Everybody has a story to tell about leaving hospital with their baby. But Becky Pugh's first night at home with Arthur was different - raw, moving and almost impossible to imagine
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Parenthood has taught me a thing or two about sleepless nights. I think, in fact, that birth control should carry with it a written warning: Do not procreate if you need, simply in order to exist, eight-hour chunks of shut-eye and regular lazy lie-ins.
As a person who loves to kip, any time, anywhere, anyhow, I knew that sleep would be the greatest of the sacrifices pressed upon me by motherhood. I could not, however, have prepared myself for the deprivation I went on to endure.
By the time my elder son Arthur was born – by emergency C-section, three weeks early, unexpectedly and profoundly unwell – it was already a good three days since I’d had anything like a full night’s sleep.
A tiny scrap of a baby, Arthur was born with a condition called hydrocephalus, in which fluid gathers on the brain, enlarging the head and exerting potentially catastrophic pressure on the brain. The shock was appalling, our misery acute.
He and I spent his first three weeks in hospital, where he slept soundly (fed mostly by a tube) in Special Care and I slept fitfully (in a haze of morphine and anxiety) in my hospital room. He had to undergo a raft of horrifying tests and scans and, finally, brain surgery before the doctors declared him well enough to come home with us.
My husband and I were overjoyed, of course. We couldn’t wait to be a normal family, negotiating the normal pitfalls of a new baby. We couldn’t wait for Arthur to sleep in his own cot, watched over by the tribe of Jellycat gifts that had descended on us since his birth. And we couldn’t wait to sleep in our own bed, in White Company sheets, free from the disturbances of hospital.
Naively, we assumed we were in for a peaceful time that first night.
I was barely breastfeeding, because it had been so patchy in hospital and my milk supply was poor. Arthur was pretty good at taking bottles of formula. So there was no danger of hunger preventing him from sleep.
A nurse had given him a dummy during his sojourn in Special Care. If I had ever been anti-pacifier, the decision was taken out of my hands. So we had a sure-fire way to soothe Arthur if he seemed unsettled in the unfamiliar surroundings of his home.
Most of my preconceived ideas about babyhood were decimated by the unusual circumstances of Arthur’s birth. I didn’t care if he slept on his back, on his tummy, in his moses basket, in his big cot, in our bed or in his pram. The choice was entirely his.
Above all, Arthur had spent much of his time in hospital asleep and was among the calmer babies on the ward, so we could not have predicted the strange, wired, restless creature that he became.
I know that no night in the company of a small baby is a bed of roses. But I am telling the truth when I say that neither Arthur nor I slept a single wink that night.
We fed him. We rocked him. We swaddled him. We winded him. We undressed him. We bathed him. We fed him again. We stroked him. We changed his nappy. We played him classical music. We rang the Special Care unit to ask whether abject wakefulness was normal. We rocked him again. We turned off the lights. We turned them on again. We sprinkled lavender oil on his sheet. We walked with him in the baby sling. We put him down. We picked him up. We played him white noise. We held him tight. We rang the unit again to ask if our wailing infant ought to be readmitted. For nothing sent Arthur to sleep. Nothing.
Throughout the dark night and into the morning, Arthur mewed at best and screamed at worst. I ricocheted between the calm I knew he needed and the hopeless, howling desperation I felt. Exasperated and out of ideas, my husband dropped off occasionally. I was vile to him, and he to me. (He has since invented a rule, Ladenburg’s Law, in which nothing we say to one another between the hours of 12am and 7am counts for anything or is ever to be mentioned again.)
I will never forget how dreadful I felt the next day. The dry eyes. The throbbing head. The sallow skin. The disconnect between brain and body. The feeling that, unless somebody sent me back to bed, I would be sick or pass out. The fear of the night to come. The guilt about being so feeble when having Arthur at home at all was a blessing. I remember being on the phone to a friend and saying, through a veil of tears: “How can anybody enjoy having a baby?”
Arthur never was a settled baby or a good feeder. His brain surgery had, I think now, left him in lots of pain. He picked up chicken pox at eight weeks. He developed excruciating reflux. But my husband and I worked out a system – that is agonising to recall – in which, each night, one of us would be up with our doleful child for two hours while the other slept and then we’d swap until the break of dawn.
We existed in a mind-numbing state of fatigue until Arthur outgrew his discomfort and was old enough to obey the rules of the Gro clock – aged about two-and-a-half. He was, by then, a bright, charming, miracle of a boy; he’d overturned all of the doctors’ expectations regarding his brain function and general development.
We reckoned, with trepidation, that it was time to have another child. Thank God, our second son, Louis, was born without drama. But he, too, slept badly. He had horrific reflux – it clearly runs in the family – and ten agonising ear infections in ten wakeful months.
Oh yes, parenthood has taught me a thing or two about sleepless nights. But none will ever be as bad as the night we finally brought Arthur home from hospital.
Becky Pugh is a freelance journalist. You can follow her on Instagram @BeckyPugh