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Moving beyond the sleep training culture

At the beginning of the year, I established The Beyond Sleep Training Project.  

Originally, I wanted to collect tales of how people have managed the early years of their children’s lives without sleep training at all or if they had ‘failed’ to successfully sleep train and were forced to come at life from a different angle. I wanted to collate these tales in an eBook to be able to offer a resource for others who wanted to be able to see that there truly was a way to do this and still be a happy, fulfilled, functioning family. The book is a work in progress with many tales already collected and more still in the works.

The group that I created to provide contact with those who wanted to be a part of the Project has blossomed into a being of its own! With nearly 3000 members as I write, it now serves as a safe space for people to seek advice, solidarity and ideas where they can be sure they will not have sleep training suggested to them. It’s a beautiful space and it has filled me with so much hope and enthusiasm as so many people actively take part to be the change they wish to see in the world.

But, I must admit I was stung today when I was told that my efforts only serve as an echo chamber for those who just want to hear one way and that I promote an ‘us and them’ mentality which is not helpful and alienates the majority of people who would prefer that I showed some respect for their parental choices for their own family.

Really? I thought. Am I really just going around in circles with those who would have found this path without so much as a hint of online support? Am I really alienating people who would otherwise have supported my choices?

I thought on it briefly but it honestly did not take me long to disagree on both counts.

I know the first claim to be utterly untrue because I am proof that unless people know they have the choice not to sleep train, often they feel like it is something they MUST do. I did. I did it. I have been on the other side and everywhere in between. I know I am not the only one to experience this either, so no, this is not an echo chamber. This is mothers who know better and those who want to do better. It is mothers wanting to go against the grain because the grain feels all sorts of wrong for them and their family.

On the second count, I hate the ‘us and them’ bullshit as much as the next person but I will not sit back and pretend for a minute that I am accepting of the practice of sleep training as a legitimate parental choice. I won’t because don’t believe it is. I wish to see it removed from the parenting repertoire entirely and assigned to pages of history books. I am passionately opposed to this practice. My passion and belief stem from extensive reading and research.

This does not mean I am against ‘them’ being the mothers who have sleep trained or will in the future. I have said time and again, I AM A SLEEP TRAINING FAILURE, I did it. I know why people do it, I know its appeal, I know the sales pitch, I know the arguments and I know the heartfelt belief in the process. This isn’t a matter of ‘us and them’ in the ‘good mother, bad mother’ mummy wars bullshit. Just as the formula companies profit daily from promoting the Breastfeeding Nazi bollocks, the Sleep Training industry profits from ensuring that mothers feel as though they need to take a side. The side of heavenly sleep or the side of ridiculously unnecessary sleep deprivation. They like to take away any true ‘choice’ by making it seem so utterly ridiculous for you to consider not doing what they say. They rely on studies that have zero interest in biologically normal infant sleep behaviour and instead focus on confirming why the bizarre western practice of solitary sleep and behaviourist approaches to infant sleep are ‘safe’. They serve to protect the main goal of society which is to get people back to being as economically productive outside the home as soon as possible.

I am DONE with this.

I am done with this industry and the huge amounts of money it generates from desperately tired and vulnerable families.

I am done with their disregard for a baby’s legitimate need for night time parenting.

I am done with false science and scaremongering.

I am done with this being accepted mainstream parenting practice.

It is not okay.

It never has been.

It never will be.

As a society, it’s high time we move beyond this sleep training culture. Our babies and their families deserve better and until such time that we expect and respect normal infant sleep behaviour we will continue to place unrealistic and unfair expectations on our youngest and most vulnerable members of society and undue pressure on their families that is completely at odds with normal behaviour.

We can and should do better.

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All I have gained by ‘giving in’

My big baby will be three in less than a month and I know how cliché it is to say I can’t believe how much he has grown and how far we have come but for me, it truly does blow my mind.  

For the last few months, a miracle has occurred on a nightly basis- my big guy has happily snuggled in with his dad and gone to sleep. I know right … miracles do happen.
Yeah, okay, I can hear many a sneer of, ‘wow, your almost three year old still needs his dad to go to sleep.’
But, if you thought this, then you have no idea of the ride we’ve been on and also haven’t gained all we have gained from the process, so bare with me while I share some of the beauty of this with you.
My guy was an extraordinarily high needs baby and I have written of the tumultuous first few months of life as a new family in many articles. We followed in the footsteps of many who have walked the sleep training path and despite our deep commitment, persistence and consistency (which in hindsight bordered on obsessive lunacy), we failed. Our baby did not comply. He resisted all attempts and life was a living, sleepless hell. Nobody slept while we sleep trained. Not me, not my husband, not our poor dog and most certainly not my poor exhausted, desperately helpless baby.

Our failure lead us down an even darker road with me plunging into the depths of Post Natal Depression. I was so very unwell. I saw no light. I saw no joy. I saw no end to this sleepless torture. I saw myself as a terrible mother. I thought I was too weak and useless to be able to meet the needs of my baby. I was sure they were right, all the times I was told that if I couldn’t withstand his will at this age, what kind of hope did I stand when he was a toddler or heaven forbid a teenager!

I dreamed of running away. I thought on numerous occasions my baby would be better off if I just left.  
Why couldn’t I get this baby the sleep he needed? 
Why couldn’t I get this right? 
Everyone seemed to know that you just had to Feed Play Sleep.  
Everyone seemed to know if you just taught your baby to self soothe, they’d sleep.  
Everyone seemed to know that it was because I’d rocked my baby, nursed him to sleep, been unsuccessful at putting him in his cot and hadn’t taught him to sleep alone, that it was all MY fault. He only slept like crap because I had developed such bad sleep habits, associations, crutches … whatever you want to call it.  
My baby was a ‘bad’ baby. He was ‘naughty’ for not letting his mother sleep.  
Everyone pitied me and my weariness.  
They all wished and willed it to end and that my baby would somehow miraculously become the sleepy baby he wasn’t.  
What an absolute pack of failures, outcasts and a cautionary tale of what not to do with your baby.

Life was ugly.

But then, something gave.

I gave it all in.

I surrendered. Hands in air, do whatever. I was so done trying to get it right. I was so done hating motherhood. I was so done with people not seeing my baby for anything other than his ability/ inability to sleep the way he ‘should’.

I went back to every bad habit there was.  
Anything, as long as I didn’t have to hear him cry.  
I fed him to sleep and held him for every nap.  
I rocked with him in the chair and held him tight if boob didn’t work.  
I brought him to my bed after his first wake up at night.  
I never ever resettled him in any way other than boob again.  
I threw away the clock in our room and stopped counting wake ups.  
I sang, soothed, comforted, nursed, snuggled, breathed in and savoured every inch of my baby’s being.  

I gained and regained my world.

I was happy though I was tired.  
My heart sang while my eyes sagged.  
I found peace of mind while exhausted right through to my weary bones.  

My baby gained and regained his world.

He was happy and well rested.  
His heart was full and never in doubt.  
He found peaceful slumber though his body still challenged him daily.  

I have gained an inner strength, faith and confidence in myself that only stems from having lived through a truly life changing experience.  
The same way people gain discipline and strength through taking vows of silence or abstinence, I gained it through a vow to be constant, to be show up no matter what.  

It hurt and it tested me. I thought at times I could not go on. I doubted myself and my baby again and again and still, I kept going.  

And my faith and my vow to be constant has meant that I have gained more from this time in my life than I ever dreamed possible.  

    The hours spent with that baby in my arms, at my breast, rocking, singing, humming, holding, cuddling and loving. The months. The years.

    Time.

    An enormous investment and enormous commitment.


    It was interpreted by others at times to be the behaviour of a martyr or at least that I was being selfless and at the mercy of my child.

    But from the inside, it was as much for me as it was for him.
    We needed each other. He needed me in the whole sense of a dependent, deeply feeling, highly sensitive new human. I needed him to teach me things about myself I never knew were there.

    The fact that this intense sweet man, is now finally in a place where he can comfortably find sleep with his dad is momentous.
    It is an enormous source of joy for his dad, who has longed to be able to comfort him at night and has remained ever patient through nearly three years of rejection.
    It is an enormous milestone for me, to know he has reached a new level of comfort and dare I say it, independence from me and this make my heart swell with pride while also ache with memories of what was.

    He’s nearly done with day sleeps and only ever drops off when exhausted in the car now, no more sleepy nap snuggles.

    He’s in bed and asleep with daddy before I’m done settling his brother at night, no more bedtime snuggles for the most part.

    He still sneaks in to his little mattress next to our bed during the night though and reaches out to hold his mama’s hand and I cherish this little gesture as I celebrate and reflect on all that has been on our unconventional sleep journey.

    All the cuddles and all the settles seemed ever so intense and overwhelming while I was in the thick of it all. But here I am, poking my head out the other side with tears streaming down my face wondering where has the time gone.

    I will never regret giving in.
    All I have gained is the riches of the deepest most constant love there is.
    It is an honour and privilege to be his mother.

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    Being unwilling to sleep train does not make me a martyr

    Too often, parents who follow a gentler path when it comes to infant sleep are accused of being martyrs. Their experience with sleep deprivation and exhaustion is also often minimised as something they’ve brought on themselves and part and parcel of that good old rod they have created for their own back. Well I’d like to set the record straight.  
    I am not a martyr for being unwilling to sleep train my child.

    I am also not the perfect mother who’s life is as glossy as a magazine.  
    I am not holier than thou or seamlessly floating through these days with two babies born just 20 months apart.  
    I am messy. I am real and all too often, I am pretty freaking knackered.  
    I don’t need to be held to any higher level of account than any other mother and excuse me for sharing my experience regardless of how different it may appear to the mainstream idea of how this time in life should be managed.  
    There is no ‘fine line’ between being there for my baby and sacrificing it all for the sake of attachment. This is bullshit.

    My baby is a completely dependent, completely trusting human being who has ZERO capability to meet their own needs and relies 100% on me to make sure either I, or someone else who loves them responds to them.

    I hold the power here.  
    I am not a slave to a tiny dictator. I have the power. I can choose to respond or not respond. I can answer my baby’s cries each and every time or no. I decide the whens, wheres, whys and hows. I hold the power.  
    All my baby has is their cry and their sweet precious smell and looks to fall back on. They are so incredibly powerless and vulnerable that it makes my heart ache.  
    My baby has also been born incredibly prematurely by animal standards and the need for closeness to their ‘safe place’ on my chest or their daddy’s is so raw and real.

    Human babies grow an enormous amount in the first 1-2 years of life. Not just physically in length and girth but also in terms of movement, communication, brain connections, emotions and so much more. They also sprout a huge number of sharp teeth that cut through their soft gums causing great discomfort. The world is new. Every experience is mind blowing and through it all, their busy little minds are whirring away and at times making sleep incredibly hard to achieve and then maintain.

    Sleep for our babies is nothing like sleep is for us as grown, mature adults and it’s not meant to be.

    A baby waking and nursing frequently at night throughout the first year and beyond is behaving like a normal human infant. A baby needing help to find and maintain sleep is also behaving normally. Sleep is not something that can or should be taught to our babies. They know how to sleep even if they need a lot of help. They will find more independence with sleep naturally as they grow.

    My belief in this process is strong though naturally at times, while I ride the waves of intensity with my growing and developing baby, I do doubt myself, my baby and the process. I believe that a large part of this doubt stems from lack of being able to get a good handle on what is normal by looking around me in society. Our society is so far removed from normal infant sleep that the ridiculous expectations and beliefs that follow make it extremely hard for mothers who follow their baby’s lead.

    Being accused of being a martyr for being unwilling to train my baby who is behaving exactly as they should for a normally developing human is so incredibly unfair.  
    I will not train my baby because despite my exhaustion and despite the incredible pressure to conform, I am unwilling to compromise my baby’s legitimate needs for the sleepy ideal.  
    I would pick my weariness for the last 3 years always.  
    I am not a martyr though and instead, I have been forced to recognise my own needs in ways that do not compromise my baby’s need for night time parenting.  
    I make decisions that are not all about me but they definitely include me.  
    I matter but so does my completely dependent human.  
    So please, don’t think of me as a martyr.  
    I choose to mother this way because it feels right deep down in my core. I don’t do it for looks and I don’t do it as some kind of sick self flagellation. I believe my baby needs me and that my night time nurturing is worthwhile.

    To the gentle mamas facing heavy questioning right now, hold strong. Your work right now matters. You haven’t brought this on yourself, you are simply following the needs of your unique human and there is beauty to be found through the weariness. Keep on nurturing mamas x

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    Why following your instincts is even more challenging if your baby has high end needs

    Why following your instincts is even more challenging if your baby has high end needs

    Honouring your instincts and mothering the way that feels right for you is extremely challenging in today’s society that values styles of parenting that are very ‘textbook’ and focus heavily on setting boundaries, routines and limits on responsiveness right from the very early days of a baby’s life. Anyone who has opted to follow their baby’s lead when it comes to nursing and sleep will tell you it can be a lonely path to take and it is hard not to doubt yourself and your baby as you make your way through this season in life with all the twists, turns and challenges it naturally takes. I’d like shed some light on a subgroup of mothers who face even heavier challenges … the mother of the high end needs baby.  


    I was just at the park with my kids and I was standing with a group of mums when one mum asked the other if she was getting any more sleep as she’d looked shattered the previous day. The mum says, ‘oh my gosh, I’m just so exhausted! My little guy (about 6 months) has started waking twice overnight and my big guy woke for a drink and has done for a few nights in a row. The baby seems hungry but oh my god, I’m exhausted!’

    Now I’m not claiming she wasn’t exhausted. In her experience, she most likely is.

    But, I swear to god, if I’d heard that same conversation a couple of years ago while I mothered my first high needs baby, I would have-

    a. Wanted to slap her across the face
    b. Burst into tears and shaken her while I screamed, ‘exhausted? I’ll show you f#%^ing exhausted!’ then run away and gone home with my little sleep thief feeling even more shit and alone because no one else seemed to get it.
    c. Or most likely, just walked away with my baby quickly to hide my tears and gone home feeling desperately alone.

    Now, I realise that most people who already follow their baby’s sleep lead would know that 2 wake ups a night at 6 months freaking rocks and is absolutely normal BUT for the mother who is following her wakeful little firecracker’s lead, two wake ups can sound like the ultimate luxurious dream as she wakes for the 6+ time that night.

    It’s not just that it’s hard for this mother to feel as though she is understood (because let’s face it, she’s largely not), what’s even harder is for this mother to be able to keep any faith in herself and her baby and what they are doing as a pair when everyone around them seems to experience this infant sleep business in such a different way.

    Why can’t my baby sleep like that? Why does my baby wake so excessively? Is there something wrong with them? Have I created this mess? Maybe it’s because I breastfeed to sleep? Maybe I do have to teach my baby to self soothe so they can link sleep cycles? Maybe it’s because I’m drinking a coffee a day now? Maybe it’s because I am misunderstanding my baby’s early sleep cues and missing their window? Maybe it’s because I let my baby catnap during the day? Maybe I need to start solids? Maybe a bedtime bottle of formula? Maybe it’s because we bedshare? Maybe I should try the cot again?

    I can safely say as a person on the outside who once lived inside this confusing, disheartening, sleep deprived, muddled haze, that provided your baby has been checked out for any underlying health issues that may be exacerbating their normal wakeful behaviour, you have not done a single thing to cause this waking. Your little person just happens to have an intense need for parenting both day and night. It is normal for a baby to wake and nurse back to sleep frequently at night. It is physiologically impossible for an infant or toddler to soothe themselves from a place of distress and therefore, self soothing is not something you can teach your baby.

    This may feel like cold comfort to the mother in the thick of living and loving their high needs person but I can tell you now, the first time I heard this, I felt like an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders …

    It was no longer MY fault.

    It was no longer my BABY’s fault.

    And, it felt almost heavenly to know I was not alone.

    And still, the weight would grow heavier and heavier and heavier over time as the relentless waking, the relentless weariness, the relentless need for comfort day after night after day after day after night …

    I would cycle through patches of extreme vulnerability so frequently and all of the beauty that a gentler approach to parenting would become tainted by my exhaustion. The questions and doubts would creep on in and heaven forbid I showed it to anyone for I’d be swooped on by pitying faces and sleep training promises and told my baby was manipulating me and all about the good old rod I’d created and how abnormal he was and how unnecessary breastfeeding at night was.

    It may be seen as super judgemental for a gentle parent to propose that maybe a mainstream parenting technique like sleep training is inappropriate but my goodness, in my experience it’s a bloody free for all when it comes to advice coming from the other way.

    My gentle ways that felt so right even if I was shattered and brought my baby so much comfort were routinely ripped to shreds which in effect, ripped me and my extraordinary efforts to shreds, too. Society held so little value for the huge amount of blood, sweat and tears I poured into that baby of mine. I was treated as though I was a bit crazy, a bit of an alternative hippy and once people learned of my complete distaste for sleep training (even if they knew what we had gone through), they so often gave me that pitiful shrug and head tilt, of ‘oh well, if you aren’t willing to do it then I guess you’ll just have to stay tired.’

    So little empathy.

    No true understanding.

    It was a truly lonely journey.

    I had to cling to little things to get me through. I had to tell myself and my baby frequently that we were a team and we’d get through this together. Posts on The Milk Meg that normalised night waking and boobin all night became a lifeline. Pinky McKay’s reassuring articles about breastfeeding and soothing a baby to sleep helped me gain more confidence in why it felt right to help my baby so. The 12 Features of the High Needs Baby by Dr William Sears saw me in tears … for the first time, someone seemed to ‘get’ my baby. Evolutionary Parenting and Sarah Ockwell Smith helped me better understand why sleep training is not something any baby needs but why it is so popular. I found the amazing books Sweet Sleep by La Leche League and The Discontented Little Baby Book by Dr Pamela Douglas and learned so much about normal infant sleep patterns.

    I looked, learned and reached out and you know what I found in all of this … I was so far from alone.

    My baby was not a freak.

    And I most certainly was not the only mother sitting by herself crying over the fact that her friends thought that 2 wake ups at night was something they’d call a ‘bad night’.

    To those who have less intense little people, I know how many times you would have experienced doubt and worry on your gentle journey but I ask you to really think of those mothers in both your real and virtual communities who have an extra added layer of ‘hard’ that they are battling through and take time to show them you see them and their incredible efforts and the way they continue on despite the heavy weight of societal pressure telling them they are wrong every chance it gets.

    Next time you read a, ‘I never wanted to sleep train but I honestly can’t do this anymore!’ plea, please, I beg you to stop, reflect and then respond. The whole, ‘I could never do that, how could you consider…’ comments are by far the worst.

    Talk with this mama. Fill her confidence in mothering with her instincts back up. She needs you to have her back when she’s vulnerable. She needs to know she can do this incredibly hard thing but may need to ask help to keep doing it. She needs your practical help and a little empathy never went astray.

    To those mamas with intense little ones, I salute you. You are the unsung heroes of the mothering world and your wee one will forever benefit from the incredible commitment of love, time and patience you have given them. Your efforts are not in vain. You are doing incredibly important work, never doubt it.

     I sincerely hope to see the day where it is normal to nurture your baby and meet them at their point of need regardless of how intense those needs may be. Until then, I will continue to speak of the biological norm and shine a light on the wonderful work being done by gentle mothers the world over that deserves to be revered instead of ridiculed.

    I dream of the day we can say we have truly moved beyond the sleep training culture.

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