So, today, one of my ZenMamas who I taught last year, emailed asking me about sleep trainers for her baby, now just over a year old and still breastfed (go mama!). Baby hasn't slept uninterrupted through the night since birth. Mama is obviously tired, like most parents of young children, so she and her partner tried a sleep trainer recently. Despite getting professional help, baby is still not sleeping through. So, what to do?
Here’s how I responded to this super lovely mama:
Re. sleeping: What can I say… babies sleep when they want to, and they will eventually sleep, uninterrupted through the night. My personal view with my ‘mummy-of-two hat on’ is that I don’t really go in for the whole sleep counsellor/sleep training thing. The reason for this is mainly down to my own personal exerience, but also based on things I have read since about how stressful sleep training can be for babies and the potential negative effects longer term.
We were sooo tired!
My first child was a terrible sleeper, or we believed he was, and we suffered. I was exhausted. My husband was exhausted. We didn’t expect to be woken so much and we felt like we would never sleep again. We resisted the flow of baby’s rhythms. We felt like we had to put him down, in his own cot, all the time, and that’s what we should do, right? And we knew people who told us, ‘oh our baby slept through from day one’, ‘we have a good baby who let’s us sleep’, etc. Maybe we had too high expectations. Maybe we had too much self-doubt and we didn’t trust our instincts. We felt like we were doing something wrong because our baby would only settle with us near him. We were sooo tired.
When we hit about 8-9 months we tried sleep training. Not full-on abandon-your-child to let it ‘cry it out’, but a ‘gentler’ version, of putting him down awake, leaving him for 1 min, if he grizzled, we’d go back to settle him (no picking him up though), leave 2 mins, go back, 3 mins, go back, 5 mins, etc. Our son grizzled mainly, but also cried a bit in his cot during this. And we cried in the next room. It felt wrong and it was stressful. He did fall asleep before we hit the 10 minute mark (10 minutes is a long time in the short little life of a baby though), and we did this for 3 nights. Our son probably settled himself and slept a bit ‘better’ for a short time after this, but then it was hit or miss again for a while after that. We stopped leaving him to just settle himself because it felt wrong. If he cried, we went to him, and eventually he slept. He probably reliably slept through the night, from 7:30pm until about 5:30/6am, from nearly age 2.
Go with the flow...
My daughter seemed like a ‘better sleeper’ than our son from the beginning. But she still woke up regularly through the night. She definitley wasn’t a sleep-though-the-night-from-day-one baby though. You’ve heard of such babies I’m sure, and have met their parents who tell you about their great little sleeper as you sip yet another coffee to get you through the day.
With our daughter, I decided not to fret about it, and instead to go with the flow and just have her in our bed as much as she wanted. (We ensured we followed safe bed-sharing guidelines.) Her being in our bed, or in her co-sleeper bedside cot, did mean she was on my boob more and for longer than our son was. (I fed him up to 8 months, and fed her for two years. Go me!) From the experience of our first, I knew that eventually she would sleep and get in to her own bed. Our approach with her meant that we got more sleep second time around. And this was because we followed her rhythms, and also sharing our bed meant she was overall more settled.
She was in our bed until age two. Not EVERY night, but most nights at some point she’d end up in our bed, from after she was about 8 months or so when she had a big cot in her brother’s room.
What was different wasn’t the two children though! Looking back, I am pretty sure they both woke up as much as each other. What was different was our approach. I just tried to enjoy having our second baby next to me as much as possible. I knew it wouldn’t last forever after the experience with our first. And if it wasn’t possible to sleep well next to her, and if I was really tired, I would leave her in bed with my husband (we had bed rail on my side of the bed once she was too big for the bedside cot) and I would sleep elsewhere. My husband and I would take it in turns when necessary. Babies do eventually sleep.
Having a regular relaxing bedtime routine helps
If you haven’t already implemented a regular bedtime routine, it’s a good idea to do that. So at the same time every evening, go up for ‘bath time’. Even if it’s not a night when a full on bath is needed, just having a little mini splash with warm water and a few drops of lavender oil (no need to soap etc.) , brushing teeth etc. You could try a little light massage with a gentle massage oil with chamomile or lavender (just a tiny amount suitable for babies , not too strong). Then bed time feed, and a story book or two. Keep screens and devices out of the room, dim the lights and make it all cosy and sleepy. Say ‘night night’ to any furry soft toys, night night mummy, daddy, etc. And encourage baby to enjoy that winding down time, and then eventually falling asleep. Over time we found these signals were getting through and the stretches of sleep got longer.
Give love and comfort on demand
The more I have read about sleep training tactics the more I know in my heart and mind that it really is not the loving thing to do. Think about it… if, as an adult, you found yourself unsettled and crying in the night or as you were going to bed, for whatever reason, would you want the person/people who love you the most to come to you? Or would you expect them to just shut the door and walk away? Giving love and comfort on demand helps babies and children feel more secure and more confident. Gradually they become more and more independent, even at bedtime.
Our son needed us to hold his hand to fall asleep for a really long time. We would sit in the dimly lit room and just hold hands. My husband would recite a book or poem from memory in the dark with him whilst holding his hand. Or I would sing a special song. Our son is nearly 7. I miss hold his little hand in the dark.
You will sleep again
Good luck to all you sleepless parents out there. Don’t worry. You will sleep again. Enjoy those night time cuddles. It won’t last forever.
Gina Potts is Director of ZenBirth, a leading KG Hypnobirthing Practitioner in London and Kent, mother of two hypnobabies, Positive Birth Movement group facilitator, breastfeeding peer supporter, birth junky, feminist and dog-lover.