My sister-in-law has just given birth to a gorgeous little girl, her first, and asked me last weekend what has been the hardest challenge I’ve had to deal with as a parent.
A whole host of memories flashed before my eyes: cluster feeding (most memorably in a cramped car with my teenage sisters-in-law beside me, probably vowing never to have children), dealing with tantrums, regaining balance as a couple in the face of becoming parents, pushing back against non-gentle parenting advice, nappy (diaper) explosions in public (I still cringe at the thought of brunch at the Ritz, trying to casually walk to the bathroom with baby poop all over my clothes and hers, while Mr Bu surreptitiously tried to remove the evidence from the tablecloth .).
But the biggest lesson I’ve learned, the one that stands out above all other challenges, is my brush with sleep training.
The 8 month sleep regression was a tough one for us, with Baby Bu regularly getting confused in the middle of the night and wanting to play for hours on end. I remember sitting on the floor of her room at 1 in the morning, playing with her by the light of the torch on my phone and sobbing quietly to myself with frustration and exhaustion.
The next day, we did some digging, found a ‘gentle’ sleep consultant and booked her to start ASAP. I was exhausted, and relieved. She promised that although there may be a little crying, it would all be fully ’emotionally supported’ and gentle. It sounded miraculous – by the end she would apparently be put down in her cot, fall asleep on her own, and stay asleep all night. A far departure from the battle to feed to sleep followed by 3-5 wake-ups that we were struggling with at the time.
After days of recording a sleep/food/activity diary, we got started. It began gently, with Mr Bu asked to take over at bedtimes as Baby Bu ‘needed to break the association between sleep and breastfeeding’. I accepted everything she was saying – she was the expert. Baby Bu protested for a few seconds on these nights, but slept quickly (probably just as exhausted as I was).
But then things changed. The sleep consultant only supplied 1-2 days of guidance at a time. Alarm bells should have rung at this point, but did I mention I was exhausted? I was too tired to think logically about it.
The next stage was to get her to fall asleep in her own cot rather than our arms. It started with putting her in the cot, lifting her out when she cried and repeating the process until she fell asleep. Night one took my hubby 30 minutes and Baby Bu wasn’t particularly impressed. The next night we were told she could only be lifted out three times and after that, just patted and reassured verbally. I could suddenly see where this was going. It was the gradual withdrawal technique. She hadn’t explained what technique she would use in advance (it was ‘client dependent’), and we were already over a week in when I realised this.
That night, Sofia cried with frustration, panic, confusion and tiredness. Mr Bu gave up after about 15 minutes and she fell asleep in his arms. Meanwhile, heart pounding and adrenalin flowing at the sound of my baby’s cries, I posted a message on the Gentle Parenting International Facebook page, explaining what we were being asked to do and looking for reassurance or advice.
The response was unanimous. This was not gentle, it was not ’emotionally supported’ and I should stop ASAP. I cried as I read the replies, both guilt and relief washing over me. And a deep sadness that we’d got even this far with it. Of course they were absolutely right, and I knew it. I showed the responses to Mr Bu, who read them in silence, then turned to me and said ‘go and get her, she can sleep with us’. I practically ran through to her room, and when she was snuggled in our bed, we had a long family cuddle and Mr Bu and I vowed never to put our comfort and convenience before Baby Bu’s needs again.
We made the huge realisation that she’s only little for such a short time. Everything is temporary. She will grow and learn to sleep well in time, and we will forget our exhaustion. But her mental health and brain development are in a critical stage while she’s little, and there’s no taking back something as serious as sleep training. You can’t fix the changes in their brains with apologies or cuddles at a later date (see this link to Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s blog, with myriad links to scientific research to support).
We cuddled her that night with so much love and appreciation and the knowledge that we were doing the right thing for her. And we all slept so much better.
More recently, Baby Bu has stopped feeding to sleep, and falls asleep listening to me read (invariably) Peter Rabbit. She did this of her own accord, taking me completely by surprise. She didn’t need any training, just the patience to let her figure it out by herself, and feel ready and comfortable with it. No crying, no distress. She still knows I’m there for her, that I’ll come if she cries.
I can’t express how sad I am that I tried any form of sleep training (even though I was naive to it at the time), and how glad I am for the lesson it taught me.
Parenting is TOUGH. It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally. It’s challenging knowing there is no ‘one right answer’ and having to learn on the job day in and day out. And it’s vital to take care of yourself as well as your baby. But after that experience, that brief sleep-deprived lack of judgment, I know that I’d rather do without the sleep and know that my daughter is being given the best chance for healthy brain development.
All I can say is cuddle your babies, give them the time and patience to figure out their own healthy way to sleep, and give in to the fact that amongst all the joys and beauty, good parenting does also involves sacrifice; sleep being one of the biggest. They will thank you for it in years to come.
And sleep well, knowing you’re doing the right thing for your babies.