Still dreaming of a good night’s sleep

Ellen's children, during a rare spell of co-ordinated sleep

Ellen's children, during a rare spell of co-ordinated sleep - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

MY DAUGHTER is a night owl, my son is up with the lark, and the combination is making me as sick as a parrot.

Sleep deprivation – it’s part and parcel of being a parent.

Maternity wards should really have those roadside warning signs on display that scream: “Tiredness kills. Take a break”.

Having children is, quite simply, a rude awakening, and for the last year I have been punished at both ends of the spectrum.

Every night is the same. Both my children are in bed by 7pm but while the littlest is out like a light, the elder spends a good four hours singing at the top of her voice, shouting down the stairs for teddies, drinks and cuddles, and appearing like a ghostly apparition in her white nightdress every half hour or so.

She has a tendency to wake in the night too, coming to get in bed with us and digging her bony knees into my ribs as she tries to get comfy.

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In the mornings (and I use that word very loosely) my son appears at the side of our bed at around 4.30am.

“Time to get up,” he chirps cheerfully.

We desperately try to get him to go back to sleep but after an hour-long battle one of us usually relents and spends the next two hours nursing a cup of coffee and watching Disney DVDs.

I know we are not the only parents out there suffering.

In fact, one luxury hotel brand recently decided to make a fast buck out of zombified parents by launching a hotel in Cyprus which runs “enforced relaxation” breaks where exhausted mums and dads can recuperate.

You think that sounds a bit dramatic? I don’t. It sounds like bliss to someone who has spent months and months trying to get enough shut-eye and work out how to solve the problem that’s plaguing the household.

We have tried reward charts, later bedtimes and dropping naps.

We have used blackout blinds, created a relaxing bedtime routine and bought nightlights.

We have also resorted to baby gates, the hideous controlled crying method, as well as the old trick of “I’ll come and check on you in five minutes”.

We even attempted a ghastly technique on my son called “wake-to-sleep”.

The theory is that if you rouse your toddler slightly from their deep sleep an hour before their usual waking-up time, and then leave them to resettle, you might disrupt their sleep pattern so they won’t wake at the usual time.

After three days of this torture, your child’s body clock should be realigned and they will sleep through until a more reasonable hour.

It didn’t work for us. It simply meant that our son thought 3.30am was as good a time as any to get out of bed and insist on a game of Snap.

Most recently we invested in a special alarm clock where a plastic sun pops up to replace to moon to tell a child when it’s time to get up.

“Don’t leave this room until the sun appears,” I told my son, who nodded enthusiastically.

But he appeared in our room at 5am, asking exactly when the sun was going to go up because “I’ve been watching it for hours”.

There is a multitude of child-rearing books that try to solve sleep problems, of course.

Published advice was first distributed to parents in Europe as early as the 17th century, written by government ministers who felt it was their duty to pass on words of wisdom about morals and character.

I can’t quite imagine a book on morality being penned by the likes of Chris Huhne but luckily MPs decided to take a step back from offering their expertise to parents and in the 18th century physicians took over.

The books became “medical manuals” designed to teach mothers about feeding, toilet training, crying and sleeping patterns.

A boom in baby books followed in the 20th Century with Dr Spock, who took a more relaxed approach that recognised the qualities of individual children, and later Dr Sears, who championed the idea of attachment parenting, which promotes co-sleeping.

More recent gurus of baby wisdom are Gina Ford, Supernanny and Professor Tanya Byron, presenter of the new Channel 4 show Bedtime Live.

Her mission is to help the under-10s of Britain get a good night’s kip and rescue their fraught parents from the misery of sleep deprivation.

Thinking it might provide a remedy to my own children’s bedtime woes, I tuned in at 8pm on Tuesday but was interrupted several times by my daughter, who was wandering the house, claiming to be wide awake.

“There is a way to solve every problem,” soothed Tanya as she helped the parents of twins wrestle squirming, squealing bodies into bunks.

“I suppose I could try super-gluing them to their mattresses,” I muttered in reply as I returned my child to bed for the 14th time.

The thing is, none of the “tried and tested” methods seems to work for us.

Perhaps my children fall into the 3% of the population who thrive on minimal rest – the so-called sleepless elite.

Margaret Thatcher, for example, famously survived on around four hours’ sleep a night, and Leonardo Da Vinci never slept for more than five.

The majority of us need a solid eight hours – although a recent survey found 80% of Brits have less than this.

I would hazard a guess that the 20% snoozing away happily are the ones who haven’t got kids.

Email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.