So we did it. That thing I said we’d never do. Archer and I went to sleep school!
Flynn was always a great sleeper. He took a dummy from just a few days old and easily settled himself off to sleep with it. He’d nap for 4 hours most mornings and an hour again in the afternoon until he was 15 months old. And at age 3 still often takes a 2-3 hour nap and sleeps through the night. My mother’s group friends used to joke that they thought I had a doll in my baby carrier. I knew I had it good.
Archie Pie is not a good sleeper. I remember thinking to myself when he was just 2 weeks old, this one is going to be a terrible sleeper. It all started when he refused to leave my womb until 42 weeks. Even before he was born he was a stage 5 clinger! Once out, he was only happy on my breast. He wouldn’t go to his dad, or anyone else for that matter – it had to be mum. I didn’t mind cosleeping, but the moment my nipple slipped from his sleeping lips, he was wide awake and screaming for it.
I was tired, so I gave it to him. A couple months in, he got a lot better. He started to accept a dummy and would often settle himself off to sleep and nap and bedtime (though not as consistently as Flynn did). We were doing ok.
And then at 7 months the separation anxiety kicked in. He refused the dummy, and wouldn’t fall asleep unless he was breastfeeding. With another toddler to tend too and a house to run, I did what was quickest and easiest – I breastfed him to sleep in our bed or let him fall asleep in the car or pram. It worked for us. Until it didn’t anymore.
Archer would no longer fall asleep on the boob. Bed time was taking up to 3 hours and Michael and I wanted our space back. But we couldn’t get Pie near the cot without him becoming hysterical. These 2 photos could quite possibly be the ONLY times we EVER managed to get him to nap in there. And even that was after he’d been asleep on my boob for thirty minutes first.
We decided to try a toddler bed. We had some improvement, at least he was going to sleep in his own bed. But it was still taking forever. And I still had to be on the bed. I was becoming anxious and easily frustrated because I knew that instead of giving me the break I needed, every nap time and bedtime would instead be an exhausting challenge. A battle of who would give in first – Pie or me. It was almost always me. On the day I snapped at Flynn for waking Archer (who had JUST gone to sleep) when he came in to ask for help on the toilet, I knew we needed help.
And so we went to the GP and got a referral for sleep school. Archer and I were admitted within a week.
Day 1. I don’t think I’ve ever been this anxious in my life. Handing my baby over to a complete stranger felt wrong. I think I knew instantly that I wasn’t comfortable. But I thought I had to give it a chance.
I was told to leave him with the staff for his nap and trusted he would be well cared for. I was in a group session when he woke and he’d been up playing for a while so he was in pretty good spirits when he was returned to me. I assumed all was ok. So I handed him over again at bedtime, went to have my dinner and when I came back to check on him he was sleeping. Again I assumed all was well. Against my better judgement, and at the advice of the staff, I attempted a dream feed. Dream it was not – more like a nightmare. He was hysterical afterwards and so was I. I ran back to my room, again trusting that the nurses would settle him.
But something felt off. It went against every motherly instinct I have to leave my baby crying alone in the middle of the night in the care of women I’d never met and knew nothing about. I laid awake in bed for hours crying, doubting my decision to come here whilst simultaneously trying to convince myself we were doing the right thing.
Day 2. When I picked Archer up from his cot at 7.30am I instantly knew something wasn’t right. I was reminded of movies where they show prisoners coming out of extended periods in solitary confinement. He was broken. Exhausted. Red faced with bloodshot eyes that were sensitive to the light. He clung to me when I picked him up like he’s never clung to me before. I read his chart and could see that he’d been left alone to cry for almost 40 minutes!! I burst into tears and went to pack our bags. I was ready to run again, but he was coming with me this time.
A nurse came in to speak with me and I explained that this process was defying every motherly instinct I had – and no amount of telling me it’s ok, offering me a sleeping pill or trying to convince me his hysterical screams for “want mummy” we’re just a “low grade grizzle” was going to make me ignore that feeling.. I was going to advocate for my baby. Because while their priority may be getting him to self settle as quickly as possible, his health and wellbeing (and that includes his mental and emotional wellbeing) are my first priority.
I made the decision that I wouldn’t allow the staff to be responsible for settling him. I was to be woken immediately when he woke. I would make sure my darling baby boy knew that his mummy was there for him. I can only imagine how terrified he must’ve felt on that first night and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive myself for putting him through that.
The nurses and I came up with a settling strategy that was more in line with my parenting values, and that I felt comfortable Archer could handle too. My anxiety subsided and I felt ready to tackle this sleep training thing together with Pie.
Day 3. Just as I think we’re making progress, he goes and takes 2.5 hours to settle again! He’s going down within 15-30 minutes (amazing for him) but if he wakes, resettling is horrible. I honestly think he’s getting too worked up by the time I get to him from the other side of the ward. They want me to “give him time” to settle on his own (read: cry it out until he’s given up thinking I’m coming for him), but my goal is to have a baby who falls asleep feeling calm and secure, not a baby who falls asleep because they have given up hope that anyone is coming to meet their needs.
If Flynn called out to me in the middle of the night and said he was thirsty, scared or even just wanted a cuddle for a few minutes because he really missed me, I wouldn’t ignore him. So why would I ignore my baby crying for my comfort?
Day 4. He slept through the night! With just a few minutes of grizzling at 3am. And he settled for Daddy at nap time easily and slept for over 2 hours too. Go Archie Pie! Perhaps he’s just so exhausted from the past few nights though?
Bedtime went smoothly again too – but then he woke before 10pm and it all turned to shit! I was up until 5am continuously trying to resettle him. In 3.5 years of motherhood, I have NEVER felt so exhausted and defeated.
I broke the cardinal rule of sleep school. I picked up my baby. I held him and comforted him and promised him I’d never do anything like this to him again.
During this epic marathon of settling Pie, I realised that my expectations aren’t aligned with the goals of this sleep school. I don’t want to be able to put him down at 7pm, walk out immediately and not see him again until 7am. I honestly don’t believe infants and toddlers are biologically designed to sleep through the night on their own. They are entirely dependant on their parents – why would they want to be left alone?
I also realised that I should’ve been clearer about what I wanted to achieve from this process before we came in here. It’s only now that I’m beginning to realise what my goals were:
- To reduce our bedtime and settling time for naps – I’m still happy to spend 20 mins sitting in his room while he settles for sleep.
- To night wean (which we’ve now done)
- Most importantly, for Pie to feel safe and secure enough to drift off to sleep on his own, knowing that I will be there if he needs me during the night.
I don’t mind if he needs a quick resettle once during the night. And I also don’t mind if he creeps into our bed early in the morning for a cuddle. In fact I kind of like that part! And I also kind of hope he stills does it when he’s 15 years old…
Day 5. Despite not settling until 5am, he was up again just after 7am. I was beyond exhasuted. I burst into tears and as soon as I did, my darling baby boy ran straight to me, threw his arms around me and gave me his biggest, sweetest “guggle” (like a cuddle but cuter). And then it hit me – if Archer can instantly comfort me when I am upset, then I should be able to do the same for him. Why am I listening to these strangers who tell me I should be ignoring his cries for me? Telling me that I’ll never get a good night sleep unless I let him cry? Telling me that he’s trying to manipulate me or using me as dummy?
And so we dropped out of sleep school a day early. I couldn’t see how we’d benefit from being there any longer. In fact Archer’s sleep was getting worse because he hated being there so much and I was more tired and anxious than when we arrived. My usually happy baby was grumpy and clingy and a little bit sad.
So was it worth it?
Not really. We would’ve benefited more from leaving Flynn with his grandparents for the few days and attempting to sleep train at home with Michael’s support. Where we could’ve used more gentle techniques in an environment where we all felt comfortable – instead of the 1 x 1.5m prison like cell they had my poor boy sleeping in and my freezing cold, super hard hospital bed that creaked every time I moved.
I have taken away some useful tips though – we will continue on with the strong bedtime routine and recommended awake time that the sleep school recommended, and have introduced sleep associations like a dark room, sleeping bag and music (if you need some good sleep music, check out aboriginal artist Gurrumul – it’s divine – a tip from a fellow sleep school mama!). But that is about as much of their program as I am willing to continue with.
Where to now?
I spent a lot of my time while we were in there researching other methods of sleep training. Tresillian and Baby Sleep Site have some great info and advice. We will be using a combination of methods that the whole family feel comfortable with. I will immediately comfort him when he cries, as I gradually try to remove myself as his sleep association. I’m absolutely prepared that this will take much longer than controlled crying – and that’s ok!
In just a few days of truly gentle sleep training.
- Archer is staying in his own bed at bedtime with minimal fussing.
- He has night weaned – yay!
- He has gone from being breastfed to sleep, to having me next to him while he sleeps, to sitting in a chair at the end of the bed and now to me standing in the doorway. I am gradually removing myself as a sleep association, rather than making him go “cold turkey”. Baby steps! We’ve achieved this with VERY little crying.
I’m writing this just 1 day after dropping out, so stay tuned to see how we go in the coming weeks!
My advice to anyone thinking about trying sleep school.
Know what you are getting yourself in for. Ask a lot of questions and do your own research. Ask them to be very clear about what training methods they’ll be using. Be clear about what your own expectations are and what you are trying to achieve. Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.
The warning signs were there. From the constant offer of sleeping tablets (despite having turned them down multiple times), to the references to 20-30+ year old studies and the information booklet that essentially said “don’t trust your instincts, we know better than you”. There was never any consultation about what we wanted to achieve from the program or about our approach to parenting. We were simply handed a one-size fits all program based on nothing aside from the age of our children. There was nothing “individualised” or “gentle” about it as they claimed in their admissions pack.
I am so glad I found the strength to stand up for Archie Pie and didn’t feel I had to comply with something I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m not sure I ever would’ve forgiven myself if I’d allowed their sleep training techniques to continue for the full 5 nights.
Have you tried sleep school? I’d love to hear your experiences?
I realise not every mother will agree with this post and it will likely anger some – this is not my intention, nor is it my intention to pass judgement on anyone who has been through this process and does not have an issue with it. I get it – when you’re exhausted, you’ll try anything to get some sleep! EVERY BABY IS DIFFERENT. EVERY MOTHER IS DIFFERENT. And we will all have different parenting styles that we feel comfortable with. I was as horrified with controlled crying as other’s would be with co-sleeping for a year and half! This blog post is in no way a judgement on those whose views and parenting styles are different to my own or on the majority of the staff who genuinely believed they were doing what was best for the families in their care.