It might be a hiccup or a cough, or a noise somewhere between the two, but to you, it’s like a gun going off. In the dark of your bedroom, a few seconds of silence follow and you lie there, frozen, nurturing a creeping hope. Another second passes, and one more, and then… “MUMMYDADDYMUMMYDADDY” transmits loud and clear over the baby monitor. You sigh (OK, swear) and start to fumble with your dressing gown while thinking, “Of course it’s 5.45am on my day,” because yesterday’s 6.30am start (and your husband’s turn to get up) was a lie-in in comparison.
They say you get used to the lack of sleep when you have kids. But unless you’re still regularly going on mega-blast nights out during the working week before you get pregnant, you don’t. That’s the lie that got me through the early days though, when I was deep in the trenches of two-hourly (or more) night feeds, and days and weeks blurred into one long, jittery, gin-meme-sharing, coffee and sugar-fuelled early motherhood haze. But usually somewhere between six weeks and eighteen months (although, if you’re the person in your NCT group for whom six weeks is when it starts, just know this: everyone else kind of hates you), you start to get longer stretches of sleep and fewer night wake-ups, until eventually your baby starts to do that miraculous thing known as ‘sleeping through’. Which is brilliant, euphoric even – to start with, but then the realisation dawns: you’re still really f**king tired, and still can’t contemplate watching a 9pm BBC drama in real time because it finishes way too late. Then it becomes clear that you’re not one of those people who has a kid who ‘loves their sleep’ (and again, if you are, everyone hates you a little bit), you have an early riser.
If it isn’t already obvious, I’m in the second camp. My son Isaac is now two-and-a-half and the way I judge whether we’ve made it to an acceptable waking hour is by listening for the sound of a plane flying overhead, because they only start taking off at 6am. If you’d told me in my pre-baby life that getting up even a whisker after 6am would make all the difference I would have laughed in your face but believe me, psychologically there are lightyears between 5.59am and 6.01am.
Not least because these days my life is separated into ‘post-6am’ (tolerable) and ‘BC’ which, for the uninitiated stands for ‘Before CBeebies’. Six o’clock is when children’s telly starts, so a BC wakeup means no parental crutch to power you towards dawn (which in winter is approximately THREE HOURS AWAY, PEOPLE).
In the final weeks of 2016, my wake-ups were so far BC that we’d often get twice through The Wiggles DVD before the opening bars of CBeebies’ first show kicked in – I’m still triggered by photos of Anthony in his blue jumper.
Some tiny comfort is knowing that the allocation of early rising children is democratic; even celebs aren’t immune. Fearne Cotton can often be found BC on Twitter (where we all are) posting SOS messages and lamenting that her daughter won’t sleep past 5.30am.
And before long, you’re a person you swore you’d never be, rebuking your younger colleagues when they mention being tired that they don’t know the meaning of the word – unless they’ve been up since 4.45am with a fractious toddler and have gone down a gossip clickhole on their phone of every children’s presenter they’ve seen that morning (FYI, Katy from CBeebies’ custody battle with her ex is particularly riveting).
And then suddenly, you get a whole cluster of post-6.30am wake-ups, like we just did. I’d like to tell you it was as rejuvenating as a long weekend at a spa, but instead I woke up at 6am anyway and spent the next hour panicking something was wrong, before waking him up as I opened the door to check. And then it was back to the sofa, CBeebies on, with a toddler nestled in my lap as he watched Raa Raa the Noisy Lion. Which made me think that maybe – if I squeezed my eyes to forget the days I could roll out of bed in time for an 11 o’clock brunch meetup – that there’s something to be said for early mornings with my favourite little buddy, just me and him.
But only if the “mummydaddy” cry is after 6.01.
You can follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter at @itshelenwhitaker and @helbobwhitaker respectively. Helen’s debut novel, The School Run, about the comic lengths parents will go to for a school place, is out in August 2019.