Why you don't have to sleep train your baby
Recently, I shared an article titled Is self soothing the biggest con of new parenthood? and it only strengthened how I feel about ditching the idea of sleep training and going with my instincts instead (though it took a long time, a good book and a supportive community to get me to that point). I received a few messages from other parents who read the article and breathed a sigh of relief that they could let go of the guilt they felt for nursing their babies to sleep, for sharing a bed with them and for responding to their cries, because aren't those the things we're all told we should do the opposite of? Isn't almost every baby book and pregnancy website just telling us to bizarrely go against our parental instincts?
"They say if you tell a big enough lie and repeat it frequently enough, it will be believed. It will become a cultural truth, even if it has no factual origins."
Why are we all so convinced we have to train our children to sleep? From the very early stages of pregnancy, the first things we'll inevitably hear are how we'll never sleep again and how we must get our babies into their own bed as early as possible, and this is all before the poor little sucker has even grown fingernails. I read so many of those recommended books before my first arrived and I googled 'why won't my baby sleep?' what feels like (and probably was) a trillion times. I wasted hours on Dr. Google, so sure that there was a secret I just wasn't privy to yet. There was a solution that if I researched hard and long for, would give me a perfect sleeper; 12 hours a night, without a peep. I just had to find it, right?
Of course, what the books neglected to tell me was that babies are actual humans; humans that have just spent nine glorious months curled up in the safest place in the world, somewhere beautifully cosy listening to the rhythmic heartbeat of the one person that's been their constant. They're not robots that we can programme, they're little people that need us, that we wanted, why should we have a baby of our own just so we can force independence on them as soon as possible?
Babies aren't babies forever, in fact, the years fly by at an alarming rate, and as one of those anxious mothers who chose to spend the first night home from the hospital sleeping at the end of the bed, just so I could keep a hand on my son in his bassinet at all times, forfeiting sleep because why would I want to sleep? I'd much rather force my eyelids apart with matchsticks just to ensure this baby was safe, that they were actually real and mine, so sure that if I closed my eyes that baby would disappear like a beautiful dream. I only wish I knew sooner how quickly those days would pass and I can only be grateful that after the endless nights of sitting next to the cot, with just a hand inside for comfort, or crying and breaking in desperation on the evenings I was sure there was something wrong with my baby, that I figured it out before my second came along.
"Self soothing is an illusion, and when we shatter an illusion, it has no power over us; our love can’t be leveraged and our sleep-deprived desperation can’t be taken advantage of."
When Jesse arrived, I suddenly developed something I like to call 'fuck-it' syndrome, I hear it happens often with subsequent children. It's that epiphany we have where we realise that, actually, we are more than capable of keeping another human alive entirely by ourselves, without Sheila over the road offering her best 'advice' or Bert at the post office with his 'if you let them into your bed, they'll be there forever!' (I don't know many teenagers still sleeping with their parents). I relished the first 3 months because I didn't have to do anything other than cuddle and breastfeed and cuddle some more. I nursed on demand, I [safely] co-slept and I loved every single second.
Then the time comes, when your baby starts understanding more about day and night, when the guilt starts to creep in and the little voices tell you all about the strict regiment you really should start to put in place before your baby relies on you too much (imagine that, a baby relying on their parents). I succumbed the first time round, and I almost gave in on the second before stumbling across an incredible book titled The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith and I can honestly say, it changed EVERYTHING for me.
I realised that nursing a baby to sleep, even a toddler, is an entirely natural thing to do. Why else would breastmilk release sleepy hormones (I'm sure there's a more technical term) during the night? Also, did you know it's important for babies to wake at night because that's when they take 20% of their daily intake of milk? I also realised that if we, as adults, wake regularly at night, why do we expect our children to sleep for 12 hours solid? But let's talk about when they're older, when your baby turns into a toddler and you're still worried about the fact they're not sleeping alone..
Jesse is now 2 years and 3 months old and I have yet to change a single thing about how we slept when he was a baby; I still nurse to sleep and he still sleeps in our bed, next to me. The feeds have reduced, of course, since he weaned and he now only takes one nap a day, but I still feed on demand though the night and though he occasionally wakes and has his rough nights (as do all children, sleep trained or otherwise), I get all the sleep I need and more.
Not only do I get enough sleep but I don't regret a single second of it, in fact it was glorious cuddling my baby at night, not having to drag myself out of bed to see to a distressed child and tending to his every need (I also call it the lazy parenting technique because honestly, I just do what's easiest and it so happens to be what also feels most natural, boobs are a godsend!). The only thing I do regret is attempting to sleep train my first child, succumbing to the books and the advice of what others said and not trusting my instincts and how have things changed for him at almost 5? My partner stays with him until he falls asleep and he sleeps in his room most nights without a peep until 6-7am. On the occasion he does wake, we welcome him into our bed and never turn him away.
For the past couple of weeks, Jesse has stopped feeding to sleep and has been happy to hold a hand to my chest whilst he drifts off on his own, because he's finally developmentally ready to 'soothe himself to sleep', not because I forced him but because he is ready. We'll still continue to bedshare and cuddle to sleep after the nursing is done and one day he'll be ready for his own bed and his own room, in his own time.
I never judge how another person parents, what works for one may not work for another and the one thing we can be sure of is that every baby is so different; some Mums choose not to breastfeed and some are unable to, some will sleep train and others won't, and I only write my story here because I want others to know that they do have a choice. When your heart is breaking at listening to your baby cry but you're scared to go to them in case they'll rely on you forever? They won't! When your whole body is exhausted and you're tired of googling 'what is wrong with my baby?' every spare second you have? Your baby just wants you! When you're feeling guilty because all you want is your baby in your arms without the stress of sleep training or getting them out of your room? There is another way, you don't have to feel imprisoned by what we're made to believe, that sleep training is the only way to help your baby sleep, it's simply not true.
I'm going to link a few Facebook groups, articles and books that changed the way I view children's sleep and gentle parenting. Finding a community of parents who did it differently was eye-opening for me and I don't think I'd have had the beautiful journey I've had with my second if it weren't for those who spoke out and let me know there is another way, so this is my way of telling you.
- What Really Happens When You Teach a Baby to Self Soothe to Sleep
- Facebook Community - The Beyond Sleep Training Project
- Why I'll lie with my son for as long as he needs me to by Tracey Gillet
- The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Disclaimer: All quotes used in this post are taken from the article I've linked in the opening paragraph, written by Tracey Gillett. This post features affiliate links meaning if you decide to purchase through the link provided, I'll receive a few pennies at no cost to you, so thanks! (:
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