Sleep training – if it works at all – sometimes has long-term consequences, as Karin Schimke discovered…
It is almost nine o’clock on a week night and my two children are in bed. Julia, who is five, has been asleep for two hours. Oliver, who is eight, has also been in bed for two hours, reading, listening to music and finally staring at the ceiling. The sleep he so desperately needs, fails to come. Birth order, genes and personality probably account for some of these differences, but I don’t think the fact that I “sleep-trained” Oliver at nine months helped. In retrospect, it was a devastatingly cruel thing to do to a child who is naturally anxious.
Before Oliver I knew nothing about babies. I was 30, and my life until then had been about me, my career and my social life. I didn’t know that babies had specific biological needs that wouldn’t correspond with my biological needs. I thought, for instance, that breastfeeding was done three times a day: breakfast, lunch and supper. And I certainly didn’t know they’d be waking up and demanding attention sometimes more than four or five times after the sun’s gone down.
The shock of a real baby’s needs was visceral. I have always been deeply attached to my sleep. When I laid my head on the pillow at the same time every night, I went straight to sleep and slept solidly for eight hours, after which my eyes sprung open and I hopped out of bed fully refreshed. I was befuddled about the fact that my baby woke every two hours to feed. When the nurses at the clinic looked completely unshocked by this report, I felt a little silly for making a fuss and left hoping that things would improve soon.
My baby had been put in a room beside ours in a cot (crib). That’s how I thought it was done. But hopping up every hour to fetch, feed, change and put Oliver back to sleep – which didn’t work anyway, because as soon as I put him down, he woke again – was taking its toll. I hallucinated. I woke up half sitting in bed cradling him tight against my enormous bosom and think I’d suffocated him and wake us all up in my panic to resuscitate him, when in fact he’d been sleeping peacefully. Or I lifted the covers and frantically patted the bed to find him, convinced that he was dying somewhere near his parents’ feet. One night, I woke up from the feed and carried him to his cot, only to find he was already there, sleeping. The disjuncture between knowing that you don’t have two babies, but being unable to distinguish which one was real was deeply distressing. I felt like I was losing my mind.
My husband urged me to bring Oliver to bed so we could all get some sleep, and someone showed me how to feed lying down. Things improved a little, but there were still the day sleeps to contend with. It never occurred to me to lie down and sleep when the baby did and to stop trying to have a perfect house, meet my deadlines, shop and cook every night. Instead, I spent the days rocking and singing frantically…and not getting anything done anyway.
Slowly, the physical effects of interrupted sleep started interfering with my ability to function properly. I lost weight rapidly, a fact for which I thanked breastfeeding at first. I became jumpy and tetchy, obsessive about sleep and resentful about not having any. I had spots floating at the corners of my vision all the time, my eyes felt gritty, my head was sore, I shook and I continued to hallucinate wildly. I adored my son when he was awake, but at the first signs of tiredness, I would sometimes start to loathe him.
I was so worried about these feelings, I approached the Post-Natal Depression Association and asked for an assessment of my state of mind. I was found not to have post-natal depression, which was a relief, but I still felt like I was on the edge of some sort of major breakdown. By the time my son was six months old I weighed 48kg – I had lost 27 kg since his birth and, considering I’d only put on 12kg during pregnancy, I knew things were beyond normal. It was discovered that I had an over-active thyroid, a condition that speeds up your metabolism, makes you very thin, and – most tellingly – makes you extremely anxious. My homeopath described it to my husband like this: “It’s like being on speed 24/7.”
It only occurred to me after this horrible phase of my life had passed that this condition might have had more to do with my hysteria about not getting enough sleep, than what I’ve subsequently come to understand as my son’s relatively normal sleeping patterns.
LEAVING BABY TO CRY
My husband went away for business and I was alone with my son who – I believed, as though Oliver had some sort of personal vendetta against me – simply refused to sleep. By now, I realise in retrospect, he’d absorbed my anxiety. His eyes would close and then suddenly pop open. My desperation was acute. I was sick, alone and angry.
I’d been urged by other mothers to sleep train. Even the midwives had suggested some mild sleep training. I was lent a book by Richard Ferber which explained in what seemed like perfectly logical scientific terminology, why it was important to sleep train my baby, and how to do it. It seemed like a good idea to stop moaning and do something, even though I found the idea of sleep training offensive. I had by then been lead to believe that my “problem” was all my fault, and I simply needed to firm up a bit.
I phoned my mother in tears and asked her to take leave and come to me. I told her, the nanny and Oliver’s godfather the sleep-training plan. The nanny was dead set against it. My mother was instinctively against the idea, but shut up, because she’s never been an interferer. The godfather was all for the plan.
They cooked for me and held and played with Oliver. When it was nap time, I took him to the cot I’d put in my bedroom and told him he had to sleep now, kissed him, turned around, walked out and closed the door. I could go in – according to the “science” – at five, then ten, then fifteen minute intervals, after which he would have cried himself to sleep. I, meantime, sat crying outside the door and listened to him screaming. The nanny would walk past and give me withering looks and say “Shame, he’s just a baby.”
I did it for three days in a row for each sleep. At night, I put my mother in charge and left the house to walk so I wouldn’t have to hear him cry. I found out subsequently that my mother couldn’t leave him, that she went to him and held him till she heard me come home and then put him back in the cot. Oliver’s godfather did one sleep training session and afterwards asked me never to ask him to do it again.
“When I left he was standing up and reaching his hand through the bars to me. I’m sorry I can’t help you, but I can’t do it again,” he said. As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears again. The worst thing that ever happened to me in my cosseted, happy life was a thing I inflicted upon myself and upon the child of my heart. Sleep training was the most appalling thing I ever did.
After three days Oliver was hoarse and hadn’t – not even once – fallen asleep on his own. I’d given up after half an hour each time. I was too afraid to tell anyone about my miserable failure, and from then on I generally shut up about my desperation. I resigned myself to sleeplessness. I asked myself: “What would happen if I never, ever sleep again?” I couldn’t spend the rest of my life on earth being angry and sick. I needed to make some adjustments.
Trying another way
I let go, first of all, of my embarrassment about sleeping in the day when the rest of the world was productive. When Oliver needed to sleep, I lay down next to him, breastfed him and drifted off myself. By then, he was having one hour morning and afternoon naps. The extra two hours of sleep a day seemed to do wonders for my energy levels and I slowly started feeling more in control. Amazingly, when I was there and our bodies were touching, he drifted off to sleep easier. And so we muddled from year one into year two and – because I lay with him – the struggle to sleep gradually diminished.
When I became pregnant with my second child, I reasoned to myself that babies do not sleep like adults do, so I would just have to sleep like the baby. I promised myself six months’ maternity leave (I work for myself), advised everyone that I would not be available for anything for six months, not even making supper. If I had an expectation, it was that I would not get sleep, and somehow knowing this, made things easier, because I didn’t spend my time with her in the resentful twilight zone of hope.
Julia was born. I held her for three days in hospital, against my naked chest and she and I slept and ate and eliminated like some sort of super biological mother-and-child machine. We were one. She seemed calm and contained.
When we came home, I held her all the time, even when she needed to sleep and, sometimes, right through her sleep. I spent much of my time on the couch reading to my son while feeding and sleeping my daughter, or I cooked and cleaned with Julia nestled in the baby sling. Amazingly, I got more done in those six months than I had in Oliver’s first year.
At night, I lay down with Julia and when I woke up, I’d feel quite refreshed and find myself able to do little domestic jobs or chat to my husband. We no longer had a cot. Instead, we’d bought a double-bed mattress for the baby’s room and put it on the floor. If she needed to feed at night, I could snuggle next to her without being cramped and could wake up in the morning feeling refreshed. I slept in twenty minute snatches in the day – when she slept – and suddenly found that I would wake up as clear-eyed and refreshed as I used to when I was getting eight solid hours.
So that’s why…
My gorgeous, healthy, funny, normal son is now eight years old. He never, ever says “I’m tired.” He seldom falls asleep before 9pm, even though he’s in bed by 7pm. He gets dark rings under his eyes and, when sleep is particularly hard to come by, he inevitably becomes ill. He still falls asleep quickest if there is physical contact between him and me or him and his father. He watches his sister fall asleep an instant after she’s put her book down and whispers in awe: “How does she do that?”
When Julia, on the other hand, is tired, she says so, and takes herself off to bed. She falls asleep minutes after putting her head on the pillow and wakes in a good mood exactly twelve hours later. She – it seems to me – has nothing to fear from the spectre of sleep. She has not been trained to be frightened of sleep or anxious about abandonment.
My son will always, I suspect, sleep easier when he doesn’t feel alone, when he can touch the skin of a loved one, an action that has an instant calming effect on his whole body. Those three days of bewildering, uncharacteristic abandonment when he was nine months old robbed him of something which I’m not sure that even a life-time of affection will replace.
Recently the issue of sleep training came up on an e-group I belong to on a night when Oliver was having a particularly difficult time falling asleep. I took my book to his room and climbed into his bed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the e-group discussion about sleep training. I decided to tell him about it. I explained about how babies slept differently to adults and children because of their need to be fed often, and then explained that there was this thing called sleep training where you leave the baby in the cot and don’t go back to it, even if it cries. His head flicked up from my shoulder where it was resting and he was clearly shocked.
“And they call it sleep training?” he exclaimed, “What a stupid name.”
“Why, what would you call it,” I asked him.
“Baby torture,” he said without hesitation.
I went on to explain that I had baby-tortured him. He wanted all the details. Which room had it been, which door did I sit outside and cry, how long did I do it for, what did Grandma think. He was very good natured about it, smiled and hugged me and said: “So you think that’s why I can’t sleep!”
I think we’ve both forgiven me…
Article written by Karin Schimke© 2008
- “Helping your Baby to Sleep; Why Gentle Techniques Work Best”, by Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor (Finch Publishing, Australia, 2007)
- “Sleeping with your Baby: A Parents’ Guide to Co-sleeping”, by James McKenna (Platypus Media, USA, 2007)
- “The Science of Parenting”, by Margot Sunderland, (Dorling Kindersley, UK, 2006)
- “The Aware Baby”, by Aletha Solter, (Shining Star Press, USA, 2001)
- “Sleeping Like a Baby”, by Pinky McKay (Penguin Books, Australia, 2006)
- “The Baby Sleep Book: How to Help your Baby Sleep and Have a Restful Night”, by William and Martha Sears, (Harper Thorsons, UK, 2005)
- “Three in a Bed: The Benefits of Sleeping with your Baby,” (Bloomsbury, UK, 2005)
- “The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help your Baby Sleep Through the Night”, by Elizabeth Pantley, (McGraw Hill, USA, 2002)
- “Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed and a Good Night’s Sleep”, by Jay Gordon, (St Martin’s Press, USA , 2002)