99 Problems

Published on December 12th, 2013 | by Belle Chesler


BELLE CHESLER on The End of Sleep

My typical day usually begins at 5am.   I often wake before my daughter, Cleo.  I lie in bed savoring the darkness and quiet, waiting to hear the telltale signs of her stirring.  But for most of the last two and a half years of parenthood her cries, laughter, yelled pleas, giggles, screams, thumps, farts, explosive poops and quiet and loud singing have been my alarm.  Often it means that I drag myself out of bed sometime between 4 and 5 am, struggling each time to maintain verticality.  I’ve stubbed my toes more times than I care to count.  I’ve fallen over, run into walls, hissed insults at my sleeping husband, cursed myself, cursed my daughter and cursed nothing at all.  I’ve talked to myself, mumbled to myself and yelled at the clock.  I’ve been lucid and I’ve been completely out-of-my-mind, and I’ve done it almost every day.

From about the 2nd week of her life my daughter made it clear that she wasn’t about to share a bed with anyone.  She thrashed, kicked, mumbled, farted and squeaked through her first months. Just as I’d fall asleep a little baby fist would punch me in the mouth, or her little razor-like fingernails would rake across my face.  The family bed simply wasn’t an option for us.  So my husband Andy and I decided to move her into a crib at the other end of our loft-like bedroom.   She couldn’t see us, but we could hear her every move.  And we, the new and fragile parents, jumped out of bed any time we heard her sigh too loudly or cry at all.


I’ve often marveled at all the information available to pregnant women about pregnancy, and the startling lack of information about post-partum issues.  No one warned me about the true toll of long-term sleep deprivation when I was preparing for Cleo’s arrival.  Now I wish I had spent the months leading up to her birth taking marathon naps instead of obsessively organizing my pictures from junior high.   I assume it’s part of the unwritten rules of parenthood: you don’t share too much information with expecting parents for fear of traumatizing them.  There’s no way to plan for the long months that you won’t be sleeping, so why even mention it?

So, for most of the first year of Cleo’s life we struggled through her light sleeping, non-sleeping and never ending sleep training.   I read everything I could get my hands on, determined to make Cleo the kind of baby that slept through the night.  She resisted.   After much discussion, when she was about 4 months old, Andy and I decided that we would let her “cry it out”.   I know that this is an incredibly divisive issue, and I don’t presume to know what is best for anyone, but for us, sanity was our foremost priority.   We’d been through weeks of torturous nights.  Nobody was sleeping and everyone was on the edge.  Something had to change.  It was messy and it was hard, and we could hardly bear it.

bellecleo6months copy

Photo by Andrew Stanbridge

Within a week it was clear that the sleep training was working.  Bedtime was quickly transformed from a stressful time of heightened emotion and non-stop crying into a sweet nightly event.  We put her down — she smiled, she slept.  We walked away and went downstairs.  We tried to talk about “normal” adult things.  We ate, we cleaned the house.  The screams of an infant were no longer the soundtrack of our nights.

But other problems arose.  Cleo went to sleep without hassle, but she just couldn’t stay asleep.   Aside from my nightly breastfeeding, she woke on her own schedule, with a to-the-minute regularity that was as astonishing as it was torturous.  Over the course of the next few months she trained us to wake on her schedule: 12:22, 2:04, 3:23, and so on.  One or both of us would wake just minutes before she did.  We would lie still, trying not to move, hoping just hoping that she’d miss her mark.  But she never did.  Andy became convinced that he could dream about her or even think about her and she’d wake up.  We both stopped using the bathroom at night and we stifled our coughs and sneezes.  We pantomimed, we tiptoed: anything to avoid waking her.  And yet it didn’t matter.  She always put herself back to sleep, but it was the regularity of the wakings that took their toll.  Chronic sleep deprivation is a slow and lingering type of affliction.  It seeps into every nook and cranny of your day.  It makes the drive to work a psychedelic experience, petty disagreements with your spouse turn into full-scale blowouts and everyday conversations become so incredibly disjointed and confusing that you wonder how it was that you ever managed casual discussions of the weather, the last episode of Mad Men or what you ate for dinner last night.


Despite the chronic lack of sleep, we made it to her first birthday and I was feeling pretty good. I loved parenthood and I was able to enjoy my work as a high school art teacher as well.  And then things got worse.  At 16 months Cleo initiated the weaning process and my work became extraordinarily stressful.   I fell apart.  It only took a week.  I was exhausted.  The stress combined with the consistent lack of sleep and the end of breastfeeding crumpled my façade of strength.

It all started with a racing heartbeat and a creeping sense of unease that made the nighttime terrifying.  No amount of yoga, exercise, white noise, wine, meditation or positive thinking could stem the tide of what felt inevitable: I was unraveling, one mental fiber at a time.  The warp and weft of my psyche were slowly pulling apart.  And yet I kept going.  I tended to my one-year-old’s nighttime and early morning needs.  I went to work.  I made dinner.  I exercised.  But each night became a wilderness with new terrors.  I couldn’t sleep.  I fixated on the tiny details of my day, of my parenting, of my relationships, on anything.  I wandered around the house, unable to watch TV or read.  I made Andy walk around the neighborhood with me in the middle of the night, trying to let the cool air and the quiet calm me.  I felt completely isolated, as if everyone who was asleep was somehow betraying me.   It was the loneliest time of my life.  I would eventually succumb to exhaustion at around 3 or 4 in the morning only to be roused from sleep by Cleo’s first waking around 5 am.


After the first full week of absolutely no sleep I went to the hospital to seek relief.  I knew that I needed something to help me break the cycle of anxiety and exhaustion. However, the doctor I saw in the emergency room prescribed sleeping pills that actually made the situation worse.  Not only was I not sleeping, the hangover from the pills was so intense that I started to feel completely confused and despondent during the day.   I couldn’t imagine parenting Cleo feeling so detached and sapped of joy.   I decided to stop taking the pills and made an appointment with my nurse practitioner.   Because my condition was not deemed critical, I had to wait for almost two months to see her.

In the meantime I saw an Ayurvedic doctor and I saw a counselor.  Each prescribed their own regimen of sugar and alcohol- free diets and proper “sleep hygiene”.  The discussions with the counselor were especially fruitless.  Every time I broached weaning as a possible trigger for what I was experiencing she steered the conversation back to my anxiety.  I decided not to continue our meetings.  I saw another doctor who only wanted to push anti depressants.  When I asked him if there was a different approach I might take, he essentially shut down the conversation and rushed me out of the office.  If I had been full of energy and had limitless time on my hands I would have pursued different doctors and counselors and pushed for the care I needed.   But I was too tired and stretched to my limit.  I couldn’t deal with it any more.  I simply gave up.


And so I looked to the kindness of friends and family.  My neighbors gave me tinctures; my friends took me on ladies nights and met me for hot tub sessions.  My husband brought me wine in the bathtub and my parents sent me scientific articles on insomnia.  Nothing helped.  I became convinced that the price I had paid for motherhood was the end of sleep.  When I eventually saw my nurse practitioner she encouraged me to see a different counselor and offered me anti depressants.   I didn’t take her up on her offer. I asked her about the hormonal changes brought on by the weaning process and whether they could be the source of my insomnia.   She said that they could be, but that she wasn’t aware of any treatment or research on the correlation between them.   And that was essentially the end of that conversation.

Over the course of the next few months the insomnia wormed its way into every aspect of my life.  As nighttime approached a feeling of unease, and sometimes downright terror took hold.  I became convinced that I needed to be in bed by 8pm, so I stopped seeing friends and spent very little time with Andy at night.  Every decision I made centered around sleep, and my inability to get any.  I was still an active and engaged parent, but it took all of my energy and focus to hold myself together.  At night I tormented myself obsessing about a life without sleep.  Eventually I resorted to what Andy called my “Michael Jackson tranquilizers”: self-medicating with a brutal combination of Benadryl and Nyquil.  No matter how desperate I was for rest, I knew that it was an unsustainable and unhealthy solution to my problem.  So, on a whim, I decided to try some of the herbal remedies at my natural food store.  I figured at that point I was so deep down the rabbit hole that any option was a good option.  The clerk who helped me swore by a brand of herbs that was formulated to reduce anxiety as well as promote sleep.  Astonishingly, it worked.  Over the next few nights I started to sleep more and more.  My anxiety, the 2 am panic attacks and racing heart subsided.   The herbs had finally helped me to break the cycle of insomnia.  Getting that much-needed sleep seemed to be a catalyst for healing.  I have no idea if my hormones had finally evened out, or if I was simply experiencing an episodic bout of depression instigated by the insomnia.  Whatever the case, I started to feel better.

Within a couple of weeks my fog had lifted enough that I was able to assess my experience in a more logical and analytical way.   The depression I’d experienced was a first for me.   What if the heightened stress at work in combination with the hormonal changes brought on by the end of breastfeeding had caused my insomnia?  And perhaps what I was experiencing was actually late-onset postpartum depression?  And if this was in fact the case, why hadn’t any of the medical professionals I interacted with asked me more questions about the weaning process?  I scoured the internet, searching for a correlation between weaning, insomnia and depression.  What I found were numerous stories similar to my own, women who had sunk into depression (often instigated by episodes of insomnia) after they weaned their children.  As the pattern of these experiences emerged, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why hadn’t the connection between weaning and depression been researched?

What it comes down to is the fact that women’s post-partum experiences are given short shrift.   As far as I can tell there is little to no medical surveillance or studies of “healthy” women after the typical 6-week post partum checkup.  As soon as your caregiver is convinced that you are recovering physically from labor they set you loose with a baby who is wholly unconcerned with your physical health and well being.   What you are left with is the stories and experiences passed down to you by the other mothers in your life and your own resolve.  And quite honestly, sometimes that isn’t enough.  With new research coming out about the long-term toll that pregnancy takes on a woman’s body, it’s disappointing to me that there has been so little research about weaning and women’s long-term post partum experiences.   We deserve so much more.

It’s been over a year since I weaned Cleo.  It was the darkest and loneliest part of my life but I made it through.  Cleo has gradually become a better sleeper (as so many people promised me should would).  She still wakes at 5 am — she sings, talks, shouts and laughs — but I know that there is sleep in my future.   I can remember lying in bed thinking I would never sleep again, but I do.




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About the Author

Belle Chesler lives in a very pointy house in Portland, Oregon with her husband, Andy, her daughter Cleo Mae, and one very cranky old cat.    By day she teaches visual art in a large public high school, by night she falls asleep with a book on her face.

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