on the edge for quite some time now.

Very best regards,

Reneé
(aka autism mama)

mental health pre kids

 

I’ve wanted to write this so many times, but have always been afraid to, just in case it was taken the wrong way and there was a backlash. This fear of others misconstruing my words has led to censorship, which is ridiculous. I can’t call myself a pro-blogger and allow myself to be censored at the same time, so I’ll be taking a big deep breath as I press the publish button.

I’d like to credit Alice who writes at The Filling Glass. After reading her brilliant piece The Chicken and Egg of Positive Parenting, these words started swirling around in my head. So here they are, come what may. 

A story about mental health

There is no beating around the bush here, when I left home and emerged into adulthood at 15, I was seriously fucked up. How could it have been any other way? Although I had a mother who loved me, she was very much reeling from her own miserable upbringing throughout mine, and made a whole load of terrible decisions that negatively impacted (damaged, destroyed, stole…) my childhood.

Lying to me about who my father was; moving so much I went to eight schools where I was often bullied; inviting randy teenage boys into our home who would take advantage of me… The list could go on and on, but this blog would end up being the length of a book.   

I could never have been described as fresh faced and innocent, but I definitely was naive, which led to me making more than a few bad decisions of my own. Especially after drinking, which I did regularly and heavily in those days. All the partying inevitably led to me having very little in the way of respect for myself, and this more than anything else perpetuated the cycle of bad decision making.

In the first decade of me living independently, I attempted suicide, suffered countless bouts of depression and anxiety, and had two full on mental breakdowns.

After the first breakdown I started seeing a counsellor who opened my eyes to how damaged I was. She also made me realise that it wasn’t my fault. This is the thing that us survivors of abuse usually carry with us you see, the guilt. I didn’t even realise until that point that I was as damaged as I was, or that I even felt guilty about my childhood, but believe me I was and I did.

She made me see that I needed to bury those demons of mine once and for all, if I were to move on and lead a happy life. 

In order to heal, we must face up to the past

My healing process was long and painful. It involved cutting ties with my entire family, and going through a second mental breakdown, which was triggered by hitting rock bottom and coming exceptionally close to losing everything I cared about.

Counselling was the very start for me, and although it highlighted a lot of my issues and why they existed, it still took me over four years to realise that my own self-destructive behaviour was at the centre of a lot of my current-day problems. Irrespective of why I was fucked up, the point is I was fucked up.

The only way I wasn’t going to be fucked up any more was by digging deep, and changing every aspect of my life that was causing me dramas. Nothing is as important as our mental health well being, but it can be difficult for us to appreciate this.

Taking responsibility for our lives not panning out the way we want them to can be a tough truth to accept, but it’s not about blame. It is about not allowing those demons to destroy our chances of happiness for a minute longer.

Everyone’s demons are different of course, and the changes they will have to make will depend on what is driving those demons. As for me, I quit partying, had a three month booze break, started eating well and doing more exercise. I disassociated myself from negative influences, and created lifelong good habits. During the course of six months, I worked relentlessly to turn my life around. It was the hardest yet most rewarding thing I had ever done at that point. 

You’ll never know how messed up someone is, until you try to love them

Exactly halfway between my two breakdowns, I met my husband. He has always been stable, confident in his own abilities and an all round rock solid guy. I still did my best to push him away though, and sabotage the chances of our relationship surviving. We broke up a few times in our earliest years, but ultimately he stuck by me and refused to accept that I was ‘too fucked up to be loved’.

The turning around of my life came after we had been together for almost three years. He proposed on our fourth anniversary, and six months later I fell pregnant with our eldest. To say we’ve faced lots of challenges since becoming a family, would be a huge understatement. From a horribly traumatic first birth (thankfully much nicer experiences second and third time!); to kids that don’t sleep; to having autism to contend with; and most recently, deciding to home educate. Once again the list could go on… 

How do you cope? 

In the six and a half years that we’ve been parents, we have certainly had our fair share of ups and downs, which is what inspired me to create this blog almost three years ago. I get asked on a regular basis how I cope, considering I have very little in the way of help day to day.

I truly believe the reason I’m able to cope as well as I do, on the small amount of sleep I get most nights, is because I went through the process of dealing with my demons when I did.

I faced up to the past, I changed the necessary and I buried those monsters good and proper. I put coping mechanisms in place that would see me through the toughest of times, and it means I am able to focus on present-day challenges. I have essentially compartmentalised the painful elements of my past, so they can’t hurt me any more. 

When I made the decision to turn my life around back in November 2006, I didn’t have a clue that I’d be implementing changes that would directly impact my mothering abilities.

That is exactly what I was doing though. 

Untitled designSo what next?

If you’re reading this and know in your heart of hearts that you have demons stemming back to your childhood, then you must acknowledge them.

The next step is to forgive yourself and anyone else you need to for them.

Then you need to let those fuckers go. You hear me?

Work out a plan to rid yourself of them once and for all.

Believe me you will have never felt lighter in your entire life.

Do it for the sake of your kids. Whether they are already here, or they’re a mere thought at the back of your mind. 

It’s going to be hard work, make no mistake about that, but it has to be done.  

I’ll be cheering from the sidelines, and wishing you all the luck in the world on your journey!  

 

sorry about the noiseWe live in a lovely house on a private estate, and I’m proud to be part of a proper little community. Just like in the olden days, we let our kids play out and at times it can feel as though the only socialising we do is with the people on our doorstep. This is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. We are exceptionally fortunate that many of our neighbours have kids the same age as ours, and lots of us are on the same page when it comes to our outlook on life.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. Like the delightful woman that gave me a character assassination in front of my own children, after a nine hour trip back from Greece last May. Her beef was that we hadn’t informed her in advance that we were having work done on the house in our absence. Unfortunately the workmen had upset her by making a racket too early.

Apparently this was all my fault because I’m “so selfish”! 

She has gone on to complain to us and our landlord a handful times in the last seven months – about the noise levels. Most recently giving my poor hubby a telling off because he had lost his temper and shouted that morning. This woman has one child who has just turned 16, so it’s been a very long time since she’s had experience of witching hours and kids that wake up in the middle of the night. While I don’t care for her one little bit, there is a small part of me that wants to knock on her door and spell out for her how difficult our lives are to muster some empathy.

I want her to know how grinding it is to have a child who pushes you to the end of your tether every single day. How incredibly hard we are trying to stay cool, calm and collected in the face of adversity, but how beaten down by life we feel far too often. And although we are sorry about the noise, it is not at the top of our priority list. We have bigger fish to fry – like getting our daughter to a happier place and helping our family back on it’s feet. 

Oh by the way, did I mention that Polly is autistic? No probably not because her diagnosis came after we stopped exchanging pleasantries.    

I felt so bad for my poor hubby, because I know how hard he’s been trying to not lose his temper. To stay calm and not shout. To follow all the rules and GET. IT. RIGHT! 

Except there is no getting it right is there? All parenting is hard work, but parenting a child with autism is so challenging it’s likely to bring even the toughest of us to our knees

I think it’s too easy for parents to judge other parents. After all they’ve got direct experience of the situation. Or so they think, but they haven’t of course. No-one knows what goes on inside your four walls apart from you and the other people that live within them.  

If you hear shouting and screaming coming from your neighbours occasionally, please don’t assume the worst – that they must be awful human beings who are damaging their children. You have no idea how hard their day has been, and how tough their lives are. 

As for me, I truly am sorry about the noise, and wish it could be a different way.

Really I do.