Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Case of Severe Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is something that every new mum anticipates in the first few weeks of parenthood, but despite our expectations, many of us are surprised at just how often that new baby wants to feed. Most of us are amazed at how well our bodies cope with the frequent waking and sleepless nights. Generally the days pass quickly, and soon that new little bundle of joy has grown. Rarely does the sleep deprivation get so severe that we need 3 months of bed rest, though for Rebecca Welton, mum of two, that is exactly what happened.

Rebecca with her children, Alex and Harry

I recently spoke to Rebecca about her experience with severe sleep deprivation and the resulting exhaustion. We discussed how things got so bad she had to be taken off all family duties and confined to her bed, about how she approached her recovery, and how she is now driven to help other parents avoid the situation in which she found herself.

On talking with Rebecca, it sounds like her exhaustion began before her first child was even born. Rebecca suffered with hyperemesis during both of her pregnancies. She was hospitalised and on a drip five times during her first pregnancy. In her second pregnancy she avoided the hospital (she had a toddler to care for!) but she was in bed for four months. By the sixth month of her second pregnancy she was up and around, and everything appeared normal, but she was still very weak.

Then Harry was born.

Neither of Rebecca's children were good sleepers, but it was Harry that really turned the family upside down. At five months old, he was still waking 8 or 9 times a night, disturbing not just his parents' sleep, but his elder sister's too. The whole family were exhausted.

"Everyone said we should do Controlled Crying, but we didn't really want to. We believed it would damage our relationship with Harry, we didn't want to lose his trust in the fact that we were there to care for him. Eventually though, we did end up giving it a try. Once. Leaving her brother to cry really distressed our two year old, as she couldn't understand why we weren't comforting him. We had to find another solution.

"In the end we worked out that the problem Harry had was a sleep association with food. He couldn't settle himself and needed to be fed to sleep. Spending a lot of time settling him without food was not an option with a 2 year old around either, but eventually we created our own solution, which we called the Peekaboo Baby Technique, and by 7 months Harry was over his sleep association"

Rebecca was a member of her local NCT Branch and discovered that many other parents were also having difficulties getting their babies to sleep. They also wanted to find some alternatives to controlled crying. Rebecca set up the Walking Zombies Club as a place where parents could come and discuss sleep problems and share solutions, as she really wanted to help others.

Although Harry was over his sleep association, Rebecca's wakeful nights had not ceased. For then came teething, and illness, and more teething. She couldn't sleep in after a difficult night with Harry as her toddler was always up early regardless. Rebecca's sleep deprivation continued. "By this time I was so tired I couldn't drive. I couldn't even really have a conversation. I certainly had no ability to make even the simplest of decisions. Everything came down to just getting though the next hour. There wasn't much joy or fun in the house. If everyone was fed and had a clean nappy it had been a good day" said Rebecca.

One day in April 2012, when Harry was around 10 months, Rebecca's body finally gave up. "I was walking back from a friend's house with the kids in the buggy. I was so tired my eyes stung just from being open. I closed my eyes and did wonder if I had actually fallen asleep walking. Finally I went to bed that night, but I was so tired I couldn't sleep. The next day I decided I had to get myself to the Doctors but it was so hard, just getting out of bed made me breathless."

Thankfully Rebecca did make it to see a Doctor. The diagnosis was severe sleep deprivation and exhaustion. Rebecca was prescribed amitriptyline and told that she would need to get in someone to look after the kids for a while as she needed complete bed rest. The doctor was unable to tell her how long for, but luckily her Mum was able to move in for a while and take care of the family.

"It was horrible. My kids were there but I couldn't be a Mum. I couldn't play with them or feed them or do anything a Mum should do. My son had his first birthday during this time, and I know I was there, that even I went downstairs for a short while, but I have no memory of it at all. I was determined to get well, to get my life back, and to bring joy, laughter and cuddles to the family again."

Her recovery was very gradual, but after a couple of months Rebecca could go downstairs for 10 minutes or so. Then she started walking, just a few yards at first, and then gradually increasing it. "I only ever did this at night as it would wipe me out for the rest of the day if I did it earlier on, and I wanted to see my children. Doing it at night meant that I could then sleep".

By her own admission, Rebecca's recollection of what happened when during this time is patchy - that is just one of the symptoms of severe sleep deprivation. However, at some point during her period of bed rest, Rebecca began to write a book. "I needed to do something positive with this experience. I couldn't just sit there and watch day time TV or I would have gone even more crazy, this was my way of making sense of it. Also, up until the point where I saw the doctor, I thought what I was experiencing was normal parental sleep deprivation, I had no inkling that what was happening to me was so severe. I really wanted to stop other parents getting in to that situation too".

Rebecca has written her book on sleep techniques with the sleep deprived in mind. It includes advice on dealing with your own sleep deprivation and what to do if you are too tired to even try sleep training with your baby. The short book presents five different sleep techniques, and includes her own Peekaboo Baby Technique. There are five ways presented because every family is different. Rebecca describes them as Trust techniques, by this she means ways to help your baby sleep whilst continuing to nurture the bond of trust between you.  She has also addressed the issue of siblings, an area that many sleep books neglect, as they do alter the family dynamic and impact the options that might work best in any particular case.

In January of this year Rebecca became a qualified Child Sleep Practitioner, and the Walking Zombies Club has evolved into a Sleep Clinic, which Rebecca runs three times a month. She is able to help parents with all sorts of sleep issues, and can recognise when people are heading beyond the normal realms of parental sleep deprivation, therefore helping to avoid the situation she found herself in. "Mainly we talk about what has been going on so I can work out exactly what the issue is, and I find out a little bit about the rest of the family too. I then explain how I see the problem to the parents and talk through different options available to them, so they can make an informed choice about how they want to handle it." 

Her book Baby Sleeping Trust Techniques - Alternatives to Controlled Crying was published as a Kindle Edition in February, and then, by popular demand, she released a Paperback version in May. She is currently working on a second book, Trust Techniques for Toddlers and Children.

Rebecca herself is much better these days, but she still hasn't fully recovered.  She was advised that 10 months of disturbed sleep would take 10 months of totally undisturbed sleep to recover from. But as a mum of two small children, a night of undisturbed sleep rarely happens. She is however very careful about her sleep these days, and regularly goes to bed at 8.30.



Rebecca has also recently launched the Trust Techniques Website

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