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Is the Sleep Training culture contributing to the rise in Post Partum Anxiety and Depression?

As with most things I write, this goes against the mainstream narrative and will undoubtedly be brushed off as mere poppycock by those who subscribe to the popular Sleep Training culture but I’m going to say it anyway- Sleep Training culture strongly contributed to my Post Partum Depression and I don’t believe I am alone in this.  

a. ‘But Sleep Training saved my sanity!’

b. ‘I was heading down the path of depression so I used Controlled Crying!’

c. ‘My anxiety was crippling, I had to sleep train!’

Sound familiar?

I was heading straight for the (a) though because we ‘failed’ I was never ‘saved’ and (c) definitely featured in my decision to go the sleep training route. I get it, I really do but here’s where my experience as a ‘failure’ has helped me look at this situation very critically and I’ve come to the realisation that perhaps so many mothers have to be saved by Sleep Training because we are being groomed by the Sleep Training culture to feel like we are doing something wrong when our baby does not fit the ‘sleepy ideal’.

Sleep training culture is so pervasive, it is virtually impossible for a modern mother to remain untouched. It has come through a number of generations now and as such, the advice from older generations who we often turn to as new mothers is riddled with it. Health care professionals hail it as a ‘fix’ and with limited quality breastfeeding education as part of their training, many are ill equipped to advise on the normal development of feeding and sleeping behaviours in breastfed babies and toddlers.

Feeding and sleeping schedules that were so popular while formula feeding was the norm in the 50-70s have tainted what has become the benchmark and ‘norms’ for infant care.

First wave behaviourism struck fear into the hearts about ‘bad habits’, ‘spoiling’, ‘negative Sleep crutches’, ‘self soothing’ and Sleep as a taught skill.

Hands off, distant, independent, solitary sleep, restricted responsiveness, authoritarian, prescriptive and strict- all words that help describe what is valued when parenting very young babies and toddlers.

Being told when you can hold, nurse or comfort your baby is standard.

Being told when your baby should sleep, where they should sleep and for how long is standard.

Being told when you should respond to your baby’s cry and when you shouldn’t is standard.

Being told that your baby only wakes because of the way you help them find sleep is standard.

Being made to fear long term damage to your baby’s development and ability to achieve healthy sleep is standard.

Being made to fear that if you continue to comfort your baby in some way you’ll create a big old rod for your own back and you should break the habit now or expect you’ll have to do it this way forever is standard.

Being told that it is your responsibility to your child that you fix their sleep is standard.

This standard is what I believe is the crux of why so many mothers start heading down the path of depression and anxiety. I sure as hell did.

I bought into the standard and bent myself over backwards, forwards and inside out trying to reach it. The standard that I could not meet, the standard my baby called bullshit on, that standard left me feeling subpar as a mother every damn day.

Every day that I bought into the ‘shoulds’ for both myself and my baby was a day I finished feeling ‘less than’. We never measured up.

Every day of my baby refusing to accept anything less than the comfort and reassurance and assistance he needed drove a wedge into our relationship as I questioned again and again what was wrong with him and why couldn’t he do what he was ‘meant’ to do at his age?

It’s hard to not feel anxious and have your anxiety grow as the noise that surrounds you assures you that every day that your baby sleeps less than they say he should or wakes more than he should or asks for more assistance than he ‘should’ need is potentially affecting his long term health and development.

It’s hard to not feel depressed when yet again you are told it is because you nurse him to sleep and haven’t succeeded in putting him down drowsy but awake and you have to learn his cries that your getting this mothering and sleep business so terribly wrong- THAT’S why you feel so desperately tired and miserable. If you just follow XYZ, then you’ll get the sleep you need. When you’ve already tried these things in desperate vein for the 100 thousandth time to no avail.

It’s hard to feel light, relaxed and at peace with your brand new mothering experience when at every turn you are told you are doing it wrong.

For me and my darling wakeful little firecracker, the road to PPD was paved in Sleep Training culture bullshit.

How on earth I was ever going to get away without eventually succumbing while surrounded by all of this noise is beyond me.

Yes, there are many more factors that may well contribute to the development of PPA or PPD in each unique person but I refuse to believe this Sleep Training culture in anyway sets women up for success and healthy mental health and self esteem in their new identity.

So perhaps, instead of heralding and crediting Sleep Training with ‘saving’ so many mother’s sanity, we should look long and hard at how it took our sanity in the first place.


Mothers of today and into the future deserve so much better than this.

Re-evaluating, resetting and reestablishing the norms of infant sleep from a a biological and anthropological standpoint would be the first place to start.

Only once we can as a society come to a fuller understanding of the reality of infant and toddler sleep will we see a shift that is so needed to undo the damage and twisted accepted norms perpetuated by the current Sleep Training culture.

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Why Responsive Settling Isn’t Truly Responsive

When in it comes to Sleep Training, there are extremes on the spectrum, with Cry It Out at the far end with complete withdrawal of response- shut the door at 7pm and do not open it again until 7am, with more ‘responsive’ techniques sitting somewhere in the middle, down to the gentlest, slow moving, truly responsive options at the far end. Responsive Settling proponents would have themselves down the ‘gentle’ end of the spectrum but as someone who has experienced the technique as the mother of a wakeful baby, I can say that gentle, it most certainly is not.

The sell is strong though and I believe that those who created the technique and those who teach and utilise it, wholeheartedly believe they are responding to the babies entrusted to their care but there is a massive gulf between any response and appropriate response. Responsive Settling whilst more responsive than no response, does not allow a parent to be appropriately responsive to their unique infant’s needs.

Why?

Well I will detail my experience more in a moment but I think first and foremost, the reason that Responsive Settling still so clearly misses the mark is that it still fails to recognise and respect normal infant sleep behaviours and instead works to pathologise and stage interventions on them when know ‘problem’ actually exists for the baby and instead the true problem lies with unrealistic sleep expectations, lack of support for very tired families and a society hellbent on ‘fixing’ anything that has been decided is undesirable or outside the accepted ‘norm’.


(Image: Gentle Parenting Memes)

But even if you don’t buy that, I will explain how the Responsive Settling technique looked in my reality and you can decide for yourself if it really could be responding to a baby in an appropriate way.

A little scene setting for you-

I was a First Time Mum. My baby was born wide awake. He was never a sleepy newborn. Not even the day he was born. He slept for brief bursts during the day, was super sensitive and startled incredibly easily. He hated being down. Ever. He wanted to be in arms or on a chest 24-hours a day.

He cried whenever we put him down and seemed to find the feeling of falling asleep very scary. He’d be all drowsy and relaxed with eyes drooping and then BAM screaming, as though that last little falling feeling you get as you drop off was the most terrifying sensation in the world. I had never heard of the Fourth Trimester. I had no idea that a baby wanting to be held close 24/7 was in the range of normal. All I knew was that everyone around me had babies who looked calm, relaxed, happy to chill out and slept for big chunks of time, flat on their back with little to no help from their mothers. My baby’s night time involved loads of waking but he was usually quickly settled by the boob. I was terrified of bedsharing and felt that I had already created so many ‘bad’ sleep habits already, I didn’t want to add anything more to our repertoire so I was insisting on getting up to him and tending to him in another room. I also had my head filled with the notion that although a newborn may wake frequently at night to nurse, this should lessen over time in a straight line, with him dropping feeds and sleeping for longer without my help.

My baby strongly disagreed.

And so, we became at odds with each other. He needed me intensely but I was convinced he wanted me but didn’t need all that he demanded.

By 3 months, I was exhausted and full of doubts.

By 4 months, I was a wreck. Cue our four-month health check with Child Health. The Nurse listened as I sobbed my heart out detailing my baby’s extremely wakeful behaviour and lack of day sleep. I was desperate for help. The nurse echoed my concerns. She told me my baby was Chronically Sleep Deprived and that she would refer me to The Mother-Baby Unit in our capital city for a stay to help me get the matter in hand. She knew there was a long wait for the public service but if we had Private Health Insurance then she knew the Private Facility in the same city offered the same program using the Responsive Settling technique.

She pointed me to the videos on the Public services website to allow me to have a try of the technique at home prior to our stay.

We attended the Private facility for a 5 day stay 2 weeks later. In the lead up, I tried to implement the strategies I had watched on the website, without any success and much distress for my baby and me. I grew ever more frustrated and intolerant of him as I came even more convinced that he was just being difficult and that he had to learn to sleep so we could all get back to being happy.

I went into the program with a desperate hope.

This HAD to work. I couldn’t for a moment consider it wouldn’t because I couldn’t fathom what my life would be or what we could do next if this didn’t work.

My enthusiasm was there but I had a dull ache in my heart the whole time leading up to the stay that remained throughout. I had never wanted to listen to my baby cry. Why o why couldn’t my sweet baby just find sleep like all the other babies? I didn’t want to do this to him but I couldn’t allow his lack of sleep impact on him anymore. No, I was stronger than that and I would do whatever I needed to meet my baby’s needs and if that meant having strangers keep me in check so I didn’t ‘give in’ too easily, then that’s what I’d do.

And so, the stage was set.

We started off with a meet and greet circle time. We had to tell each other why we were there. I could barely hold my head up as I confessed my child’s ‘sleep sins’ and my role in his ‘bad habits’; there were sympathetic head tilts, a knowing look in the eye, a shoulder rub and word of, ‘it’ll be okay, we can help’ offered up.

Then came the slide show that detailed the game plan. My 4.5-month-old was deemed too old for the ‘Comfort Settling/ Hands on Settling’ group which was for the two newborns present. We were instead with the older ‘Responsive Settling’ group.

We started when it was time for his afternoon sleep.

We had to implement a Feed-Play-Sleep routine and so I had to feed my baby and make sure he didn’t fall asleep, then read him a story, kiss him and tell him it was time to sleep, place him in his cot and walk out and close the door.

Then, I waited by the door, to see what, if any, response my baby would require to find sleep.

The nurses had zero interest in hearing what I thought he needed, or even what I thought may happen next. It was assumed I had never afforded my baby the opportunity or space to try and settle himself before and therefore, we needed to ‘just wait and see as I might be pleasantly surprised’.

Pleasant it was not. Initially, my trusting baby just kicked his legs around and chatted, no doubt feeling safe in the knowledge that mama would reappear soon. But she didn’t. He then started sounding worried. If he could talk back then, I’d say the sounds would roughly translate to, ‘Mama, I’m getting worried, where are you, I need you, where are you?

I knew this, but I wasn’t allowed in. This was just him ‘grizzling’ because he was getting ready to sleep, apparently.

He then ramped it up. I explained that this only ever went one way and it most certainly wasn’t headed towards sleep and if anything, it was driving him ever further from it. The nurse assured me he was okay and suggested I move to the base level ‘response’ while we stayed at the door. We opened the door and ‘shushed’ loudly at him to let him know I was there but it was sleep time and he wouldn’t get picked up. My baby wailed on.

I told them it wasn’t working and they told me to persist a bit longer. He continued to cry.

We then crawled into the room (so as not to give him the false impression we would pick him up), and I patted the mattress next to his head and continued to ‘shush’ loudly, no eye contact was to be made. He cried even more.

I was then encouraged to place my hand on his chest and continue to ‘shush’ him. He was past hysterical by now.

The nurse then told me I could pick him up to calm him as we had to respond to that level of distress as it wasn’t good for him. I scooped him up and soothed my sweating hysterical baby. But, as if it wasn’t enough, once he was calm, down he had to go again. He immediately howled. I placed my hand on his chest and ‘shushed’ but my heart could take no more.

THIS is one of the key moments I look back on with great shame-

I could take no more, so I fled. I ran from that room, without my baby and sat in the hall and rocked in a ball crying my heart out. The nurse had picked my baby up at this point and she rocked him off to sleep as it was decided that was enough for that settle. I should have run WITH my baby, not away from him, but I guess this is testament to how crushed I was.

Once asleep, she came out to find me to assure me we would try again next time and I’d be surprised how quickly he’d learn.

And so, a few hours later, we did it all again. It went almost exactly the same way. The only difference was that there wasn’t that momentary calm at the start. My clever little man knew what was going on and was crying before I could even walk to the door.

Door, shushing, floor, shushing, mattress patting, shushing, chest rocking, shushing, calming hysteria, shushing, place back down, shushing, hysteria, me running, nurse rocking.

This second time, one of the nurses came to me to give what she no doubt thought was pep talk and asked me if I was going to be ‘stronger’ than my baby or not? I told her to p#%s off and get away from me.

Again, a few hours later for bedtime.

My mum came to visit the next morning and was upset by what she could see. She told me my baby looked pale and exhausted and asked what was going on. I told her and she told me that I either spoke up to the nurses and told them this wasn’t working and we needed a new tack or we’d be leaving. I was a mess.

The morning settle was the same so after lunch I started packing our bags.

A nurse saw and came to ask me what I had hoped from the stay. I told her I NEEDED help but I didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere and no one seemed to have any better ideas to help my baby as their way still ended with hysteria and rocking in arms which was no better than I was doing at home anyway.

She asked me what I thought might work, and I told her that if I could at least go to him BEFORE he was so upset, I may be able to keep him calm enough to find sleep. She agreed to support me on the next settle and miracle of miracles, it worked.

I was elated.

It continued to work my way for the next few days there but nights continued to be a challenge as they wanted me to try to resettle before offering a night feed but I needed their help with this as the instant he had me, he wanted the boobs and my husband was a 2.5-hour flight away.

The nurse was ‘happy’ to help but just as they showed no faith in what I told them about my baby by day, they showed no interest in hearing my belief that being prompt was essential because if you allowed him to wake right up, the settle could take hours versus the minutes if he was still drowsy.

So, I’d hear him stir and knowing my baby, I knew this only meant one thing- he was waking and would not return to sleep without help, so I’d go to the nurse’s station and alert her to his waking and ask for her to attempt the resettle. She’d deliberately go slow saying I need to not rush to his side as he needs to try to resettle himself first. At 2am in the morning, I’d say, we talked about this during the day and this DOES NOT work for my baby, please come now or we’ll be awake for hours. Feet.Dragging.Teeth.Pulling.Sloth.Slow movements, before starting the horseshit ‘shhing’ at the door routine responses and then rocking a hysterical baby who was now wide awake and HAD to have a breastfeed to find any form of calm. At least an hour later, I’d finally crawl back to bed only for him to wake an hour or so later and rinse and repeat. It. Was. F^&*ed.

The next day, in daylight hours, I would reiterate the need for prompt response and I’d firstly get reminded that the goal was to get my baby self-soothing and that affording him space was essential. I’d then try to explain the HUGE difference in awake time because of this and they assured me that this short-term pain and extra loss of sleep, would have a long-term pay off that was worthwhile.

I agreed to stick with it. He was sleeping a longer block at the start of the night so I felt that maybe they were onto something and I owed the effort to try and make it work.

So, after 5 days, my baby was sleeping in his cot, settling to sleep without much help and having a longer block at the start of the night.

I left feeling like the wheels of positive change were in motion and I felt positive that with continued commitment, we would have him sleeping ‘well’ in no time.

It wasn’t to be.

My husband and I threw ourselves at the technique with a 300% commitment to being consistent and persistent (bordering on lunacy).

Our baby however, held an even greater faith in us and belief in his own needs and he continued to fight and call and demand our presence with an intensity that was even more than before.

Within a week of returning home, despite adhering to every responsive settling ‘rule’, we were up to 2-hour battles for every nap, every bedtime and ever resettle through the night. It was horrific.

We were all exhausted, frustrated and incredibly at odds with each other.

We WERE responding damn it!!!

We responded to every god damn cry, every god damn whimper (well the whimpers that sounded ‘emotional’ anyway). He couldn’t possibly NEED us, he just WANTED us. This was bulls&*t. Why did he need more from us than they said we should give? WHY? Why wasn’t he learning? Why wouldn’t he just let up?

Our poor baby on the other hand was no doubt deeply confused about why these people who he loved and needed so completely seemed to be so hellbent on pretending like they couldn’t respond the way he truly needed them. Why do they keep standing at the door or tapping my mattress when they know I need a cuddle? Why are they taking so long to let me nurse when all I need is a quick minute and we could all be back to the sleep we all need?

Responsive Settling gives the illusion of response. 

Being told how to respond, when to respond and when to withdraw that responsiveness is NOT being responsive. It’s the equivalent of when someone is talking to us and we are busy or can’t really hear so we just smile and nod or say something like, ‘that’s nice dear’. It allows the adult to feel they are doing SOMETHING and therefore they are being ‘gentle’ while they train their baby. It is a disturbing mismatch that plays a significant role in the justification and vindication of the widespread use of these techniques in Public and Private facilities and by consultants around the world.

I desperately NEEDED help. There is an overwhelming need for help for new mothers, particularly those with mental health challenges and those with very wakeful babies.

The Possums Clinic in Brisbane offer the service I needed back then and I can only hope that all service providers begin the rapid shift to their approach. The Possums Sleep Film, should be compulsory viewing for Mums and Bubs groups nationwide and their Professional Development courses would surely see a change for the better in the practice of Frontline Care Professionals.


I hold no malice for the people who worked with me during my stay at the Mother/Baby Unit but it would be wrong of me not to speak up and to demand they reflect on their practice, the impact it had on not only me and my baby, but many of the people they see and to ask, maybe there is a better way.

So, here’s to growth.

Here’s to change.

Here’s to ensuring very tired mothers and babies receive the care and support they deserve and need.

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My thanks to Attachment Parenting

Attachment Parenting can get a pretty bad rap.  

This is hardly surprising in a society that places little to no value on the natural, biological development of our infants and toddlers in favour of behaviourist interventions that force babies to conform to an ideal that allows adults to get back on with the more ‘important’ business of life with as little disruption to their productivity as possible.

Interestingly though, it also gets a negative review from many a mother who while initially drawn to the basic attachment parenting tenants, then found/ decided they were unable to follow them in their setting.

Plenty of mothers explain that while all of it sounded great in theory, they simply could not or would not be able to make it work for them or they felt they ‘outgrew’ this style of parenting or felt stifled and restricted by it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading another account of how a mother felt ‘let down’ by Attachment Parenting as her children grew older and when a subsequent child didn’t respond well to the techniques recommended.

This got me thinking about my own experience with Attachment Parenting and how it has shaped me as the mother I am and the mother I continue to strive to be.

I can say that I am eternally grateful to the Attachment Parenting movement for all of the ideas, guidance, confidence boosts and belief it has provided me with in the early phase of this mothering gig. I am grateful for all of this being done without ever feeling like I had been told what I HAD to do to mother my unique children.

I am grateful because they spoke of a norm I would otherwise not have known existed.

They offered me an explanation and coping strategies and mothering techniques that no one else told me were okay let alone what might be exactly what my baby and I needed.

They helped me see why my baby only slept calmly in my arms or on my chest and offered up babywearing and co-napping as normal and natural ways for me to meet my baby at his point of need.

They encouraged me to feel confident that my baby who breastfed SO frequently did so because this was not only his source of nutrition but also his preferred method for comfort, soothing and reconnection. They also didn’t place arbitrary limits on when my baby should stop needing me so and instead encouraged me to trust that I could follow his lead with no notion of it being ‘bad’ or that I may be stifling his development.

The work done by Attachment Parenting advocates to normalise and educate about safe bedsharing is perhaps their greatest gift to me and my family. It is, to date the single best thing I have done as a parent. It saved me, my husband and my baby. It is no exaggeration to say, my life did a complete 360 turn when I finally felt like I could make this arrangement work. I finally had a way to survive my High Need baby’s non stop extreme frequent waking. I had tried EVERYTHING to ‘fix’ him. Nothing worked. But, Attachment Parenting didn’t disown me the way mainstream advocates did. They threw me a lifeline. I could still be a ‘good’ mother even if my baby woke 59 billion times a night and on top of this, my husband and I could get the best quality sleep we could get while still meeting our baby’s needs at night.

Our night time parenting schedule remained gruelling. There was no miracle that occurred or peaceful, perfect family bed image to paint here but we could live again. We could survive and most important of all, we finally felt we could accept our baby for who he was and that included being extremely wakeful.

For me, I didn’t ever feel like I HAD to do XYZ to ‘be’ an Attachment Parent. But then again, I wasn’t striving to ‘be’ anything in particular other than the best mum I could be to my babies.

I didn’t feel constrained or judged if I needed to do things in another way as I followed my baby’s lead and my own heart.

With my second baby, my parenting repertoire was a source of great comfort to me. I had no idea who this little person would be, but I felt comfortable knowing the norms of human infant behaviour and I felt confident knowing that I had the range of skills and techniques to help me meet him at his point of need wherever that may be.

I didn’t feel bound to bedshare but I knew I would keep him close to make night time parenting manageable for me. If he needed my closeness, then into our bed he’d come. If he relished his space, I happily prepared a safe sleep space next to me in case.

I experimented continually as he grew to work out how he felt most comfortable finding and maintaining sleep by and day and night and I rolled with it. Sometimes we babywore, sometimes he slept in the pram. Other times we co-napped with a boob in his mouth or he snoozed alone on our floor bed.

I didn’t HAVE to do anything other than respond to my baby in the way that worked best for us.

As my babies grow, I thank Attachment Parenting for ensuring I continue to actively question commonly accepted mainstream practices. I have found gentle parenting, respectful parenting and peaceful parenting as well and I continue to read, grow and learn with my babies.

The single best thing Attachment Parenting has gifted me is to ensure that while I pick and choose and grow and evolve, at the heart of my parenting decisions is my heart. Decisions are made with ALL of the humans in our family considered as valuable people worthy of respect. My children’s childish nature is not held against them, just as their babyish behaviour wasn’t while they were infants.

As a family, we work as a team, to meet each other right where we are at and see value in each other for who we are.

I will be forever grateful for the healthy questioning that Attachment Parenting stirred in me. To feel confident in questioning accepted parenting practices, to look more deeply at why they are popular, what outcomes they may have and what their impact may be, intentionally or unintentionally, is so important to me.

So thank you Attachment Parenting for opening my eyes to possibilities.  
Thank you for having my back when I couldn’t fit with the mainstream.  
Thanks for having my baby’s back when my faith in him was at its lowest.  
Your work in this world is so needed.  

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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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The ‘good girl, people-pleaser’ who went down the sleep training path

I was talking with a dear friend this morning about how she isn’t sure why she never really felt compelled to follow the Sleep Training norm because quite simply, it felt wrong. I admire her for this so much and it really made me think, what was so different for me? Why didn’t I feel confident enough to simply go, ‘yeah, nah, that doesn’t feel right,’ end of story?!? 

I think I’ve found my answer in two parts …

1. I experienced Sleep or the lack thereof on a WHOLE other level to this friend. She had a baby who slept like a baby- a relatively cruisy, in the range of ‘normal’ baby. She did not face the same frequency or fervour or insistence to sleep train that I faced as the mother of an extremely wakeful baby who ended up suffering from PND. She was vulnerable to the pressure as any tired new mother is, but I was VULNERABLE and primed for the taking as the severely and chronically sleep deprived new mother.

2. The second part though, is worthy of consideration. I have to accept personal responsibility for the fact that I have always been what I refer to as a, ‘good girl, people-pleaser’. I have always sought and longed for approval. I hated to disappoint people. I hated being less than perfect in anyone’s eyes and as an over-achieving perfectionist, parenting has by far been my biggest lesson in the difference between doing things by the book and ‘right’ by standards set by others versus doing things ‘right’ by your baby and your family.

This Good Girl hated to be scolded. So scolding after scolding by those I trusted for advice on my baby’s sleep, slowly whittled me away. Whittled my confidence in myself and belief in my baby’s ability to communicate with me. This People Pleaser, no matter how hard she tried, simply COULDN’T get that baby of hers to sleep the way she was told he needed to sleep.

Each shake of the head, each ‘you really need to try harder’, ‘if you just try this and stick with it…’ ate away at me.

I wasn’t a ‘good’ mother in the eyes of these people. Not that they thought I was bad as such but certainly not the ‘good’ they aimed to train mothers to be. There was no pleasure in their eyes upon hearing I still fed my baby to sleep. There was no pleasure upon hearing how dedicated I was to meeting my baby’s night time needs.

These things were not seen as good nor pleasing.

This was uncharted territory and one I did not feel comfortable with at all.

By contrast, my dear friend is very self confident and no where near as susceptible to pressure that goes against her grain. Her traits have helped her find her feet as a parent in a much less complicated way and I admire her greatly for it.

I don’t regret where I’ve been though. Both of these key parts in the equation have completely changed my way of being and I’ll be forever grateful for that. My personal growth has seen a monumental shift in the way I see myself and the role I allow others to have in how I see myself.

I no longer crave approval.

I know who I am and what feels right for me and my family and I while I seek connection with others, I no longer feel the need to try to live up to anyone else’s expectations of me.

It feels good no longer seeking to please those around me while shrinking my true self to make sure no one else’s feathers are ruffled.

Mothering these sensational humans has been a privilege and the lessons I have learned have helped make me a stronger, truer and more confident person within myself.

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The question all mothers should not be afraid to ask- Can you provide the evidence to back your advice?

As a new mother, you will be faced with a great many challenges as you find your feet and one of the biggest hurdles is working out who you can trust to give you advice.  
Not just small scale advice, like knowing if your baby needs socks on or how often to trim their fingernails, but large scale advice that can impact not only on your mothering experience but also on the way you and your baby experience each other.

Advice on breastfeeding, sleep and settling, weight gain, health and development – the big ticket items, who can you trust to offer their advice? Who actually has the evidence to back what they are saying? Who is up to date and who is just feeding the same tired advice of years before? Has this person ever actually trained in this specific area they are advising on?

I know who I trusted- my Midwives, my GP and my Child Health Nurses.

If I knew back at the beginning what I know now, I wouldn’t have so wholeheartedly accepted the wisdom of these trusted advisors… no, I would have questioned them far more heavily and discovered that more often than I wish I had to admit, they were giving me incorrect, inaccurate, incomplete or simply out of date advice. They gave it sincerely, with, I have no doubt, the very best of intentions but, the ramifications for my baby and I were significant.

This isn’t me, discrediting these wonderful folk who have dedicated their working lives to mothers as they establish their young families, absolutely not!

I have also received some of the most life enhancing, life changing and valuable advice from these very same people. Their value is not diminished BUT this does not mean their advice should not be held to account or that it is above scrutiny and questioning.

New mothers need to know that it is okay to question any advice they are given and should be able to expect that the person giving it, has the evidence to back them. IF the person is unable to provide the evidence and sufficient explanation for their advice, then it would be most suitable for that mother to ask to be referred to someone who is more specialised in the area in question. For example, breastfeeding advice would always be best coming from a trained International Board Certified Lactation Consultant over the breastfeeding advice of a GP who may have no training in lactation other than a few hours back at University. IF  the person giving the advice, is in fact the ‘specialist’ then, they need examine their practice if they are unable to back what they do with up to date evidence. 

I had one particular piece of advice that was given repeatedly to me as the mother of an extremely wakeful baby that illustrates this issue-

That I needed to adopt a Feed-Play-Sleep routine.

This was given to me in an extremely matter of fact manner on numerous occasions over the course of my baby’s first 12 months.

The first time I heard it, was from the Child Health Nurse who came to do our 4 week health check. We had well and truly established that this baby of ours was intense. We had already established that one of the very few ways to settle him with any success to sleep was through nursing. We’d already established that he hated to be put down and that he struggled to find and maintain sleep. As first time parents, we were still in the shell shocked ‘we had no idea what to expect’ stage and what we really needed was a little reassurance from this visitor who we trusted to have knowledge in the area … instead, what we got was a lecture on why our baby was so unsettled and the crux of it was that because I nursed him to sleep and didn’t ‘allow’ him to settle to sleep without nursing, he was now all out of whack. She told us that a Feed-Play-Sleep routine was what we needed to do. I actually laughed and jokingly said, ‘I’m not sure you know this baby!’ But she shook her head and said, ‘I’m telling you now, Feed-Play-Sleep is what your baby needs. Do him a favour and sort this out now.’

I felt as though the air was knocked out of me. When she left, I said to my husband, ‘but he’ll just cry and cry! There’s no way he’ll fall asleep! He gets so distressed when we put him down any time, let alone when he was tired!’ My husband agreed. We kept up soothing and I kept nursing my baby to sleep.

But then his 6 week check came around … a different Child Health Nurse saw us. I reported honestly when asked about his sleep and settling and once again, I was told I was creating ‘unhealthy associations’ for sleep and to get a Feed-Play-Sleep routine happening as soon as possible. I told the nurse that while this may seem simple, my baby did not agree and that he was terribly distressed any time we withheld nursing or tried to place him down for sleep. She explained that I had established this routine and that he’d naturally be distressed by the change but change was necessary.

I tried on many more occasions that failed dismally each time.

It was at four months, yet another Child Health Nurse saw me and after I detailed in tears the mess that was our sleep and settling and all the things I had tried and ‘failed’ at, she informed me that my baby was ‘chronically sleep deprived and it would be affecting his brain development.’ She shared the details of the Public Mother/ Baby unit (sleep school) in our capital city as well as the details of a private facility as she’d heard the wait for the public unit was quite lengthy.

I then had an appointment with my GP to sort out the required referral to sleep school and she also reiterated that our sleep issues came down to me continuing to have to nurse my baby to sleep.

I have detailed the experience and learnings that came of my time at sleep school in articles before so I won’t rehash but I need to add that we were given a slide show of the process we would be following there and low and behold … we needed to put our babies onto a Feed-Play-Sleep routine in order to undo this association of nursing to sleep.

The paediatrician we saw reiterated that nursing to sleep at the grand old age of 4.5 months was ‘unhelpful’ and possibly the cause of his ‘disrupted’ sleep patterns.

Even under the guidance of sleep school, Feed- Play-Sleep was a disaster.

I can honestly say, I used all of my willpower to not punch the nurse who saw us for the 6 month health check. I was at the height of PND and at my lowest ebb when it came to all things sleep and still she had the hide to imply I needed to ‘get that child into routine’.

At my 12 month appointment, I was in a much better place and though my child still woke frequently and needed to be nursed to sleep, I knew enough to know we were okay. I flat out lied to the Nurse when she asked about sleep.

At 18 months, I was feeling much stronger mentally and decided I would speak up. When asked about Sleep, I explained in a brief, but frank manner what we’d been through and just how unhelpful the advice I’d received each and every time I went to them had been. She seemed to listen. She wrote notes.
I was noticeably pregnant which should have nothing to do with this, but as I prepared to leave, she said, ‘well at least you’ll know not to make those same mistakes this time around. Nursing to sleep creates so many problems.’
I flushed red and walked right out.
All the come backs, all the things that needed to be said … they came to me later. In that moment, I had nothing.

So, this approach that is beholden as the ‘go to’ for establishing healthy sleep in your baby, it’s evidence based right?

Wrong.

Highly respected GP and researcher, Dr Pamela Douglas and her colleague Koa Whittingham, conducted a systematic review of literature behavioural infant sleep interventions, sleep regulation and sleep disturbance (2014) and made findings about the Feed-Play-Sleep routine that are actually quite concerning-

‘Feed–play–sleep cycles are thought to bring sleep under the regulation of other learned stimulus cues such as bedtime routines, which are deemed to be more appropriate. However, we argue that post- prandial somnolence, a tendency to fall asleep after feeding, is not learned through operant conditioning. In fact, it is present at birth. Postprandial somnolence is an innate neurobehavior resulting from the effects of parasympathetic nervous system activation, elevated oxytocin, and elevated plasma cholecystokinin. The decoupling of innate neurobehavioral patterns may have unintended outcomes within the complex system for some mother–infant dyads, such as premature cessation of breast-feeding or frequent high levels of arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA system (Douglas & Hill, 2013). In the first weeks and months, this may result in a sensitized stress response. Further, we argue that from a behavioral perspective, the appropriate stimulus control of sleep is not an external stimulus at all. We contend that an appropriate stimulus cue for sleep is the internal state of sleepiness or felt sleep pressure.

Feed–play–sleep cycles not only decouple the innate neurobe- havioral link between feeds, bodily contact, and downregulation but also the appropriate stimulus of felt sleep pressure from sleep. This decoupling has been theorized to play a role in insomnia in adults (Ong et al., 2012) and is likely to place some infants at risk of developing sleep problems. In addition, feed–play–sleep cycles may have consequences for the parents, as the promotion of feed–play–sleep cycles falsely suggests to parents that their baby’s postprandial somnolence was either created by their actions as parents or is not a legitimate cue. This places unnecessary stress on the parent–infant relationship, including on the breast-feeding relationship, at a vulnerable time. (Whittingham, K & Douglas, P. 2014, Optimizing Parent Infant Sleep in the first 6 months: a new paradigm, INFANT MENTAL HEALTH JOURNAL, Vol. 35(6), 614–623 )

So basically, falling asleep after feeding  is the biologically normal way for a baby to fall asleep and is present from birth, not something that is taught/ conditioned by a parent after. It is also plays a part in a baby’s the normal development of a their parasympathetic nervous system and a healthy breastfeeding relationship. By decoupling feeding from sleeping, there are concerns raised about potential unintended outcomes as well as the increase stress it places on the parent- infant relationship unnecessarily.

With these findings in mind, it begs the question, why a technique that may actually cause the sleep problems it supposedly aims to solve and may jeopardise the mother and baby’s breastfeeding relationship, is so frequently and confidently dished out to new mothers?

The fact that this advice is also coming from a trusted professional who actually specialises in maternal and child health makes the issue even more concerning.

What evidence is being used to back current practice by frontline professionals working with mothers and their babies? How recent and up to date is their practice? Can and should we be doing better in terms of the more blanket approaches offered to parents when it comes to their baby’s wellbeing?

I felt so extraordinarily letdown by the professionals I had placed my trust in and though I can see that at no point was the advice I was given, given with any view to cause myself or baby trauma, the fact remains, it did. Knowing that this very advice is not backed by evidence does little to help me feel I was an isolated case.

I wish I had known I could ask for the evidence. I wish I’d asked if there was an alternative view.

I will finish this though by telling you that my midwife was my shining light who saw me through this storm. She helped me find MY feet. She guided me without forcing her views, she allowed me to discover the mother I needed and wanted to be for my unique baby. There is so much good going on in the world of mother/ baby support and with continued discussion, questioning and awareness, I hope that the field will continue to flourish under the watchful care of those who care.

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For those who wish to read further on why a Feed-Play-Sleep routine makes no sense for a breastfed baby, check out this awesome article from The Milk Meg 💕

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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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