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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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    The never ending wakeful baby advice -The Bed Time Top Up

    The never ending wakeful baby advice -The Bed Time Top Up

    As the mother of an extremely wakeful breastfed baby, I lost count of the number of times I had it suggested to me that I give my baby a bottle of formula at bedtime to help him sleep longer. 
     I am a breastfeeding advocate, anyone who reads my blog would know. This does not make me anti formula but it does make me someone who is anti using formula for no valid reason for MY babies (reiterating the ‘MY babies’).


    This brings me to the point of this post- in the effort to help a mother with a wakeful baby, please be cautious of throwing out suggestions that may impact on that child’s normal wakeful behaviour and the breastfeeding relationship of that mother and child when there isn’t evidence to suggest your advice will have the desired effect and even if it does, perhaps the desired effect is a double edged sword and its potential risks outweigh the advantages. 
    Allow me to elaborate- it is now widely acknowledged that both waking at night and breastfeeding are two PROTECTIVE factors against SIDS. A baby arousing out of deep sleep regularly and cycling through lighter sleep, waking to nurse and then drifting back to deeper sleep before cycling again, is the healthy, ideal pattern for a baby’s sleep to reduce their risk of SIDS. Formula feeding increases the risk of SIDS. This has been backed by studies.

    The fact that I, and many other mothers of wakeful babies are given the advice to ‘top up’ our babies with formula to make them sleep ‘better’ in no way respects these basic SIDS findings.

    A baby sleeping more deeply because their tummy is chocker block with milk derived from a very large beast that has produced it for their very large offspring and is much more difficult for my baby’s immature gut to break down than my perfectly designed, human breastmilk, seems like a bizarre if not downright dangerous piece of advice.

    In effect, this use of formula is almost a prescription of medication- it has been suggested purely to ‘fix’ the waking of a child. Formula is 100% necessary in some scenarios and there is no doubt it provides nutrition for babies. But, suggesting a mother give her baby, who is otherwise thriving beautifully on breastmilk, formula for the sake of making them sleep longer and more deeply … I smell a rat.

    Most mothers would actively question and cautiously attend to the use of any medication for their baby. It is only natural that we only wish to use medication when it is in fact required and beneficial to our child.

    The use of formula to effectively ‘medicate’ a baby to sleep is not based on science.
    Here are a couple of articles to give you more information on it- 

    Evolutionary Parenting

    Australian Breastfeeding Association

    BellyBelly

    Pinky McKay

    So if there is no evidence to back up its use, why is it still suggested by so many and why does it seem to work for others? 

    Well, in part, I think it is still suggested because we live in a society where we need to ‘fix’, ‘mould’ and ‘conquer’ anything we see as problematic or abnormal. In our fixer-upper world, a baby who doesn’t fit the sleepy ideal needs ‘fixing’ and as sleep is prioritised above all else, we have come to making recommendations of techniques and strategies that focus solely on this desire without much critical thought into the impact of these techniques and strategies.

    Formula is harder to digest than breastmilk, therefore, if you only believe or only accept that a baby wakes out of hunger over night, you could easily believe that a wakeful baby is not satisfied by breastmilk and therefore formula would help them be less hungry and therefore they would not need to wake.

    For some formula fed babies, this does seem to be the case and they wake very infrequently. But, looking at the evidence, you have to wonder also at whether their lack of waking is due in part to their temperament and also their tendency to sleep deeply, which raises SIDS alarm bells for me.

    Overall, the idea that our babies only wake out of hunger is a very narrow although extremely popular view and is certainly one of the ‘go to’ pieces of advice that is dished out by not only well meaning family and friends but also health professionals.

    The problem with health professionals being the major port of call for very tired mothers is that their very medical training can actually blur their approach to infant sleep. If you asked many of these professionals, what evidence they have to back their advice on infant sleep and what sort of training they have done around infant sleep or breastfeeding, you are likely to find it is extremely minimal and rarely up to date.

    Yes, some babies DO have problems that are exacerbating their normal wakeful behaviour but these babies are the MINORITY. The vast majority of babies of tired mothers who are asking for advice on their baby’s sleep, do NOT actually have sleep problems that need to be pathologised, treated or fixed. The mother’s exhaustion is real and it can be a very big problem but ‘fixing’ her baby is not the answer. Telling her to fill her beautifully nourished baby up with formula is not the answer. Telling her to train her baby not to call out to her to help when they wake is not the answer.

    As an exhausted mother, at breaking point, I was told yet again that I should try a top up of formula. I sent my husband out for formula and cried the whole time as he prepared the bottle and then tried to feed it to our baby. Our baby would have none of it. He filled his cheeks and spat it everywhere, so I never got to see the effect it would have. 

    I no longer feel guilty for all the things I tried during my, ‘I am so f#%^ing exhausted, let’s give anything a crack, I just need this kid to sleep stage’. I was desperate and I did what I thought was best with the knowledge I had at the time. I DO however feel let down by the people I trusted giving me advice that is not only not backed by evidence to say it works but also isn’t safe as it increases the SIDS risk for my baby. I needed them to have my back while my vision was blurred from sleep deprivation. I needed them to give me accurate advice. 

    Do I have all the answers? No, I do not. I have written quite a few articles on practical suggestions that may help very weary mothers that do not involve sleep training and I ponder, read and discuss this daily. But I do not think that I am the only one who should be thinking on this. I don’t have all the answers but I do strongly hope that through continued discussion of the strategies and techniques that are routinely offered up to mothers can have a more critical eye cast upon them to bring light to the less than ideal position we as a society find ourselves in.

    We owe it not only to our very tired mothers, but also to those babies who are subject to this advice.

    We must do better and to do better, we must first reflect on what we currently do and why.

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    The well rested baby

    The well rested baby

    Anyone who has had a baby and been within sniffing distance of a mainstream baby sleep book or received advice from a mainstream care provider would have no doubt been told that quality sleep is paramount to their baby’s growth and development and that in order to be well rested, their baby needs a certain amount of sleep for their age and to sleep in nice big chunks of time.  
    This sounds like sensible advice and also a highly desirable scenario for a parent who would also reap the benefits of those heavenly chunks of time while their baby peacefully slumbers, grows and develops.

    Unfortunately, this advice is contrary to the way the majority of human babies behave and leads their parents to question their baby’s ability to sleep and their ability to respond to their child.

    If however, you do even a cursory review of studies into infant sleep behaviour and a look into the experience of mothers whose own babies did not fit this sleepy ideal, You will quickly discover a very reassuring trend- human babies can be well rested, develop and grow beautifully without ever achieving the elusive X amount of sleep for their age and rarely in big, long chunks, flat on their back, on their own, in their cot.

    Breathe a sigh of relief.

    A well rested baby is a baby who’s mother responds to their individual sleep needs and provides the comfort, security and support they need to achieve their sleep in a way that works for that baby.

    To achieve this, generally, a baby who is in close proximity or contact with their caregiver, responded to quickly and soothed back to sleep as often as they require in the quickest way possible, will have no trouble being well rested.

    A baby’s sleep requirements at day and through the night rapidly change and evolve throughout their first year of life and beyond. There is no hard and fast rules here and from my own experience, what my 3 month old baby required of me to keep him well rested is vastly different to what my 11 month old baby requires now. In some areas, his needs were more easily satisfied at 3 months than they are now and vice versa. The key is keeping yourself flexible, available and in sync with your unique baby.

    There has been times when my baby has not been well rested and I have had to sit back and review what we have been doing and what might help him going forward. For example, while he was very little, he slept beautifully in the carrier and I could easily get him a big, long snooze all snuggled up in the morning while I took my toddler to our activity for the day- playgroup, library, groceries etc. Because I knew he’d sleep well then, it wasn’t a big deal if he only had quick kips for the rest of the day, he was well rested and calm. But as he grew, he started to become harder to settle in the carrier and often his sleep was only short and he’d be cranky. For a while, I accepted that he’d just have his short kip in the carrier and then while my toddler was having his lunch time nap, I’d lay with and nurse my baby to help him get a nice long snooze in at lunchtime. This worked for another few months. Then, he started waking earlier and was struggling to hold out for his first nap until we were out, so now he goes down after a nice long boobin session, onto his little floor bed and has a snooze before activities. Sometimes he sleeps for a long while and has a shorter lunch nap, other times it is short and we still have a nice long lunchtime boobin nap.

    This is his general pattern. There are still days and even weeks when he simply can’t sleep longer than 20-40 mins for any one sleep and he may be a bit more tired and cranky than usual but through those times, I simply put him in the carrier or offer him more breastfeeds to help keep him calmer and restful even if he’s a bit low on sleep.

    At night, if my baby wakes every 40 minutes to an hour all night, he never truly ‘wakes’. He stirs, calls to me, a boob appears and he is straight back to sleep.

    From my time of attempted sleep training and before I started bedsharing, my first baby definitely was not well rested a lot of the time. He was severely sleep deprived and so was I during this period where I set arbitrary rules on how and when I’d settle him.

    The sleep school told me that 4 hour minimum for feeds overnight was an acceptable window to expect at his age (4.5 months) and to persist with other settling methods if he woke before this to teach him that he wouldn’t be able to rely on boob every time he woke.

    In my house, this looked like- my baby waking at maximum 2 hours after previous settle. My husband and I ‘allowing’ him some time to resettle without our help (Read- cry with a 100% fail rate), we’d then go to his door and reassure him we were there by ‘shhhh’ing him. When that didn’t work, we’d go to the cot and pat his mattress and ‘ssssh’ him. When he got too upset (usually within minutes) his dad would pick him up, offer him his dummy or a drink of water and rock and sway with him. He’d howl and howl and howl. We’d both be trying to remain calm and low key while our insides tore up. My husband would then try taking him for a walk to get the crying away from me. It always failed.

    We were so f#%^ing desperate that we persisted with this god awful failed process for weeks post sleep school.

    My poor baby was beyond exhaustion but all it did in my sleep training indoctrinated brain was reiterate just how important it was that I get this right. HE NEEDED MORE SLEEP! His growth and brain development depended on it.

    What I was missing was that, yes, my baby needed a hell of lot more sleep to be rested, but that he’d get SOOOO much more sleep if I simply responded to his NEEDS in exactly the way my body and his body were built for.

    It is no mistake that a baby falls quickly back to sleep when put onto the breast at night. Our night time breastmilk is full of lovely sleep inducing hormones that not only help our baby back to sleep but also the mother. Our very clever bodies, know the importance of both mother and child being well rested and also recognises that it will be required to help our little human manage their normal wakeful behaviour.

    A baby wakes for so many reasons at night. Nutrition is only one reason. Breastfeeding/ nursing your baby at night satisfies practically every need your baby may have- pain relief, comfort, reassurance, calming, hunger, company and many more.

    Some babies are extraordinarily hard to settle and extraordinarily hard to keep well rested. This is a extremely heartbreaking and exhausting situation for a mother to find herself in. For many of these babies who seem to resist all attempts to soothe and fights sleep to the death, it can appear that sleep training is the only answer. If they are distraught and crying while their mother soothes them in arms, surely it won’t make things any worse having them cry while they ‘learn’ to ‘soothe’ themselves?!? Nothing could be further from the truth. These baby’s bodies are not releasing the stress hormones that are released in response to sleep training because although they are still crying and fighting, they KNOW that they are not alone, they know their loving person has them, they know that they are fully supported as they struggle with whatever they are struggling with that makes sleep so incredibly hard for them to come by.

    Put yourself in their shoes. When you are inconsolable and unable to simply switch off your crying, how would you wish your loving person respond to you? Would you like them to stay with you and support you while your overwhelming feelings have control of you or would you rather say,’ well I gave you a cuddle and told you are okay but you still keep crying, best sort yourself out. I’ll be here but I can’t help you directly anymore.’

    I know what I’d prefer and I’m a grown woman with a far more developed ability to control and process my emotions than my underdeveloped baby ever could hope to.

    These hard to settle babies, who cry a lot and wake very frequently, often have underlying health issues and to train them to stop signalling for help from their caregiver does nothing but mask the real issues at play and plants the very first seeds in that child’s heart and mind that their very real needs and feelings, are only selectively attended to and at times, no one will listen. Heartbreaking but true.

    Attending to any underlying issues and continuing to meet your baby at their point of need will see your baby the very best rested version of themselves.

    A well rested baby does not have to fit a perfect sleepy mould.

    You know your baby. You know what works and what doesn’t work right now. It’s okay to admit your baby isn’t well rested all of the time, just as it is okay to admit that maybe it’s time to try something different to help keep your baby getting the rest they need.

    It may not be perfect. It may not be easy. It may not be convenient.

    Waking is normal. Sleep is messy.

    To be well rested, a baby does not need to be trained. They simply need your understanding, awareness, flexibility and response.

    Hang in there tired mamas x

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    ‘Don’t tell me not to think I’m tired! I AM tired!’

    ‘Don’t tell me not to think I’m tired! I AM tired!’

    I know you are tired, mama. Nobody denies you are sleep deprived.  
    I have been criticised before for always including the tip to stop focusing on how tired you are, and have been told it is like telling a depressed person not be sad or a cancer patient that they aren’t sick.

    But you see, the mind is a very powerful thing and you DO have the power to control your mind.

    For me, if you are going to stand any chance of making it through the weary first years of life with our babies with any kind of happiness and fond memories, you are going to have to take your thoughts and mental well being in hand, particularly if you are blessed with a wakeful little person. Being able to shift your focus off your weariness is not to deny that you are tired, but to simply to tell your body and mind that it’s okay to be tired and that while you will do all you can to get yourself rest, it’s okay to think about other things.

    Feel free to brush this off. If you think this is bullshit, go ahead and keep on telling yourself, ‘I’m so tired! I’m so exhausted! I can barely function, I’m so tired!’ And you just watch your body and mind fall into line. You will feel every ounce of weariness and tiredness and exhaustion that you focus your thoughts on and they will be amplified as you give those thoughts your full, undivided attention.

    That’s how our mind and body work.

    Just as you may have learned techniques to help refocus your energy and thoughts during labour and delivery to try and shift your mind away from the pain of contractions, you too, can employ similar tactics to help you combat your tiredness.

    Just as a person with depression or anxiety may be taught mindfulness or techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that assist that person to manage their thoughts and feelings and take the unhealthy feelings in hand and recast them in a healthier light.

    Just as a person who has cancer can acknowledge their illness and the challenges and trauma of the journey ahead while still focussing their energies on positivity and potential, you can CHOOSE to shift and control your focus.

    ***As a side note- being sleep deprived is not in anyway comparable to the experience of cancer. I am merely alluding to the effect the mind can have on challenging experiences in life and not trying to diminish the all encompassing experience that is cancer. ***

    In my experience as a mother of a wakeful child, I lived the first 6 months as an anxious, depressed, wallower.

    I wallowed in my weariness. I lamented my lost sleep. I bemoaned my child’s waking. I stressed and worried about my broken, disrupted night’s sleep.

    I calculated how many minutes or hours until he may next wake, I calculated how long I’d been awake. I calculated how long it was taking me to get to sleep. I calculated how much sleep I’d not had.

    My calculations always equalled exactly the same amount = I AM SO F#%^ing exhausted, I feel like death warmed up! This child is going to kill me!!!

    Now if you go about your day with this awful algorithm dominating your every thought and you live in this never ending Pity Party mode, I can tell you firsthand, you are going to be the most miserable, depressed, shell of a person and mother.

    But this algorithm is lying to you! This set of calculations tells you that you cannot enjoy motherhood or life as you know it as long as you have a wakeful child and as long as you remain sleep deprived! The good news is, THIS IS NOT TRUE!

    These sad and sorry calculations only take in one part, albeit an important part, of your life that is sleep. There is more to life and your beautiful, wakeful baby than how much sleep you are or are not getting!

    Accepting that you are going to have disrupted sleep and that you will need to work out how to get the best quality sleep and rest you can to handle these very normal night time behaviours of your baby can take a huge weight off your shoulders and allow you the breathing and mind space to think of something other than sleep.

    Some days it will still get you. I had one such day last week. No amount of mind shifting and refocusing could deny it.

    I was exhausted.

    This is not only normal but also I think an excellent protective factor your body is demonstrating. Your body will tell you when enough is enough. The mindfulness and distractions only work when your body is able to cope and then when it really does warrant your attention, it let’s you know in no uncertain terms that your weariness DOES require your full attention.

    On that day for me last week, I slept during the day for the first time in months. My body ordered me to take the opportunity as a matter of urgency. I felt about 3 billion times better even though it was only a 20 minute kip. I found that the moment I woke, the weight had lifted again. I could do it all again. I could think of other things and get on with my day. Sleep deprivation in tow but not as an anchor holding me back.

    The mind is a powerful thing, mamas. Where is your focus right now?

    Acknowledge that weariness, honour your opportunities for rest and focus on all that is good in your world.

    You will have endless years to catch up on lost sleep in the future. Right now, your baby needs you intensely both day and night. Focus on meeting them at their point of need. You are doing marvellous things for that child of yours.

    Chin up tired mama xxx

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