Updated: Aug 1
You wouldn't know it just by looking, but I took this photo during one of the toughest periods I experienced in the first year of being a mum. It was around this time, 7 months, that I experienced the most uncertainty and lack of confidence in myself as a parent, and particularly when it came to sleep.
I was also a bit over half way through a PhD in child development, a small detail that only served to make me believing in sleep training feel like a bit of a fraud. Because the truth is - it didn't mean I always knew what I was doing. It didn't make me immune to uncertainty and doubt. And boy, did that doubt creep in. Once confident in my decision to bed share and feed on demand throughout the night (which was getting the best sleep for everyone and my daughter was, frankly, thriving), all of a sudden I felt like maybe I was getting it all wrong.
Sleep training marketing got me doubt...
Like a lot of babies, she had started sleeping nice long stretches overnight around 2-3 months. Some nights she slept 10pm-6am. My partner and I would high five, thinking we hit the jackpot. I was aware of the 4 month progression, but was also quietly optimistic it wouldn't mess with her sleep too much. Well. It did. In a completely normal, but very challenging way. The absolute worst was a month or so of 45 min- hourly wakes and split nights. By 7 months she had settled into a fairly regular pattern of 2-hourly wakes at night. Very normal. Also challenging, and ripe for well meaning but ultimately unhelpful "advice" from others as to how to get her to sleep longer.
Wait (insert arbitrary amount of time) before responding
Don't feed her every wake up - it's just a habit now (thanks Judy, want to come settle her back to sleep at 2am without the boob?)
You need to put her on a schedule, she doesn't know what to expect
An (insert age here) baby should be able to sleep (insert number pulled out of their a*se here) without waking
All the advice out there broadly boiled down to one thing really - my parenting approach, i.e., being responsive, was the problem.
What does sleep training actually conflict?
What seemed to be revered in the first few months, the contact napping, the popping out a boob at the drop of a hat, responding to her consistently, was suddenly all not okay anymore. Now I was, apparently, creating and perpetuating bad habits. I was the reason why she wasn't getting better sleep and was so reliant on me. We needed to get sleep training.
^ Contact napping in the early days, when it's "allowed"
Around the same time, I was also planning on returning to my PhD part time and my partner would be caring for her 3 days a week. I worried about what would happen, knowing she only fed to sleep with me or fell asleep in the car or pram, and not wanting him to only have the latter two options. Sleep training seemed to be the solution again.
All the uncertainty and sleep training noise got to me
I lost my way. I let the sleep training "shoulds" and comparison to others and all the external nonsense become louder than and drown out my parenting instincts.
I (tried to) put her on a schedule. I also decided to "break the habit" of feeding to sleep for bedtimes and naps.
I sent my partner in to do bedtime under strict instructions not to pick her up, just to pat her in the cot and make shushing sounds. She cried. A lot. I sat downstairs. Or sometimes on the stairs. Willing myself not to go in. Knowing if I did, I could get her to sleep in 5 minutes. But also that going in was admitting defeat. I convinced myself what we were doing was in her best interest, even though every fibre of my being was clearly telling me it wasn't.
I think she fell asleep with him maybe once or twice out of the handful of days and nights we tried this. And by fell asleep I really mean gave up. Fell asleep out of exhaustion and having not had her needs met. Need for comfort. Hunger for milk. Need for connection.
Thankfully, I snapped out of this in a week or two. I went back to boobing to sleep. Holding her for her naps when she wanted me to. Bed sharing or using the side car cot and feeding throughout the night. Surrendering and simply holding her while she slept in the evenings - which I continued until she grew out of her false starts at around 13 months.
The emotional toll of this sleep training adventure
I gave myself a hard time about it all for quite awhile after though. How could I let external opinions and ideas influence my parenting in such a way that I ignored my baby's needs in hopes they'd just go away? Why was I so determined to get her sleeping in a way that other people found acceptable, even though our way of doing things worked just fine? Even though I knew that if necessary, her dad could put her in the pram or car and get a nap in that way? I honestly think I just let a lot of misinformation and unrealistic expectations get to me. In the very least, I went about introducing new ways to fall asleep in a very different and unnecessarily difficult way (for everyone) than how I would approach it now.
I've forgiven myself for what I call this "brain fart" moment. And I'm certain that the strong and secure attachment we had built leading up to this point, and the repair that has taken place every day since, has buffered the stress she felt for those few days. I don't think I harmed her, so that's not a source of anguish for me. But that doesn't mean I think it was okay to do, either. I let expectations and my own burdens become her burdens and it wasn't a fair thing to do or a respectful way to treat the most important human in the world to me, who also happened to be an infant.
Why I'm thankful for trying sleep training?
There is a silver lining too in that it was a catalyst for me. When I realised how far off track I'd gone with sleep training, completely out of alignment with the parent I knew I wanted to be, it ignited something in me. Not only did it motivate me to delve even deeper into infant development and the science of infant sleep for myself, I felt this calling to take it to others too. To try and prevent other parents from getting stuck in the same traps and feelings of uncertainty that I did, however briefly.
My daughter's a bit over 2 now. Still boobing, although not so much overnight anymore (let me know if you want a blog post on my night weaning story). Still loves a car nap. Sleeps at childcare independently. Sleeps in her own bed anywhere from 2 hours to most of the night, depending. We do what we need to do and whatever works in the now, knowing we can make gentle changes if and when we need to, but never out of fear. She's also curious, brave, and showing more independence every single day. Bed sharing nor her biologically normal waking patterns seem to have ruined her like a lot of people like to fear monger that it will.
I can't guarantee I'll never have doubt again as a parent. In fact I'm certain I will. But I am determined to not let that doubt or the "should's", especially from those it doesn't even affect, compel me to do anything that feels blatantly wrong. Because at the end of the day, I'm the expert on my child and her needs.
Jessica Guy is a certified Infant and Family Sleep Specialist, has an Honours degree in Psychology and is almost completed her Child Development PhD. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her partner and 2 year old daughter. She is available for one to one sleep and wellbeing support here