Like many millions of women and men on the planet, when my toddling little angel/demon was a baby, I went through moments of despair when I wondered if I would ever enjoy a decent night’s sleep again. From day one, Artie woke every couple of hours to hang out at the bar and enjoy the cosy warmth of his exhausted mother’s breast – mostly because he was hungry, but also, I suspect, quite often, just for the craic. Being that bit older this time around, the sleep deprivation hit me so much harder than it had with baby number 1. I survived the first few months on adrenalin, caffeine, sugar, and hope. Hope that tonight would be the night I might finally be allowed to sink into that essential deep, restorative and satisfying sleep that keeps us just the right side of sane in those incredibly difficult early months. Yet night after night, his demanding wail would mount its assault and drag me from my slumber at regular two-hour intervals.
In desperation, and against my better judgement (not because I don’t believe in them, but because I had a strong suspicion I would never be able to stick to the plan), I bought a sleep training programme. The minute it arrived in my inbox, I propped my eyes open with metaphorical match sticks and dove into the first chapter. There was a lot of science. And research. And reasons why this sleep training worked. And why it would work for me, too, if I followed the plan to the letter and trusted the method. I skipped the next six chapters and went straight to the plan. I was too damn tired for the research. The reviews were glowing, just give me the good stuff.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but the sleep training plan was rigorous to say the least. Baby must be awake, fed and dressed by X time, which naturally meant that Mum had to be awake and dressed by X time also. But when Mum had only fallen asleep an hour before the designated rise and shine time, it was nothing short of torture to comply with this instruction. I decided I would ‘tweak’ that bit and see how I got on with the rest of it. I hit a similar snag with nap times. Putting baby down to nap at Y time every day, when he was supposed to have been awake since X time, required a level of organisation I just do not possess. I am a spontaneous person and follow the whims of my chaotic brain in pretty much every aspect of my life. I was also juggling the demands of motherhood with a hectic work schedule, and as a freelancer, I worked when the work was there. Needless to say, we fared no better with nap times, either.
After two weeks of failing to implement a single recommendation ‘suggested’ (and they always emphasised the fact that these were suggestions only) by the sleep training experts, Artie was no closer to sleeping through the night, and I was feeling like a failure. 100s of parents had declared this programme to be an absolute life saver; their baby was now sleeping soundly for the required number of hours at bed and nap time, giving them back their sanity, relationships and a solid 8 hours of blissful kip.
‘How come other parents can do it but I can’t?’ I wailed to my husband. ‘Because you’d rather go with Artie’s flow than set the flow and you did the same for Ollie,’ he reminded me. And he was right.
Ollie slept in our bed when he was tiny, I only moved him into his own room when it felt like the right time to do it, and when, aged 2, he started clambering out of his cot and into our bed, I simply plonked him in the middle of us, turned over and went back to sleep. Eventually, when he was ready, he stopped coming into us for comfort and slept through the night in his own bed. He didn’t develop ‘bad sleeping habits’ and now, 6 years later he sleeps soundly as soon his head hits the pillow.
I decided to ditch the sleep training and just go with Artie’s flow. He took his own sweet time, but eventually at 11 months he started to sleep through, waking occasionally if he wanted a cuddle or a drink. He still liked being rocked to sleep and when I tried to put him straight down into his bed, he would scream so desperately, reaching out his little arms for the comfort and security he obviously still needed, that I couldn’t help but pick him up and abandon that plan completely. I tried to let him ‘cry it out’ a couple of times but he was inconsolable. ‘Why on earth would you do this to a tiny human being?’ I asked myself. If he needs the comfort of a cuddle to help him fall asleep, then trust that’s what he needs. So, I continued to hold him and rock him until he fell asleep before putting him into his cot. When he started walking, he would toddle into our room at bedtime and wait for me to make his ‘nest’ on our bed before lying down beside him with my arms around him. Sometimes we listened to lullabies, sometimes he wanted me to sing a song I had made up for him and very often he wanted to climb up on my chest and fall asleep there. This went on for a year, and there were nights when I was desperate for that extra time to myself. If he hadn’t burned off all his energy during the day, he would lie awake for an hour chatting away before eventually falling asleep. But I trusted that the time would come when he would feel confident enough to fall asleep on his own and I would get my evenings back.
The time came when I went away for a work conference. My husband decided to experiment and see if Artie would be happier going to sleep in his cot if we took the bars off it. He removed them from one side and set Artie up with all his teddies at the end of the bed, a little dinosaur night light that I had bought him and, so far, not used, and his CD player with his favourite lullabies. He then sat down beside the bed and settled himself in for 30 – 40 minutes of keeping Artie company in his ‘new’ bed until he fell asleep. Artie, however, had other ideas. ‘Bye bye, Daddy,’ he chirped as he turned on his side, put his arm around his favourite teddy and snuggled into his bed for a solid 11 hours’ kip. He has slept through the night without protest ever since!
The moral of my story is this: sleep training clearly works for some babies and some parents. It didn’t work for us. You can let your baby cry for a bit and get used to being on their own or you can cuddle them to sleep until they are ready to settle down with their teddies for comfort instead. You can let them climb into your bed in the middle of the night or you can get up as soon as you hear the pitter patter and put them straight back in their own bed, keeping yours as a sacred, child-free space that only you and your husband enjoy. The only ‘rules’ are the ones that work for you and your family. And at the end of the day, just keep remembering that everything is a phase and on their 18th birthday you’ll look back (no doubt bawling your eyes out that your baby is a fully-fledged adult) and remember those bed-time cuddles as the precious gift that they are.
By Jude Schweppe - co-founder