Accepting the Reality of Infant and Toddler Sleep

Imagine if we, as a society accepted normal infant and toddler sleep. 

I mean really accepted it, in all its glory. 

Every part of society, from every generation, every family, every profession, every community, every culture, every religion.

What if we knew and accepted it as expected and respected elements of a child’s development? 
What if everybody knew well before having their own children that their child would need night time parenting for the first few years of life? 
If everybody knew that waking frequently to nurse was the biologically normal way for an infant/ toddler human to sleep? 
If everybody knew that we are in fact ‘carry mammals’ and that our young require near constant contact with a caregiver for the first few months to continue their growth and development outside of the womb? 
If everybody knew that a baby’s and toddler’s sleep can fluctuate a lot  over the first couple of years as they grow and develop at a phenomenal rate? 
If everybody recognised that a baby’s and toddler’s need for comfort, closeness and nurturing at night is just as valid and important as their need for these things during the day? 
What if nobody doubted the value of night time parenting and wouldn’t even for a moment consider that they could trade it off so they could be a ‘better’ parent by day? 

We, as a society, would come at infant and toddler sleep from a whole other place than we do right now.

There’d be no sleep training and therefore no sleep training industry.

There would be less focus on the baby and their behaviour and more focus on the dyad as a dynamic pair and nurturing the nurturer.

There would be focus on all levels from family right through to the political sphere on the kinds of support families need to navigate this time in their lives.

Antenatal classes and Mums and Bubs groups would be all about helping mothers to build their support network and discovering options that will allow them to meet their baby’s needs while also meeting their own.

For mothers who are struggling with intense high needs babies, the support would recognise the extra level of challenge these mother face as they run the Ultra Marathon of her life and help put the supports in place that mother needs and deserves.

Mothers with mental health concerns would be nurtured and treated in ways that respect her child’s legitimate needs day and night.

Families making decisions about paid employment would do so with the full knowledge that their baby will still require night time parenting.

Wouldn’t the world look so different to the way it does right now.?

The stress, strain, struggle and sacrifices made all because so few people know and recognise what has always been and always will be the way our tiniest most vulnerable humans find sleep normally.

I was told that new and expecting mothers don’t want to know that babies continue waking for a couple of years. I was told I was scaring them unnecessarily and that it was the equivalent of telling horror birth stories to a pregnant mama as she prepared to birth.

I strongly disagree.

Knowing and accepting what IS likely to happen as your baby grows and develops is not a horror story. No one knows how your baby will find sleep in this world but one thing is for sure, they will need you and that is not something you need to fear. Instead of fear, it gives room to mentally, physically and practically prepare. It takes away the element of surprise. It removes the angst of ‘shouldn’t they be sleeping better yet?’, ‘why does my baby still wake?’

A birthing mother doesn’t need to hear every horrific tale of every horrific thing that may or may not happen to her. That does nothing to help her towards her own journey. But it equally does not help to tell her that it will be easy, straight forward and you practically just sneeze and the baby falls out without pain/ discomfort.

A pregnant or new mother does not need to hear every detail of every form of sleep torture she may or may not face in the years ahead with her child. But she equally doesn’t need to sprint to some arbitrary finish line that someone has told her and think that her child’s night-time needs will magically cease and her sleep will return to that of pre-baby.

Let’s be real. Let’s be honest and let’s give new parents the very best chance to set themselves up with realistic expectations for the early time in their child’s life where they will be needed just as much at night as they are by day.

I know this may seem like a pipe dream right now, but all it takes is for voices to rise. Mothers and babies of the future deserve better than what is offered up in mainstream society today.

When we know better, we can do better and so, for all of those in the know, it’s our turn to share our voice, speak our knowledge and share with all we can the truths of normal infant and toddler sleep.

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In an effort to redefine ‘Strength’ in parenting

In an effort to redefine ‘Strength’ in parenting

Be warned that this post may make you feel uncomfortable. Writing it was actually very hard for me as it’s taken a long time for me to come to realise and recognise my own experience this way. I do not share it to laden you with guilt or to cast judgement on you or your family. I have written it because I feel it is important that I share some of the deep and dark ways society can and does influence us as parents. It’s important to start thinking and reflecting and it’s important that we can recognise some of the uglier choices we may have made or had thought we may make to help guide us in the future. If you feel something as a result of this post, do something with that feeling other than put a big wall up and shutdown. It’s okay to be fallible. It’s okay to feel let down. It’s okay to be perfectly imperfect. I have to tell myself this every day. So, if you aren’t feeling up to it, maybe give this a miss today but I sincerely hope you get around to reading it at one stage or another.  

Strength, when it comes to parenting, is too often defined by society as existing only when a parent is ‘strong’ enough to withstand their urge to go to and comfort or help their baby or child. It’s as though there is a certain level of physical and mental ‘toughness’ in being able to conjure up the strength to ignore your inbuilt instincts and desire to nurture and this has become a character attribute that is not only highly desirable but also something we as parents must all strive for.

I struggled with this with my first baby. If you haven’t already read my backstory, then you can get read it here. It will help you understand more about how I came to where I am today and my questioning of modern, mainstream parenting in general.

While I tried to navigate my way through the early weeks and months of life as a first time mum of a baby who seemed to have been sleep resistant, I was told on many occasions that when I was strong enough, I would need to sleep train him. This came from all sorts of people- loving family members, well- meaning friends, strangers, Child Health Nurses, a Paediatrician, my GP (‘you know he’s not normal don’t you? You HAVE to teach him how to sleep, this is ridiculous. You’ll have to be strong but he needs to learn.’) and that’s not to mention the parenting books, the online forums, Facebook … you get the picture.

I was also assured that when it was time or whenever anyone got wind of me making an attempt at some form of sleep training, I would be surrounded by support.

And that I was.

‘Good on you! You really all need more sleep, stay strong.’
‘It’s so tough, but stay strong, it’ll be worth it.’
‘Some babies are harder or more stubborn than others, stay strong and don’t give in. The key is persistence and consistency.’
‘Who are you going to let win here? That baby needs to learn when it’s sleep time you mean it.’
‘Turn down the monitor and make yourself a cuppa. You can do this.’
‘He’s one tough nut to crack but you have to stay strong.’
‘If it get too much, go for a walk outside and try to resist the urge to run in, you’ll only prolong the process. Stay strong.’

    All this and more came before, during and after sleep school.

    I was surrounded by words of support. Words of encouragement. Messages of strength, hope and solidarity. I fed off their words, off their unwavering belief in the process and I kept at it. And at it. And at it.

    But I ‘failed’. My baby ‘failed’. My husband ‘failed’.

    Initially, this was crushing. I mistook my inability to make this work as a weakness on my part or a weakness on my baby’s. I wasn’t strong enough and I couldn’t measure up.

    The sleepy ideal.

    I actually wrote a post on my online mother’s forum saying that I felt like my baby deserved a better mother, one who was strong enough to help him the way he needed to be helped.
    That tears me up still.
    I was in the grip of PND. I had plummeted hard and fast as my sleep training efforts ramped up and grew more intense and I hit rock bottom after yet another 2 hour battle trying to get my baby to soothe out of my arms failed. I cried and rocked in a ball wondering what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t make this all work. What on earth was I doing so wrong and what on earth could I do now?

    Thankfully, I spoke up and sought help.
    I began my long road to recovery.
    I picked my broken self up and started to put me back together piece by piece.
    It’s been a long road and the realisations from what happened and the learning from that time still take me by surprise at times. It’s been more than two years since I came out of my fog and still, today was the day I fully realised that although the words ‘strong’, ‘strength’, ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ were all the rallying cries I frequently heard while sleep training, they didn’t reflect what was actually going on.

    I wasn’t strong at that time, I was in fact at my weakest and most vulnerable.

    It wasn’t a fight I needed to fight, I was a desperate first time mother desperately trying to get everything right for her baby.

    Me feeling sick to my stomach, head pounding, heart racing, desperately fighting against every nerve in my body screaming at me to pick up my baby and comfort him … that wasn’t me showing strength. I wasn’t conquering my emotions, I wasn’t cutting the apron strings, I wasn’t teaching my baby a lesson he would need for life. I was a lost and severely sleep deprived soul, clutching at what I thought HAD to be done.

    I was weak, vulnerable, desperate, scared and had placed my trust in those around me who so confidently said they knew better.

    I was not strong.

    Strength is exactly what I drew on and still draw upon today to mother my babies the way I do now- 
    To mother in a way that swims against the tide.
    To mother through instinct and to follow my baby’s lead.

    I have needed every ounce of strength I have to keep faith at times and as this is a long game not a short term fix, my strength is also my stamina.
    There is great strength in honouring a baby’s ever cry in a world that tells you not to.
    There is great strength in comforting a baby in arms or at my breast in a world that thinks these are bad habits.
    There is great strength in unquestioningly tending to a baby’s every night time need in a world that sets time limits and rules around when, why and for how long a baby should wake and need help in the night.
    There is great strength in simply trusting the natural progression of your baby’s sleep behaviour towards independence in a world who places arbitrary and unrealistic expectations on these behaviours and is quick to call them problematic.
    It has taken immense strength to make sure I am okay, too and to learn to ask for and accept the help I need to be able to keep mothering the way my babies need to be mothered.

    The overwhelming roar and battle cry issued by society as it rallies around new mothers to join the sleep training path is no less dangerous than the unchecked voices or actions of the cliquey, obnoxious groups in the school yard. The ridiculous expectations, the taunting, the encouraging to do something you are not comfortable with, the false promises, the rallying cries, the dire warnings of what to expect if you don’t do what you are told … all sound so familiar. 
    And then when you don’t meet their standards- it’s the pitying glances, the blame assigned, the ostracising and the judgement. I don’t know why, but this took me even more by surprise.

    There is not one single time I have been able to share my experience and point of view as a sleep training, sleep school failure without at least one pro sleep training advocate commenting on their own success or calling me judgemental, dangerous and asking me stop shaming mothers who needed to sleep train or other from the experience. Not once.

    When you think about it, we as a society are pretty screwed up if we can’t abide the thought that our completely dependent, voiceless and trusting babies may simply need more from us than we are taught to believe.

    How dare their needs at night ask more of us than we were prepared to give.

    A baby with intense needs by night deserves the respect and parenting they require.

    If that thought horrifies you or instantly makes you cry, ‘but what about me!?! What about my need for sleep?!?’ I ask you try and find the strength you need to take the time and effort required to work out what you need to do to get the quality rest and sleep you need while still meeting the night time needs of your baby.

    If you want to show real strength, meet your baby at their point of need while still meeting your own.

    That’s the definition of strength in parenting I wish for the future.

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    A baby’s perspective on the conditions of unconditional love

    While I was deep in the heart of sleep training my first baby, I loved him unconditionally. 

    I adored that baby of mine and would have moved heaven and earth for him. The reason I was sleep training was that I honestly and whole heartedly feared for his growth and development if I didn’t get him sleeping ‘better’. It was the hardest and most heart wrenching decision I have ever made and although ultimately, has become one of my deepest regrets, it was not a decision made out of lack of love or a limit on love.  

    Despite this, my completely helpless, innocent, trusting, ever so wakeful little firecracker, was for the first time, experiencing conditions to my love.

    His need for love from birth was simple, even if the effort required to keep up with those needs was exhausting. Love for a baby is felt on an extremely physical level. They feel loved when they are held close, comforted and secure. They feel love when they see your face appear and you lift them up when they cry. They feel love when you make eye contact and smile and delight in them. They feel love when you scoop them up and soothe their worries with cuddles, rocking and boob.




    Honouring each and every cry

    These needs and the love that they feel when they are met, do not stop at nap time, they do not stop when the sun goes down.

    The decision to sleep train suddenly placed conditions on each and everyone of these core needs for my baby.

    I had to restrict my touch at nap time and bed time as much as I possibly could to allow my baby to learn to ‘self settle’.

    I could cuddle my baby to calm him down once he was hysterical but then once he’d calmed, the cuddle had to end, no longer could he fall asleep in the calm, safe place of my arms.

    I could no longer breastfeed my baby to sleep nor feed him on demand at night. We had acceptable times to go between feeds overnight to stamp out unnecessary ‘comfort sucking’ and using me as a ‘dummy/ pacifier’.

    I could no longer simply hear my baby cry and assume he needed a cuddle. Now, I had to listen and try to decide if he was ‘just protesting’ or was he ‘emotional’? Did he need me to pick him up or would a bit of shhhhing or tapping his mattress be enough?

    So many arbitrary conditions to my demonstrations of love that my baby knew, trusted and understood.

    So many new barriers to my arms. So many new barriers between us.

    My love was still wholehearted but it was no longer pure and unconditionally felt by my baby.

    He was at sea with our loss of synchronicity.

    We found our way back to each other, we regained our trust. We recovered our broken hearts but the scars still remain.

    For me, those scars have been one of my ultimate life lessons.

    Loving unconditionally within your own heart and mind is one thing but true love without conditions only lives when it is felt by the one that you love.

    Babies are complex and unique but to love them is really quite simple- show them your love, every day and every way that you can.

    Love does not need conditions, limits or rules.

    Love is love. It’s yours to give and theirs to keep and will never be something you regret as long as you live.

    Follow that baby mama, they are by far your best teacher.

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    The utter crap spun by Baby Sleep Whisperers: episode 3- Babies thrive with routine

    If you missed the first two articles, you can find episode 1 here and episode 2 here 💙 

    In this third instalment, I call out the common myth in sleep training manuals that your baby will flourish if you impose a routine on them. Apparently all cookie cutter babies LOVE routine.

    I call horseshit to this one for a number of reasons.

    1. Breastfeeding is the biological norm and breastfeeding on demand not schedule is well known as being the best way to ensure your baby’s needs are met and you have bountiful supply. If our human infants were indeed designed to flourish with routine then surely their natural source of nutrition should reflect that AND it doesn’t.

    2. Maybe cookie cutter kids love routine but the real life babies I know are unique individuals and just like the unique individuals getting around as grown ups, not everyone likes routine. Some people prefer spontaneity and novelty or on a more even level, many of us just prefer a calm, flexible rhythm and flow rather than rigid timetabled life.

    3. Leading on from point 2, life is unpredictable. Teaching children who sit on the Autistic Spectrum who absolutely DO have an intense need for routine and predictability has shown me just how unpredictable life can be even when you do try to adhere to routines.These children and others who love routine by nature or have only ever known routine, often struggle with their rigidity once they are out in the world. So knowing this, it puzzles me then to know why we are told by these ‘experts’ that out littlest people will benefit from their strict schedules.

    Some predictability and above all reliability in their day, that’s what helps a baby. 

    A calm, flowing rhythm, flexible and evolving to meet your unique growing baby’s needs.

    Surely that would be a better aim for parents but that wouldn’t sell books and also wouldn’t provide the Sleep Whisperer with an ‘out’ when it doesn’t work for you (most love having caveats of ‘I guarantee this WILL work but only IF you follow my plan to a tee’).

    So if you have a non routine, non cookie cutter kid on your hands wondering why they don’t seem to agree with this routine shit of feeding at X time, followed by a 10 mins play, before winding down to sleep at 10am and not to wake until 12pm, fear not. Your kid is normal. Watch your child and follow THEIR rhythm no matter how offbeat it is and you’ll soon find your own unique flow.

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