Thoughts on sleep-training from a mum who was against it.
My son and I co-slept since he was four months’ old because he was inconsolable when left alone. At that time it felt like the natural thing to do. I joined a Facebook group that was against sleep training. Mums on the group would often post up pictures of their little cherub napping on them, or otherwise known as “contact-napping”. The posts are often accompanied by heart-eyed emoji and painting sleep-training as the big bad wolf that robs babies of their sense of security and safety. So even though I was secretly yearning for the day I don’t have my son attached to my hips 24/7, I persisted with co-sleeping because I did not want my son to grow up insecure.
But instead of having a contented baby during the day, my son was getting more inquisitive and social, demanding our attention when he was awake. At night, he had started pulling my hair as a way to put himself back to sleep. So even though we were all sleeping on the same bed, I still woke up two or three times a night and I would often wake up with a sore neck or shoulder. My quality of life deteriorated slowly, having to spend most of my days in our bed while my son napped, especially after he fell off our bed one morning. I was utterly exhausted, but I was still firmly resistant to sleep-train my son, having read horror stories of babies who cried and cried until they vomited on themselves. I hung on to the “success stories” I read in the Facebook group of toddlers who simply magically requested to sleep in their own room one fine day, while wishing that day would come sooner rather than later.
As I am preparing the launch of my small business and with the impending start of my study semester again, I revisited the idea of sleep school as I was at a point where the feeling of exhaustion was overpowering and I knew I was heading down the familiar but slippery slope of depression and anxiety again. So I finally admitted ourselves to the early parenting unit recommended by my maternal child health nurse. I admitted to the five-day “retreat” anxious, exhausted and apprehensive. I told myself I would give this a go, but if my cried too much, I would request to be discharged and we would go back to co-sleeping. I was in for a rude shock on the first day when the nurses shared that my little co-sleeping bubba would be sleeping in the cot in his dark, little room on the first night, due to safety reason. Perhaps noticing the horror on my face, I was reassured the moment he started crying I could head down to the nurses station to check on him through the baby monitor.
That first night was rough and I barely caught a wink. My son woke up a few times and grizzled throughout the night. I headed down to the nurses station to check on him and expressed my anxiety about him being distressed. I expected to be told that it was normal and to let him cry it out. But instead I was met with great empathy and support to go in the room and sooth my child. Finally he settled and slept from 2–7am. In his own cot.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the next day I was a crying wreck after I put him down for his morning nap. My little heart broke when I saw him clutching onto the cot-side, big fat tears rolling down his face as I closed the door behind him. Just as I was telling the nurses he was still too young to be sleeping in a dark room on my own, she nudged me to look at the monitor. I saw with my own eyes, my son sat down in his cot, laid his little head on the cot mattress and drifted off to dreamland. That morning he had a 90-minute nap. He stirred a couple of times but he settled himself back to sleep. Without so much as a whimper.
Things improved from then on. The duration of his crying reduced and sometimes he was even contented on being laid down to sleep. When he used to demand our attention the minute he woke up, by Day 3 he started playing with his comforter and babbling to himself when he woke up. He even learnt to pat his little head to put himself to sleep. There were times when he regressed and I wanted so badly to go in and comfort him. But one of the night nurse told me to give him the opportunity and space to learn and practice his new skills. When I told her his crying breaks my heart, she grabbed me and walked to my room where we stood outside and listened intently to his cries. Then she patiently asked me to listen carefully if he was really in distress. That was the moment I realised I had projected my own childhood fear of darkness on him. My son, on the other hand, was just expressing his frustration of being tired and trying to find a comfortable spot to lay his head on. That was when I knew my son was ready to sleep on his own.
We came home yesterday expecting him to regress and wake a few times throughout the night. But my champion little sleeper continued with the sleep schedule he learnt and slept for 12 hours on his own. He woke up a few times throughout the night but put himself back to sleep. For the first time in a long while, I had dinner and a proper conversation with my husband. For the first time in a year, I spread myself out on the couch and simply enjoyed laying there without having to pick up my toddler every few minutes. While in his cozy, dark room upstairs, my little boy slept with his arms and legs spread out, a luxury that he did not get when he was co-sleeping.
From being apprehensive about sleep training to now having sleep-trained my son, I believe babies should still be in the same sleeping space with the parents for the first year of the baby’s life because Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a real threat. However, as much as we want to hold on to our little ones, there comes a time when we need to let our babies learn to be independent, and for us to be an individual again. I thought I was admitted to a sleep-training program, but it was more of a parenting skill program. My biggest takeaway from my week at sleep school was the words of the night nurse on duty, which not only applied to sleep but also for everything that lies ahead of my child’s life:
“We need to give our babies the space and opportunity to learn the skills to be independent. That does not mean we let them be to cry it out. Rather we set up the facilities to support them safely when they are struggling or in distress and guide them towards being an independent sleeper. Be consistent and persistent.”
For too long I was trapped in the illusion of the Nap Trap. I thought sleep-training will break the connection and bond between my son and I. I felt guilty when I didn’t want to be with my son 24/7 and resented him for being attached to me 24/7. But now I cannot wait for him to wake up so I can give him a hug and the best version of myself. In the short five days, my son is happier and I felt he is so much closer to me than before. Now he greets me with a little sleepy smile when I open the door to his room. When I see a photo of a wide-eyed, overtired mum with the caption “nap-trapped,” followed by the heart emoji, I want to tell her there is an alternative.
I know this post will trigger many emotions for many people who had terrible experiences with sleep school. If you have had a bad experience, my heart goes out to you and I am not dismissing your experience. I simply want to share the other side of the story so mums who are at their wits’ end and yearning for a bit of their own independence know that there is an alternative and it is okay if you are sick of the Nap Trap.
Not all sleep schools advocate cry-it-out-until-he-vomits. Do your research, challenge the consultants and trust your instincts. But don’t knock it until you try it. Your child may be more ready than you know. But most importantly, you need to be your best self before you can be the best mum. No one can possibly thrive on an empty stomach, sleep deprivation or even a fractured marriage just because we need to tip-toe around our child.
This post was originally published on Moon Mama Maternity Concierge Online website.