Yesterday afternoon I had to rock Little Z to sleep. I haven’t had to do that for a long time but she was overtired after a trip to town took longer than I intended. I tried to put her down like normal but she flapped around and cried. After repeating that process several times in quick succession, it was pretty darn apparent that she needed a bit of support and fortunately Mummy-Rocking-Cuddles still carry a little bit of power in these situations.
As I was swaying and singing to her, watching her little eyelids give into their sleepy weight, I thought how timely the experience was. Because baby sleep has been at the forefront of my mind this week. The lovely Kaye over at Hello Archie shared an article that she really related to. The article was entitled “Is Self Soothing the biggest con of new parenthood?” and it really resonated with me too. You see, much like Kaye with her first child, I wasted a lot of energy and caused myself and Little H and lot of upset by trying to ‘sleep train’. But as time has gone on, I’ve realised that the whole thing was a farce and that, in my gut, I always knew the right thing to do. It has amazed me to realise that I am not alone in thinking this either and joining a Facebook community on Gentle Parenting has reinforced the approach I want to take in caring for my children.
Looking back, those early days, weeks and months with a baby are tough. Really tough. And none are as tough as with baby numero uno. Very few people have experienced sleep deprivation like that gifted by a newborn; I certainly hadn’t. I was broken from giving birth and the subsequent protracting recovery. I had a baby that after 6 weeks was still waking several times a night and taking a good 45 minutes to feed and get back to sleep. Whilst this is actually completely normal, when the emails started coming through from the various ‘helper’ services (Bounty, Baby Centre, whatever the NHS one is called) with articles on how to ‘help’ your baby sleep and how to introduce a routine, I couldn’t help but feel I should be taking action.
Now routine I can get on board with. Sam and I are very routine based people and it gave us a sense of calm and control to start following a pattern at bedtime. We’d wash and change Little H. I’d feed her. We’d read to her and then we’d put her to bed. Slowly we shifted the routine earlier and my bedtime later so she slept upstairs alone for a while. It helped her know we were moving into nighttime and it calmed her. All good. But it was the ‘sleep training’ part that caused me, us, so much distress. Because a lot of the time she wouldn’t fall asleep in her crib happily alone. So I would sit with her, stroking and sushing (never holding and rocking as everything I’d been told said she’d grow ‘dependent’) and trooping up and downstairs as she kept jolting herself awake. Meanwhile our friend’s children were all already ‘sleeping through’. What were we doing wrong? A well meaning friend recommended a book…
Oh my, this book (‘Baby Secrets: How to Know Your Baby’s Needs’ by Jo Tantum and Barbara Want) was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. It talked of training your baby onto a structured routine: naps x times a day, with set activities inbetween for no more than a specified amount of minutes. It said to limit feeds, including breastfeeding sessions, to a set time. And it also said not to immediately respond to your baby’s cries else they would abuse it as a way to get you to come at their whim. Instead parents should wait 1 minute, then 2, then 5 etc. before going in, to help them ‘learn’.
And we tried it. I’m almost ashamed to admit that we tried it. We put our tiny Little H, who wasn’t even 8 weeks old, into her crib and we left. We sat next door as she cried her heart out. Once the minute was up I practically ran in. Then we did it for 2 minutes. Then 5 minutes. Then I was in with her for so long that we reset back to 1 minutes and the loop continued. Until after about an hour, she was so far from settling and I was so distressed that I cried and we abandoned the entire sorry affair. The book…well that went straight to the charity shop.
From that day, we never did formal sleep training again. As Little H got older, we did deploy aspects of controlled crying. We never again got a timer out but as she got older, sometimes she would ‘grumble-cry’ as we called it. She wasn’t distressed but just annoyed and if we left her for a minute or two, sometimes she would roll over and go back to sleep. Distress always got an immediate response. And although she kept needing me at night regularly until she was almost 2, I always went. Since then she has been a consistently good sleeper.
When Little Z arrived, I didn’t even consider sleep training and I followed my instincts. In the evenings until she was almost 3 months, she slept on me or in a carrycot in the lounge. At night she slept alongside me in her crib where she stayed until she was almost 7 months old. By that point, she was almost back to 1 feed a night and Sam and I were waking her up when we came to bed or rolled over in the night. She was ready for her own space but she has never been alone. If she gets sad or is faffing around in her cot during the night, I go to her. I don’t ignore her. Even Little H sometimes needs us at night when she’s unwell, unsettled or struggling to get back to sleep and she’s almost 4.
It infuriates me so much that parents are so quickly encouraged down a sleep training path. Nothing I read in mainstream literature talked about simply going with your instincts and responding to your baby’s needs. This time round I have new mum friends with their first child who are now sleep training. They talk of targeting the hallowed ‘sleeping through’ and the progress they’ve made in getting their child to be self-sufficient. Now, it really is each to their own but one friend will leave her baby to cry for an hour before going in. Whilst that works for them, the thought of leaving Little Z for that long makes me feel physically sick. I’d rather be awake and calm with her than in a fitful dozing state listening to her cry, alone and feeling abandoned.
So, whatever happens in the coming years, I will never be so tired that I won’t go to my children if they need me. At times I wonder if I will ever have a truly deep sleep again but I know as Little Z gets bigger I’ll relax more as I did with Little H. But ultimately, these girls are my world and I’ll do what I have to give them the comfort and reassurance they need. Because I had children to be a mother and looking after her babies whatever the time and place is what a mother does, isn’t it?!