It might seem strange that I’m writing about sleep training, given that Hattie and Joe have reliably slept through the night for the past four years. I’m broaching the topic for a reason that doesn’t usually motivate me to update this blog: I’m annoyed, and so I’ve decided to explain what’s bothering me, and why. In a nutshell: I’m sick of being told that it’s unnatural for children to sleep through; and I’m really fed up with the vitriol directed towards baby sleep consultants. In this blog post I’m going to talk about sleep training as a concept – I’ll address the whole ‘anti baby sleep consultants’ issue in a separate post.
I touched on the topic of sleep a while ago, when referring to some of the broader points Emily Writes made in a great blog about how to cope with a lack of sleep (have good support, give zero fucks, etc.). In my response I was universally supportive of other parents’ choices about sleep – and that was really easy for me, because I genuinely don’t feel like the decisions about how their children sleep affect me. I trust that they have made the best choices for their children and themselves. I continue to wholeheartedly support any way that other parents choose to deal with their children’s sleep issues. To be blunt, I don’t care what other parents do.
However, I’m annoyed because I really don’t feel like that ‘live and let live’ attitude is extended back to those of us who have sleep trained our kids. Instead, sleep training is discussed with very negative language. If sleep training is perceived as so bad, there’s an obvious implication that parents (like me) who do it are indulging in harmful practices. This discourse is often accompanied by an assertion that it’s totally natural for children to sleep in the same bed as their parents, wake up several times during the night, and need parental help to get back to sleep. Generally, people who haven’t sleep trained their children assume that those of us who did it merely shut the bedroom door and left our infants to scream themselves to sleep for weeks on end, because apparently that’s the only alternative to nursing a child to sleep, several times throughout the silent watches of the night.
Parents who haven’t sleep trained their children tend to acknowledge that they’re absolutely exhausted, but they are willing to tolerate the physical, mental, and emotional toll this takes on them because it’s unnatural for children to sleep through the night. And that’s the bit that annoys me: the implicit judgement that those of us who have sleep trained our children did so because we selfishly prioritised the importance of sleep (both ours and theirs) ahead of respecting our children’s natural needs.
Why can’t parents who don’t want to sleep train just leave the rest of us to it? I’m not kicking in your door and compelling you to do things my way. When you criticise sleep training, you’re criticising parents who have chosen to sleep train, it’s as simple as that.
For what it’s worth, I don’t agree that it’s unnatural for any child aged six months or older to be able to sleep well through the night. I don’t believe that it causes them any physical or emotional harm (and here’s some research that backs this up), and nor do I believe that it damages their bond with their parents. Even when we did it, when the babies were around nine months old, it never involved more than a few minutes of crying at a time. It also only took three or four nights, during which I stopped offering night feeds (they were having several meals and feeds throughout the day). Every morning they were delighted to see us, bearing us no grudges whatsoever. If learning to sleep through the night is so unnatural, why do my children – and many others – learn it really quickly and easily, and go on to be good sleepers? Granted, we had times during teething when we dealt with unsettled nights, but it’s never took more than a night or two to get things back on track.
Here’s how traumatised Hattie and Joe have been as a result of sleep training:
- They continued having a daily nap until they were three and a half.
- They happily stayed in cots until they were nearly three.
- They effortlessly transitioned from cots to beds.
- They go to bed without a fuss, every single night.
- They sleep from 7pm – 6am every single day.
- They don’t get out of bed during the night.
- If they wake up during the night, they simply roll over and go back to sleep.
- On the rare occasion that one of them has a bad dream, it only takes a swift cuddle to settle them down again before they’re back to sleep (this happened last night with Joe: he woke up crying from a bad dream at 9.30pm, and was fast asleep once again by 9.35pm).
- They stay in bed and stay quiet each morning, waiting for their GroClock to tell them that it’s time to get up.
- Even at the age of nearly-five Hattie will voluntarily put herself to bed for a nap (she did this just last Saturday, and I had to wake her up after an hour and a half).
- They acknowledge when they’re tired, and will eagerly take us up on the offer of a long car drive, in order to have a car nap.
- They understand cause and effect: that it’s important to have enough sleep, so they have sufficient energy to go to kindy, have swimming lessons, enjoy play dates, and generally be happy little kids.
- They also understand cause and effect with regard to me as their Mummy: they get that, although they can’t control when they wake up each morning, they can control whether they disturb me. They know that I don’t expect to see them or hear from them before it’s time to get up, because I need a good sleep and I don’t want to be woken up too early. They respect that.
I am fully aware that many parents might think I’m a total bullshitter, having read that list. I don’t care. Believe that if it helps you to get through the night: I know it’s true, and so do the numerous people who have visited my house and see the kids go to bed, and the many friends and family members who’ve enjoyed evenings with us, unbothered by sleepless children.
Here’s a photo of Hattie and Joe at the age of two years and seven months, about to go for a nap. The horror in their eyes!!
And let’s be honest: I’m sure that my kids would love to stay up a bit later and hang out, watching TV. What fun! But this is a key point: we’re the adults, and they’re the kids. We are in charge, not them. They might not know how much sleep they need in order to avoid becoming psychotic with tiredness the following day, but we do know. Therefore, we make the decisions. We’re the parents, and that’s part of the job. And I think I’ve set a great example for my kids regarding the pure joy of reading in bed. They’ve even been known to play ‘reading in bed’:
Here’s how we’ve all benefited from helping our children to become great sleepers:
- The kids sleep for eleven hours a night. They’re always well rested, which means they’re sparky and happy every single morning.
- Tristan and I are also well rested – Netflix binge watching aside, we can go to bed at a decent hour and have seven or eight hours of sleep.
- The kids very seldom get sick – at the most, we deal with a couple of colds each year. I appreciate that correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but I do think there’s a link between their well rested state and their rude good health.
- Tristan and I spend the evening together, every single night. We can go out with no fuss at all, merely telling the kids as we tuck them in at bedtime that we’re going for a movie or whatever, and that their au pair will be on hand if they wake up and need anything.
- Because we’re not spending each evening wrestling the kids into bed, we can do other things. I try to limit most of my uni stuff to daylight hours, but if I have to work on something, I can do it.
- Because we’re not sleep deprived, Tristan and I can be calm, rational parents who have sufficient energy to deal with the trials and tribulations of parenting four year old twins.
- Because we have sufficient time to spend together, being grown-up married people, Tristan and I continue to have a very strong and happy relationship after 20 years. Happy, loving parents make for happy, loving families, and I have no doubt that the absence of sleep deprivation in our lives has contributed to our harmonious house.
So, in the absence of any clear evidence that sleep training has harmed my children, I wonder why people are so quick to criticise it as a parenting tool. Could it be that, as a mother, I’m supposed to be exhausted? I do tend to agree with this blog post that links anti sleep training attitudes with a belief that motherhood should be an endlessly selfless act, in which women should be prepared to sacrifice their physical, mental, and emotional health for the sake of avoiding a few short term tears at bedtime.
I was obviously M.I.A. when the maternal guilt genes were handed out, because I simply refuse to subscribe to that theory of motherhood. I know that I’m a great mother to my kids, as evidenced by the extremely strong relationship I enjoy with the two happy, kind, funny, clever little people I’m helping to raise. They act like teenagers who’ve just glimpsed their favourite boy band when I get home each day – I honestly don’t know what a stronger relationship could look like! I’m a great mother despite choosing to not be at home with them full time, and despite choosing to acknowledge that I can’t function without sleep. I tried it for their first six months, which culminated in the nightmare that was our 2013 trip to France (where I did succumb to the temptations of co-sleeping and feeding to sleep, both of which failed to work). That trip undid all of the progress we’d made earlier, as described in this post (and I was still feeding at night back then, given the babies’ ages). I ended up really unwell – I developed iritis, which is a hideous eye condition that, if not treated promptly, can result in permanent damage. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced – even more painful than having a Caesarian without first receiving a proper epidural. And although I was fortunate during the kids’ first year and didn’t develop PPD, friends of mine did – and they also felt a great deal better when they made the decision to sleep train their children, and started getting sufficient sleep themselves.
Sleep is essential. It’s as important as food, to both children and adults. Parents who choose sleep training are not selfish: they are putting on their own oxygen mask first, and then assisting their children. Here are my poor, assisted children, happily sleeping in their beds on the second night after we assembled them:
And I do understand why the concept of sleep training is sometimes unpopular. I know that some people have children with disabilities or health conditions that will make good sleep habits difficult. I have so much sympathy for those people. However, I also know that a lot of parents who criticise sleep training have actually tried the methods themselves, but been unwilling or unable to stick with the game plan for the three or four nights that most children need to establish good sleep habits. They therefore choose to dismiss and discredit the entire idea of sleep training, instead of simply acknowledging that it didn’t work for them (and that their choices and actions may have been part of the reason why it didn’t work).
Indulge me: I’m going to use an analogy. Hattie is a very fussy eater. She was reasonably good about trying anything I gave her until she was nearly two, but then she was very unwilling to eat most foods. It was hugely frustrating. I tried all of the things people suggest, but they didn’t work – Hattie is still a very fussy eater. In light of this, we’ve just decided to pick our battles: she’s obviously growing and thriving, despite her weird diet. She’s the picture of good health. And I have a lot to do each day, and don’t have the time or energy to try to hide vegetables in baked goods (spoiler alert: with Hattie, it doesn’t work).
Here’s a brief list of what I don’t do:
- Tell parents whose children eat vegetables that they’re disrespecting their children’s right to choose what they want to eat.
- Assume that any parent who tells me about their child’s healthy and adventurous eating habits is a liar, hell-bent on trying to make me feel bad.
- Insist that it’s unnatural to make children eat stuff.
- Insist that children have as much knowledge as adults regarding what they should eat, and need to be respected accordingly – that it’s tantamount to dictatorship to decide your child’s menu.
- Talk about how we followed a certain nutritionist’s advice for a couple of days, but it didn’t work – and therefore that nutritionist is obviously full of shit (more on this in my baby sleep consultant post).
- Choose to only eat macaroni cheese for dinner every night, because that’s what Hattie wants to eat for dinner every night.
Here’s what I do:
- Listen with awed amazement to tales of small children who snack of vegetables.
- Give the kids a multivitamin each day (Joe is also quite a fussy eater, but his is more a ‘this looks like fun and I’m a young control freak’ kind of fussiness, whereas Hattie’s fussiness has a bit more substance to it).
- Tell both kids that it’ll be so awesome when they’re a bit bigger and want to try different foods, as they’ll be able to have the delicious dinners we eat every night, rather than the dull food they insist on eating.
- Get on with my life.
I know that it must be annoying to learn that other people’s children sleep well, particularly if you harbour a secret fear that your own behaviour may have contributed to your child’s sleep issues. I definitely find it annoying that other people’s children are great eaters, and I’m sure I should have done some things differently to achieve better outcomes on that front. I’m not perfect, but I don’t need to dress up my frustration as criticism of what you did to make your child snack on carrot sticks.
Here’s my take-home message: every parent is doing what they think is best. If you disagree with how another parent chooses to deal with their child’s sleep, could you just keep that to yourself, rather than taking a swipe at them by telling us all how your approach is superior? Because justifying your own choices as being ‘natural’, ‘respectful’, ‘gentle’, or whatever is just a very low-key way of telling parents like me that our choices are unnatural, disrespectful, and aggressive. It needs to stop.
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