Things here have been pretty tough over the last month (or more). And I don’t just mean dealing with the normal sleep regression in the clutches of the (typical groundhog-day) colds, teething, milestones, growth spurts, and leaps. I’m not talking about the “bad habits” you can overlook because “they’re only little for so long”. This is confessions of a sleep consultant; and if I wasn’t (a sleep consultant), I would have booked myself into sleep school (on almost a dozen occasions in the last 4 weeks).
You want confessions, here it is. I have been feeding Jett to sleep for longer than I can remember. It has always been a problem; one I felt would be solved easily (or easier) by co-sleeping. One I justified because he was “only a baby”, or because he was the third child (aka backseat baby). I justified it because we have been “busy” with renovations, buying/selling houses, teething, sick, out of routine. I thought it was kinder on him, and somewhat unavoidable considering our circumstance; but unfortunately the path of least resistance is a “no through” road. It’s impossible to venture down there with the intention of ever moving forward. And things haven’t improved over time. They became worse than ever.
At 8 months, he was unable to self settle day or night without being fed (or sucking to sleep)- and back to sleep. A breast and dummy addict, and waking on average between 8-10 times per night. I have been on the feed/dummy to sleep (and back to sleep) rollercoaster for months – just too embarrassed to show my weakness, my vulnerability, or my hand signalling madly for help as I just managed to tread water. Afraid of being judged by others who think I should know better. And perhaps I should, seeing this is my job, (not to mention my third child!). But things are just different when it’s your own kids, and your judgment is clouded by your own “stuff”, lack of sleep, and hence, heightened emotion.
And regardless of whether it is your first, or tenth child, every baby is born with a unique temperament which we must honour. What worked for you and your previous child/ren, won’t necessarily (and often doesn’t) work for others. Just as we can’t hold the same expectations, we can’t me motivated by fear or guilt in our attempt to avoid painful situations, overcompensate for our previous (perceived) parenting failures, or needless worry about repeating our “mistakes”; our past does not equal our future.
Sometimes the patterns we create for our children aren’t as nurturing, or for the “greater good” as we intend; but act as a form of self-gratification to fulfill our own needs or insecurities (whether we are conscious of this, or not). If I am to be honest with myself, co-sleeping was a scapegoat for what I justified as “Jett’s” well-being; I thought that sleeping with him would perhaps make me a better, or more “nurturing/caring/loving” mum, make for a more “secure attachment”, or somehow make up for the fact I never co-slept with my other two – even though my second child may have been a different kid, had I afforded him the same security (the typical sliding doors analogy). Co-sleeping (for as long as I continued to do so, with it not working for anyone) was a way for me to keep my little boy, little for longer. A way for me to freeze time, bottle his youth, and immerse myself in the delightful squishy baby cuddles – which would most likely be my very last. But in doing so, I was stopping him from growing up. I robbed him of his independence to fall asleep, and get back to sleep without me. I became his sleep need, his sleep crutch. I didn’t want to hear him cry as it made me feel uncomfortable, or I was just too damn tired to deal with it. And many of us are afraid of hearing our babies cry. Not only is it uncomfortable for us (as many of us were prevented from crying as babies), for mothers especially, you can quite literally feel your heart skip a beat when your baby cries; provoking within us, feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, panic, and fear. Many of us feel at a loss with what to do when our babies cry; that we resort (with the most positive of intentions) to the things we know that stop it – i.e. feeding, rocking, shushing, patting, and/or the dummy.
Please don’t get me wrong. I know many babies who sleep peacefully day and night after being fed to sleep, or with a dummy. The same as I know many families sleep well in a co-sleeping arrangement; and if we did, I still would. I always maintain; if it’s not a problem for you, then it’s not a problem, period. But for me, sleep (or lack thereof) had become an all-consuming, exhausting problem. I had unhealthily over-stepped my own personal limits, and in doing so, allowed Jett to over-step these boundaries also. Just because we are a parent, does NOT mean we are supposed to sacrifice our own well-being and happiness for the purpose of making our children happy (or “keeping the peace”). Often, when we have failed to exercise basic self care, then our children suffer as a result – we do not have the capacity to fulfil our needs (or theirs) if our tank is running on empty. There’s a valuable lesson in learning to love and accept ourselves and respect our personal limits – both for us, and for our children. For me and my family, something had to give; and I would much rather it be the breast and dummy, than the wellbeing and sanity of all involved (because sleep difficulties affect the entire family unit). I didn’t want to end up resenting Jett, or making poor parenting decisions from a place of desperation and exhaustion. It’s the pain vs. pleasure principle; I was finally able to make this change (after 8 months) because the pain of staying the same outweighed my perceived pain of change (time commitment, energy, effort, fear, and apprehension).
I spent the best part of last week breaking this vicious cycle. Instead of sleep training, or “crying it out” I listened – or as Hand in Hand Parenting describes as “stay listening“. At the time, it was heart-breaking; It’s how I only imagine it would be like to see someone who is going through detox for a drug or alcohol addiction; desperate, vulnerable, helpless. As I held him lovingly in my arms, the pained look on his face through his tears pleaded to know “why are you doing this to me?” But it wasn’t what I was doing to him in that moment, it is what I have been doing for the past 8 months which was (now) the source of his pain. I felt so incredibly sad, guilty, and responsible. I cried with him. I had moments where I doubted myself and everything I knew. Feelings of defeat, insecurity, and exhaustion so intense, I thought my eyes might drop off my face. I considered 100 times putting him back on the breast, or giving him the dummy to stop the crying – but I know that “dead-end” well. What broke my heart, was that I had created that dependence for him; his addiction to feeding for comfort. And whilst I know “feeding to sleep”, or “feeding for comfort” doesn’t seem like a real issue long-term (and it isn’t necessarily with all babies), these actions can quickly become our children’s “control patterns“. When our children experience hard feelings, they turn to these sources of comfort in order to repress rather than express; washing down any queasy and uncomfortable feelings (e.g. trauma, upset, fear, anxiety, insecurity, sadness) with milk, or stuffing them back in with a dummy for another day. Another day never comes, because these actions become habits. What we sometimes see instead, is increased ongoing behavioural issues, co-dependency, and a host of sleeping difficulties (as I encountered).
I do know I “shouldn’t” have let myself get into this predicament. I do know better. But sometimes, “knowing” better isn’t enough to do better. You must have the support network, emotional and physical strength, insight, vision, confidence, and time to change. What I am learning at a rapid rate, is that you can only parent within the limits of your own life experience, challenges, “stories”, or patterns you’re running – stemming from your own upbringing, and how you were parented.
When you commit to being the best parent you can be, it forces you to step up, to face your fears head on, deal with your s&*t, and to change your ways – as painful, challenging, scary,and confronting as this can be. Parenthood has taught me (among many other things) that life goes on; that even when you have the worst day, night, week or month/s possible, you keep soldiering on because you mean the world to these little people you have created; YOU are their world. Evolving as a parent is the most intense personal development I have ever experienced; true parenting from the inside, out.
Whether we are willing to admit it, or not; we all have our challenging times; sleep or otherwise. Whilst guilt is not a stranger to any mother, you must know that throughout all of this, good enough parenting, is good enough. We are doing a hard slog. This parenting gig is 24-7; no sick leave, no compassionate leave, no annual leave. No holidays, no way out when you are in the thick of your hardest parenting hours. And yet, we are judged the most by other mothers who know how hard this job is? It’s ludicrous. Don’t ever be afraid to admit that things aren’t working for you, or that you need help.
I don’t ever regret being responsive to Jett’s needs at the time, and I will continue to do so; but somehow things got lost along the way, and I became his needs. It took us two nights of dedication, limited sleep, perseverance, and trust to get things back on track – and they are now better than they have ever been. Jett is now sleeping through the night (or 80% of the time) in his own cot (5 hours in a row is actually considered a “sleep through“) – only waking for 1-2 feeds. He is now dummy free. He is getting more sleep, I am getting more sleep, and we are both happier overall. At the time I questioned what I was doing, but grateful I persisted through the hard times. I liken this transformation to transition in labour; when you reach that point where you feel you can’t go on, and things are overwhelmingly hard – this is where the magic happens. In life, (and when changing baby sleep patterns), almost 100% of the time, this is the turning point to things getting better. True to Dory’s wise words; “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. Just as life is fluid, our children are forever evolving – which means their needs (and our responses to them), must also change. You don’t have to have all your ducks lined up; because if we spend our lives waiting for the “perfect” moment, nothing will ever change. There are still things in our routine that are far from perfect; he has many sleeps in transit (car/pram/carrier), days where he has hardly any sleep, days of teething, leaps, tumbles, illness, or the inexplainable baby blues. But the importance of establishing positive and consistent sleep associations has been paramount to our success. By positive, I am referring to any association your child uses to fall asleep that does not rely directly upon you; those which encourage your baby’s ability to sleep independently and self settle, and can be replicated any-where, at any-time, by any-one.
I have to be thankful for this experience. It’s in living and overcoming the hardship with my own children’s sleeping difficulties that fuels my passion for what I do. It has blessed me with insight, empathy, and compassion to be able to help other mothers (and parents) in their darkest, sleepless hours – to instil their confidence in their own parenting ability, and providing faith, hope and trust that things can, and will get better.
Trust yourselves, and have the courage to change things that aren’t working for you. Happy mum, happy baby….. sleep.
Until next time, with love,
Sophie & Jett xox
For a guide on what to expect developmentally at 8 months, including routines and troubleshooting tips, click here.