Every sleep consultant and coach has a story that goes something like this:
My first born was a terrible sleeper. I tried everything the doctor and my mom suggested, but they didn’t help. I read all the books and decided I could help other people help their babies sleep too. I obtained a sleep certification (or didn’t) and now I get to help families with their sleep challenges!
I wish my story was as simple. I didn’t read any books, they were overwhelming and very clinical. Looking at a gigantic book with loads of chapters and advice, skimming through I knew I was too tired to focus. Plus, one page I stopped at said my newborn should be eating every three hours. Three hours?? My baby never left my breast. Reading this caused me anxiety and had me judging myself as a new mom immediately. I pushed the thoughts away and continued as I had been, feeding on demand. Breastfeeding was already a difficult task in itself, but I’m glad my instincts were working that day. We had had latching issues from the start, like so many parents do. Breast compressions, bleeding nipples, and no sleep was life. I wasn’t sure I would survive the first year of parenthood. Our breastfeeding relationship was never one I could sit back and enjoy.
No sleep is an understatement. My experience showed me that not sleeping and breastfeeding difficulties seemed to go hand in hand. I remember one night for 6 hours, my daughter and I had a staring contest. She wouldn’t settle and wanted to be held. She was content close to me, but laying her down beside me or away from me – all bets were off.
I was that mom who could never put her baby down. When I hear the words “your baby must sleep alone, in a cot, on their back, follow the ABCs of safe sleep” I shake my head. This was not such a simple task for me and my hungry girl. I wish I had received realistic advice on what to do when the safe way seemed impossible.
Fast forward to her fourth month of life. My daughter was growing more beautiful, hitting all of the development milestones as well, and there I was wilting like old lettuce. I felt sad all the time, isolated at home in the winter months. Plus, I was angry, so angry. I could not get my baby to sleep unless she was in my arms, happy and breastfeeding. I turned to my husband and told him I needed to see my doctor.
My doctor told me this wasn’t my fault, and that I would feel better in time. My mental health was always shaky, but now it was threatening to collapse. I followed my doctor’s orders and by the time my daughter was 6 months, I felt less angry. The haze of exhaustion was at its peak though. I was up many times in the night, nursing my baby back to sleep. At last she was now laying on her back without too much fuss – in the crib! I don’t know how I pulled that off, but I knew we were both still so exhausted. I didn’t see a way to manage this alone.
My husband came home from work one evening. He told me that his co-worker hired a sleep consultant and now their baby is sleeping through the night! Through the night? My eyes bulged out of my head. I am not sure I could fathom such an experience as a solid night of sleep. But what the hell was a sleep consultant?? I had never heard of such a thing. I didn’t go online to look. My husband looked at me and said we need to make an appointment. The worry about our health was too great. Besides, the consultant came recommended and the baby figured it out fast.
Figure what out? I pondered.
Curious to see what this sleep professional had to say, I called her. I told her what was going on, and she told me that it wasn’t a problem. She would come over, observe bedtime then make recommendations. In three nights my daughter would be sleeping on her own. There will be crying, she warned. I couldn’t have prepared myself for the amount of crying both my daughter and I were about to embark on.
The sleep consultant came over and observed our bedtime routine. The one routine that had been in place for as long as I could recall. I went through the motions of breastfeeding her to sleep, laying her down and leaving the room. Then waiting for 32-minutes to pass when she would be up, awake and crying for me to nurse her back to sleep.
“Your daughter has an association with breastfeeding. She expects it to fall asleep and back to sleep during the night.” The consultant said this without blinking. Making a note in her book. “Right,” I said, already knowing this was, in fact, happening. The sleep consultant stated that we need to lay her down tomorrow night awake at bedtime. We could only go in to her at certain timed intervals, no matter what. If she stops crying at any point the clock resets.
We were to do this, avoiding breastfeeding, until she fell asleep, and then again when she woke up at any point in the night. “She’s six months and, you know, babies don’t need to eat during the night when they turn six months,” the consultant said.
Insert eye-roll here. The things I wish I knew then…
She gave me a schedule to follow during the day, and told me that I would be using the same method for all her naps. The consultant warned me not to pick my baby up. Not to make eye contact. Not to show emotion. Basically, she told me to be void of any love and caring a parent would want to give to their baby.
I had no clue how this was going to play out, but I felt I didn’t have any other options. She certainly didn’t give me any other options to choose from while working with her. Plus, this woman was a professional! She came with a recommendation! She must know what she is doing.
Night One: Bedtime routine went well as usual, but this time my daughter was going into the crib wide awake. My husband was on duty to do the checks at the prescribed intervals. I learned later that this was the infamous Ferber Method. The quickest way to get a baby to “self-soothe” (more eye-rolls and shoulda, coulda, woulda moments).
The first night it took over two, crying-infused hours for our little one to fall into an exhausted heap. I rocked myself and cried on the bed holding myself back from running in there and scooping her up. This went against everything I wanted for my baby. I reminded myself that at least Dad was going in there to remind her we are still around. It didn’t make me feel any better.
At 2 am, I woke in a panic to my daughter’s screaming, not crying now, screaming. I sent my husband in, deciding this was not the time to start a stopwatch. The crying and ins and outs went on for 40 minutes, finally she fell back to sleep. I wanted to comfort her, and nurse her, but I didn’t want to disobey the orders I had received. This plan was not made to be flexible. We started the day at around 6:45 am, and I won’t get into how the naps went. They were short of course, I didn’t expect anything more!
Night Two: Bedtime routine, I laid my baby down awake, cue the crying. Another two hours of it. I messaged the consultant to talk about the length of time it took to fall asleep on night two. She was neither concerned nor supportive. She didn’t even ask me how naps were or if I offered an earlier bedtime.
She stated I need to keep going, and don’t mess with the 7:00 pm bedtime she had outlined in the plan. I was not convinced that this is what I should be doing but I was not strong enough to do anything else. I woke in the morning to realize that my daughter didn’t wake in the night. [Not because we had success, but because she was so exhausted from crying her little eyes out without me.
Night 3-7: What can I say, each night was the same as the last. It had been a week with no improvement. Two hours of screaming each night. My consultant kept saying it will change, you have to wait. Then her tune changed and she recommended that my husband not go into her room at all. At all? How does that help? Won’t that make things worse? I should start going in there, I exclaimed.
“You will ruin everything if you go in there!”, the consultant said matter of factly. And with that, our support had ended. We were left with this new, even more frightening option known as CIO, extinction, and/or cry-it-out. Some families raved that this method was a life-saver for them, while some families frowned upon the idea of it at all. What other options were there? I didn’t want to ruin everything. I was utterly distressed and so was my baby.
Needless to say the crying didn’t let up – and it continued for the next 2 months, every night, like clockwork. I did what I was told, because I didn’t know any better and there was always that niggling fear that I would cause more harm than good. The situation left me depressed and feeling like I couldn’t trust anyone. At some point during those two months, I shook myself out and looked at myself – wondering how I could do this to my own baby.
One night, my husband was out, my daughter was crying in the crib, and I snapped. Snapped in a good way – I went to her and picked her up and nursed her to calm. Once again, I was beating myself up inside for not doing this earlier, perhaps taking an approach that was less harsh. Was I not the one who encouraged the feed to sleep association after all?
There must be something better than this.
I put my daughter back in the crib awake, she fell asleep peacefully this time. Still railing at all of the months of upset, I thought about what possibilities could be the cause of all these tears. The consultant never said anything but be sure she goes to bed the same time each night. Could that be the problem? Her naps were still short, and she did always seem grumbly at least 45 minutes before her prescribed bedtime.
This is where the seeds were planted. I don’t think a day went by after that night where I wasn’t researching, digging, experimenting, trying to fine tune my daughter’s day so she would be happier come bedtime. Timing is everything, I soon discovered. Maybe not for all babies, but most certainly for my little one.
When my second child was born two years later, I knew what I had to do, and was ready this time. My mind was focused on bonding, enjoying and worrying less in those early days. When the nights were difficult, I supported and reassured my baby at every age and stage. By 6 months, he was falling asleep on his own. I offered him night feeds until he was a year old, he was still able to sleep independently. I understood his unique sleep needs, which helped improve naps and bedtime. My sister-in-law told me back then that I should help families with babies for a living. I laughed, but unbeknownst to me, the roots had already taken place.
Fast forward a little and I finished my first sleep consultant certification in 2016, making it my business to ensure families knew there were options. That they could make changes using responsive and sensitive techniques.
Today, I still have deep regrets about depending on CIO to make things better. I look at my daughter and wonder if she suffered any trauma from actions which I feel bordered on neglect. There is no evidence to suggest that CIO is completely safe and trauma-free, and I would bet everything that it isn’t. Babies are humans, communicating to their caregivers. If we don’t respond when we know they are in stress, how can we say that they will be okay and unaffected? Babies are not born with mature self-regulating skills at birth, we as co-regulators need to respond, and it is okay to respond.
So, what is the point of sharing something this personal? Behind flashy marketing, and promises of a full night of sleep, you should ask yourself one question before hiring a sleep consultant: Does this person I am about to hire give a damn about my mental health and well-being? New parents are so strong, they have to be. But they can become desperate when sleep deprivation truly sets in. Don’t let anyone cast off your deep-rooted parental intuition. Follow it.