A story of sleep and reflux

It takes a few seconds for my brain to register what my ears are hearing: he is crying. Again. I glance at the clock – 5am. I’ve managed to sleep for half an hour. I lay there, hoping he will settle back to sleep and I won’t have to get up again. But fearing his crying will wake everyone else, I silently drag myself out of bed and go into his room.

He won’t settle back to sleep so I end up picking him up. There’s just no point in trying to get back to sleep now – its so close to a sensible waking hour anyway. It’s still dark so I take him into the living room and turn on a lamp. We just cuddle and he eventually calms down as I half watch some infomercial.

I calculate that in, in total, I have slept for 3 hours in the last 24. That 3 hours is broken into 20-40 minute chunks. For the other 21 hours of the day I did all the usual parent things in a foggy haze that lack of sleep brings. However there has been no joy, no laughter in this house. I have been living off 3 to 4 hours of broken sleep per night for the past 7 months. And it seems there will be no improvement any time soon.

My little baby boy has silent reflux, a condition where stomach acid and contents flow back into the oesophagus, but isn’t forced out of the mouth. Most people have heard of reflux and associate it with lots of vomiting. Silent reflux is therefore often harder to pick up due to the lack of vomiting. I know I had never heard of it before.

It took the doctors three months to diagnose his condition. As he was a strong and healthy looking baby who was gaining weight, everyone kept telling me he was “just a newborn”. Being my second baby, I knew that wasn’t the case. In fact, I knew something was up even before we had been discharged from the hospital, but I ignored my gut and kept persevering thinking we would eventually settle into a routine. We didn’t. By the time he hit the three month mark, I had fled to my mothers with both babies (my firstborn was 18 months old when baby number 2 came along). I needed to get a fresh perspective and help from someone other than my husband who was at work 12 hours a day. Upon my return, I took him to the paediatrician and he was finally diagnosed and put on reflux medication.

But the medication didn’t fix the damage that had been done. Due to the pain my poor little guy was in, he had never been able to develop a feeding or sleeping routine. He could fall asleep but not stay asleep for longer than 40 minutes, day or night. I had called Tresilian, spoken to doctors, scoured endless forums and spent hours researching ways to help him. I had tried everything I could, but even with the medication, nothing worked for more than a few days.

If we went for a walk, went out for lunch, to visit friends, anything, I would be a nervous wreck because I never knew whether he would sleep or scream. One night we had friends over for dinner and I spent the entire night in his room trying to comfort him. I lost all faith in my parenting, lost all faith in friends and family and lost all faith in the system. In our hour of need, there was no one who could help.

Most reflux babies start improving around 7 months, as they’re now sitting up and eating solids. Not the case for us. I am now in a deep depression, living off no more than 4 hours of broken sleep each night, and my waking hours are filled with a screaming baby and a toddler who is desperate for attention. It feels like there is never going to be any happiness in my life ever again, and this is made even worse by the guilt that I am psychologically damaging my boys through my obvious inability to cope. I have zero patience, zero happiness and zero energy. My husband comes home from work each day to a woman in tears. He never knows what I will say or do next. That’s if we speak at all – I am an empty shell, not even a shadow of my former self, and whatever personality I used to have is long gone. I have given up hoping things will improve. I have given up trying to find solutions. I have given up on life. I want to get in my car and drive off a cliff.

I am woken again by his crying. I look at the clock – 6am. He is now 12 months old. Wait…am I dreaming? Did I have to get up to him last night? I don’t remember. Then I realise – he slept through! I let myself have a very faint glimmer of hope that this is it – he’s better!

Its not quite that simple though. In truth, my little man continues to shake up his sleeping routine. Just as I start to believe he will sleep through forevermore (my rule is 5 days straight, then I’ll dare to hope), he starts waking up again. I find myself up watching TV at 4.30am while he plays, or heading in to his room to soothe him at 9pm, or being woken with a start at 1am, just to be different. But eventually, at about age 2, he starts sleeping through. EVERY NIGHT. In fact, he becomes a better sleeper than my eldest boy. And let me tell you, in my house no one is EVER allowed to wake the baby!!

As for me, I found that the relationship between sleep and happiness is very strong. The more I got a good nights sleep, the more hope I found. At first, my body was so used to broken sleep that it would wake me at regular intervals. It took time for me to have a full night’s sleep. But once I did, I then had the energy to start exercising and eating well again. As a result I lost all of my baby weight and some. My personality started coming back and I found myself smiling again. The resentment I felt for everyone around me wore away, and I realised I was actually happy.

My reflux baby is now almost 3. He is strong, healthy and exceptionally clever. He loves his food and shows no signs of any ongoing effects. He loves wrestling his older brother, who is still jealous of all the attention the new baby took from him, but I think that’s normal.

And I’m more than happy with normal.

If you think your child has reflux or if you are concerned about the health of your baby or your own mental health, seek medical advice from a professional GP or health care provider. This article is my own personal experience only and is in no way meant to be taken as advice.

About the Author

A wife and mum to 2 hypo boys, I’m also building a business helping families on the NSW South Coast find fun things to do together! My passion is writing and I hope to write until the cows come home!

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