I have five children, mashaAllah, and not one has failed to bring me to my knees in exhaustion; none have allowed me to have a full night’s sleep for at least the first year of their short lives.
I have purchased and read countless books and articles on ‘How to get your child to sleep through the night’; I have had tears rolling from my eyes when the fatigue has just become too overbearing; I have uncharacteristically used firm words with a neighbour whose argument with her child outside my bedroom window woke me up; I have remembered the rumours of Chinese torture involving tape-recordings of crying babies being used to stop prisoners sleeping. Despite all the joys of motherhood, the first smiles, gurgles and words, the lead blanket of sleep deprivation has at times made doing anything a struggle.
”Just six hours, just give me six short hours!”
The need for sleep was taking over my mind. Money was no object; I would dream of escaping to a hotel room for just one night, leaving my husband to take over, but in the end, I couldn’t do it. No doubt I’d have been unable to sleep there, worrying that my little ones were waking up, needing their milk, nappy changed or just my arms to hold them.
So, where am I now? All my children, the youngest being 4, sleep through the night. From my nice little bubble of actually using an alarm clock to wake me, and maybe being called upon in the darkness of night only once a month to take care of a nightmare-afflicted child or someone who forgot to use the toilet before bedtime, I think, was it really so bad?
What I have come to see is that my obsession with a night of unbroken sleep was unrealistic, and I was always doomed to fail. Failure was what I felt when I couldn’t ‘sleep train’ my children. At mother and baby groups I found myself keeping pretty quiet, the stress building up like a coiled spring, as mothers recounted how their little one slept through after 3 weeks and fed every 4 hours in the day. It took a fair bit of patience not to march off with my baby, hijab whooshing through the air, to the exit of the building.
If there was a night where they ‘slept through’ the hours of darkness (just 3 hours between Isha’ and Fajr in the Swedish summer), I had a big grin on my face displaying my sense of achievement. But this was sporadic, and overall I could only see the finishing line of this marathon being when they stopped breastfeeding, aged 2. I’d like to say I was such a ‘good mum’ that only breast was good enough for my children. But they wouldn’t take a bottle, even with my milk in it, at least not very willingly. In fact, I am heartily grateful to Allah (SWT) for giving us a deadline for stopping breastfeeding (Al Baqarah: 233) otherwise I don’t know how I’d get them to stop!
Changing your dream
Dreams are great to get towards your goal, but by having totally unrealistic goals, I was just setting myself up for failure. If I had perhaps scaled down my dream to something achievable, I would have been more likely to have the grin of success all over my face as the sunlight poured through the window.
The other conclusion I came to after many years is that sleep (or lack of it) is my test from Allah (SWT). He (SWT) knows my weak spots, that ideally I’d like 10 hours snuggled up under the duvet. But what would be the point of a test if it was easy? And this test has put things in context and helped me realise that ‘mind over matter’ is significant. Waking up for Fajr as a new Muslim was a huge struggle, tahajjud, impossible. Allah (SWT) has been helping me move to another level, to see that part of that time between ‘Isha and Fajr is better spent being conscious, not sleeping.
But how to survive?
So, by baby number 5, realising that unbroken sleep just wasn’t going to happen, I developed some survival techniques. Here are some of them:
1. Caffeine is your friend
I expect it’s on a long list of ‘No-no’s’, especially for breastfeeding women, but a woman’s got to have some weapons in her armory, and tea or coffee can be lifesavers. Probably not a good idea late at night, but to get you through the morning after a night in the trenches can pick you up until lunch.
2. Power naps
I was never brought up napping in the day. My husband, on the other hand, has always done this; with his country having such a hot climate, life’s schedule was completely different. Plus it’s sunnah to take a nap after Dhuhr prayer. So I gave it a try. Even just lying down helped. I always remember a friendly doctor who came to check me after the birth of my 2nd saying that the physical rest helps, even if you don’t sleep. Often when you do a get a chance to nap, the thought of all the stuff you have to catch up on makes your mind race so you can’t sleep. Then there’s the feeling of ‘I have to sleep, I have to sleep, it’s now or never’. But try, and if you lie down at the same time each day, your body may well get into a routine and you could find yourself dropping off as the words “I’m just having a lie down” reach your husband’s ears.
3. Time whizzes by
Two years sounds like a long time but, once children come along, we realise how quickly time passes. Once you wean your child off bottle or breast milk, things usually become a lot easier. Remember, Allah (SWT) has promised us relief after difficulty (Ash-Sharh:6). Maybe it will only be a few months of relief before a subsequent baby takes over the position of Chief Mummy-waker, but savour those days when you wake up feeling truly rested.
4. Great time for du’a
Allah (SWT) loves us to ask Him for things, and to continue to ask. Most likely you’re being woken in the last third of the night, so make extra use of this special time and ask Him to improve your situation and for your baby to let you have more sleep.
As I progressed through five rounds of being woken frequently during the night for a couple of years, waking up for Fajr and tahajjud gradually became easier in comparison. The early years of my children’s lives were tests for sure because the waking was not my choice, I was not in control. For prayers during the night, my brain calculates when I want to wake up, my fingers set the alarm. If I forget to do that, my body clock wakes me up at the stage in my sleep where I don’t feel completely groggy, like the world is covered in thick fog. By my fifth child, I realised I needed to change my dream. I used whatever strategies I could to overcome tiredness in the day and remembered it was not going to be like this forever. I realised that Allah (SWT) had a plan for me that involves this personal test so that in the end, sleep deprivation is something I have managed to survive, and in the end, even gain from.
Umm Suhayb lives in Sweden with her husband and 6 children. She is a writer and editor at Mint Writing, originally from the UK but now based in Sweden.