This week our Podcast comes out on baby sleep - "The baby Sleep Talk". At the time of recording, we just kind of ‘threw’ the mic on and started talking, and as the week has moved forwards I’ve thought perhaps there were parts missing in this story; parts I didn’t reveal, parts of my story that I wanted to be completely transparent and honest about.
Parts that perhaps, you resonate with?
Or parts that give you permission?
Perhaps even parts that flare up some big feelings within you?
If this happens, if you feel something triggered deeply within yourself, I really, honestly, just want to hold your hand and look deeply in your eyes and say “I know, I get it” I get the judgement, I get the shame and the hurt and the disconnection, the guilt and the pain. I get it, because after 4 kids, chances are, I’ve journeyed exactly what you have with one or more of my kids.
So darling mother, even though we have trodden a different path, even though I haven’t yet met you, I know that by virtue of you begin here, you’re who I’d be happy just to sit and gaze deeply upon, while we wile away the hours over a cuppa and share stories of great pain and triumph…as all great mother stories go…and there is nothing like the topic of sleep to take you to pain and triumph....
Summed up by “I had no idea!”
- No one around me had babies, I was the first. The ‘experts’ told me “Feed, Play, Sleep” but I couldn’t work that out because I had no tools for getting him to sleep and no tolerance for tears; they triggered panic and anger for me, so I soothed them at all costs.
- I had no idea how to play with a baby, so I took on the role of entertaining him, no comprehension for how the world alone was stimulating enough, how he was able to entertain himself by simply being in the world and learning his body. I didn’t know how to watch him exploring and enjoy it without making myself part of it. I only knew how to engage, encourage and interact WITH him, hence interrupting his own quiet play and learning, because that’s what a ‘good mother’ does right? She engages with her child….she doesn't 'ignore' him...
- I didn’t know how to read tired signs and didn’t really appreciate how tired he got, how quickly, how stimulating just taking in the world was. So I missed his tired signs, which meant by the time it came to sleep, it was usually a disaster! He was overtired, strung out, and screaming and I ended up stressed and frustrated and scrambling to find what to do to ‘fix’ it, or him, or me…it was a red hot mess!
- I had no routine. If he slept in, I slept in. There was no real night time routine and with a husband who got home at 7pm, I’d often wait for him for dinner and interaction time, which of course, was not what worked best for a baby. It took me about 6 months to get any sort of consistent wake up and go to sleep time.
- With an overtired baby, I’d try to get him into his cot with no luck. I’d spend what seemed like hours rocking, patting and “shushing”, vigilant to never look him in the eyes, lest he engage with me and not go to sleep…which is what all the ‘experts’ said.
- When I had reached the end of my tether with settling, I’d ‘resort’ to feeding to sleep (because that’s how it was approached, as a kind of ‘cop out’), feeling like I’d failed, but feeling desperate to make the crying stop and the baby sleep.
- Feeding and/or vigorous, disconnected, rocking is usually what transpired, followed by trying to transfer him to his cot, which was a nightmare! He’d often wake up as soon as I moved and then I’d be back to square one, trying desperately to get him back to sleep! I think I still carry stress from this experience!
- I never left him to go to sleep on his own. I would rock/pat/shush until he was fast asleep and then I'd creep out...praying not to creek a floorboard or he would spring awake again!
- I fought co-sleeping because I didn't know how and I didn’t want to do it forever. All the voices around me said “you’ll make a rod for your own back…” Often though, it was my go-to when I was struggling to get him to sleep and he was waking frequently in the night. In desperation I’d ‘give in’ feeling like I’d failed, like I was missing something everyone else had, like I wasn’t measuring up as a mum, but at the same time wishing I could let all those feelings go, because it was how we both slept better.
- I would literally wait outside his door at the 35 minute mark, ready to ‘strike’ and jump in and pat and shush when he stirred at the first sleep cycle interval, desperate to get him back to sleep and through to another sleep cycle, because every expert told me that if I didn’t do this, he’d never learn to sleep longer than 40 minutes.
- I was so full of fear. Fear of doing ‘this’ or ‘that’. Fear of fucking him up. Fear of getting ‘it’ wrong. Fearful that if I didn’t follow these ‘rules’ he’d never sleep well…ever. It was crushing.
- I had no toolkit for tears, aside from feeding, I had no sleep cues aside from a sleeping bag, so I couldn’t get him to sleep in the pram and the cot was a lengthy process.
- I wasn’t ok with leaving him to cry on his own and I wasn’t totally comfortable with full attachment parenting, so I was left in no-mans-land: control cry and strict routine or ‘fuck him up’ and have a dependant child.
That was what my options felt like. It was a hard, heart-hurting, soul-torturing place to be, but because of my internal battle it forced me to search and find ‘my people’ and my ‘voice’ as a mother. I found natural parenting and as I bathed in its philosophical underpinnings my guilt and my internal conflict was soothed. I felt like I was given permission and freedom to leave the ‘shadows’ of the deep dark forest of internal conflict.
Summed up by “a healing, luscious, love-bomb”
- In direct opposition to my first experience, fiercely ready to “undo” the pain and torment both he and I went through, now armed with a tribe of women I felt at home with, I consciously CHOSE my parenting path, and it was hyper-attachment.
- I breastfed for everything! Every need, every whimper, every hurt...and every sleep.
- I desperately didn’t want her to feel abandoned (as I perceived that’s what I had ‘done to’ my first) so I co-slept with her and wore her for every single sleep.
- If you asked me, I had a plethora of reasons why kids left to sleep on their own, left to cry, left at care, left with anyone other than mum, were emotionally hurt. But it was my hurt I was feeling into; the hurt from my own childhood, the hurt from my first born that I’d as yet not healed.
By holding onto this hurt, I held myself to a very high (mostly unachievable) standard of parenting. I poured every bit of my time, love and learning into parenting, desperately seeking to ‘prove’ my way to the ‘doubters’ around me (which was really just to myself), and desperately seeking to undo my past and pave the way for my child to thrive on my ‘perfect parenting’.
- Any time I fell short of that perfect attachment, meeting-all-needs-mother-benchmark I was all too quick to judge myself (as harshly as I judged those around me) and begin a downward spiral of self-flagellation that would rival an Olympic sport.
- I no longer valued independent sleep. I had all the research and all the experts ‘behind me’ to prove why it was so important I parent this way, why my self-sacrifice was justified and why everyone else who wasn’t willing to give up everything of themselves for their children, was selfish.
In reality, I had no other voice around me. I was hurting and I had turned my back on ‘mainstream’, I had only the voices of those who chose, and supported, my opinions on attachment parenting. I didn’t want to know any other way to be. I didn’t know how to respectfully and connectedly foster independent sleep (even if a tiny part of me wanted it) and after my first experience, snuggling in bed with her for hours on end, felt more like an enjoyable, loved up (possibly infatuated) guilty pleasure, only without the guilt!
I loved it for a really long time….until I didn’t. Nothing’s a problem till it’s a problem for you, right?
- As me and my boobs were her only way of going to sleep, no one else could put her to sleep, which on some level I felt validated by…she needed me and I liked it. After many, many, months of intense attachment I was spent, but neither her, nor I, knew how to change and once again I felt trapped.
- When I had feelings of being ‘touched-out and saturated’ to the point of burn out, in came my inner critic and I felt deep shame. I cast myself as ‘selfish’, convinced I wasn’t measuring up as the all loving, nurturing mother, I craved…for myself.
- Much like my eldest, she too woke every 45 minutes, but this time I gave myself permission to just go with it! Eliminating the stress of resettling was so freeing! And unlike what all the 'experts' had told me, it never affected her ability to sleep longer when she was down to one day sleep and sleeping through the night.
- I’ve never been one to function around a baby-schedule, it felt like another cage . With energetic older kids, I’ve always found it easier (for my mental space) to function my life around their energy and needs, and fit a baby around that.
As a sling-baby, I was able to function entirely around the needs of my highly energetic first born, as we never had to be home for sleep and she could sleep anywhere.
- The added benefit of fitting around an older sibling was that she ‘fell into’ a wake/sleep rhythm almost straight away. She woke, or was woken, by 7am most days after which we’d have breakfast and I’d take them both to the beach for a run, and so our day would move in rhythm to a toddler. We were having dinner by 6pm and after bath/play/stories they were both ready for bed by 7pm.
This also shocked me and awakened me to the prospect that babies, like children, do really well on regular, predictable, rhythm…I just don’t think it has to be unflexible routine.
- As she neared age one, I was becoming dissatisfied with our night waking. After lamenting at our Natural Parenting Playgroup, the leader inspired me to learn and integrate Aware Parenting, Playful Parenting and Non-Violent Communication styles into my parenting.
This came at exactly the right time for me; I was lost in tantrum, tears and anger without a toolkit to deal with them and this seemed to have the missing link for me that Attachment Parenting didn’t offer.
I studied, I read every book and blog, I attended every event and workshop I could, which now I look back, was amazing. Back then, 10-12 years ago, I had several in-person experiences with some of the pioneers in Natural Parenting we see today; Pinky McKay, Aletha Salter, Steve Biddulph, Lawrence Cohen, Sarah Buckley, Rhea Dempsey and nearly every other prominent voice on parenting.
- With this new insight into how to hold space beyond breastfeeding, I moved my daughter, slowly, into her own room and into sleeping through the night.
My second showed me that nothing is permanent and everything is a phase. It literally doesn't matter what you do - because I did "ALL the wrong things" and still had a toddler who slept the whole night through on her own, in her own bed, in her own room, without any stress, tears or fears.
The moral I took from her experience was:
- so long as you feel good and it's working for you, keep doing it!
- As soon as it stops working for you, and the pain of the current situation is bigger than the pain of fearing or resisting the change you need to make, you can change anything!
- Don't be in service to your detriment. A martyre doesn't serve anyone, least of all herself and her relationship.
Summed up by “busting my infatuation, opening up new levels of love”
- My third was to be my last and I planned on thoroughly relishing every single phase, immersing myself in it, before it left, never to be experienced again.
I planned a sacred homebirth, a baby moon and to co-sleep…only to be completely shocked by a baby who would not settle at all lying next to me!
After 3 completely sleepless nights, my midwife gently suggested “perhaps she likes her own space?”. With a reluctant heart that grieved ‘my perfect way’, that forced me to face attachment that went beyond the physical, that night I placed her in her cot at the end of our bed, and she slept!
It was like being ‘hit by’ a miracle.
- My third showed me that it was entirely possible to have a super-attached, loved up baby who really, and honestly, just LIKED sleeping in a cot, on her own. It was where she got the most rest and rejuvenation…and what I found is that I did too! I slept deeper and longer and felt better the next day.
Now I understood, and stopped judging, all those mothers that said "I just can't" or "I don't sleep well".
- I avoided feeding to sleep and consciously fed her less, more inclined to cry-listen to all big feelings, rather than ‘dummy them up’ with my breast. She was my Aware Parented baby. She showed me how to really listen to a young baby, how to listen to myself and how to hold space.
I found myself in another hard and fast belief pattern; that if I gave her the breast over listening to uncomfortable feelings, I’d be repressing what needed to be expressed, which would simply wreak havoc later on and have detrimental long-term effects.
- By the time she came into being, I had two school aged children, so we were well and truly immersed in routine, predictable patterns, 5pm dinner and 7pm lights out. Consequently, she too functioned around her siblings, which meant she formed a wake/sleep cycle pretty early on and whilst it wasn’t always a perfect system, and didn’t always work, she was ‘expected’ to fit around the needs of older kids…so she did (and still does).
- One day I she was tired, I was super busy and instead of the usual bedtime wind-down routine, I got her ready for bed, said "slept time" and walked out of the room to get shit done. To my absolute surprise she put herself to sleep! I'd heard about these mysterious kids who don't need help to go to sleep, but up until this point I was convinced it was because they were 'damaged' and conditioned to "not bother calling out for mum, because she's never coming", which broke my heart to even contemplate. I was sure going to sleep on their own was the direct result of 'learned helplessness' from controlled crying.
Yet her she was, my greatest teacher, my THIRD child, showing me what an illusion I was running.
She was my first child that I lent into my feelings of discomfort around a "grizzle". The slightest whimper, whine, call out, or tired 'chatter' would send me into an emotional flurry of anxiety. It was incredibly difficult to stay in these feelings even for a breath, but over time I persisted. I didn't do anything except sit with myself when she was going to sleep. I constantly checked-in wth myself "am I ok with this?" and if at any point I wasn't, I'd go in to her and resettle with a pick up and cuddle.
What happened though was that I got more and more comfortable with these noises, I widened my window of tolerance for the emotional triggers they brought up and we went from me putting her to sleep, to me getting her ready for bed and her putting herself to sleep. It was a revelation to me.
- She slept beautifully until 5 months old, when she went through the ‘sleep regression phase’ and as I got more and more tired, I fed her more and more, until one day I woke up to realise I was feeding her every 45 minutes through the night and I was exhausted! I couldn’t sustain it.
I was a tired blubbering mess as I admitted over coffee that morning that I was spent, I was ‘done’, I literally couldn’t do it anymore. That night, feeling exhausted but resolved to listen to tears over feeding, she didn’t wake up! Talk about congruence.
That was it for me, that was my ‘sign’. Over the next two weeks I decided to cry-listen over feed. I never left her. She never cried on her own at night. I was always there to listen and hold her while she ‘told me’ about how she was feeling about this change, and by 10 months old she was sleeping through the night.
- As a very high-needs baby, she ‘pushed’ my beliefs on attachment so far that, in a way, she ‘forced’ me to ‘pull back’ because I had nothing left to give. She taught me how to bring others into her care and how deep my need was to replenish and care for myself, in order to show up for her in the best way possible.
She helped me find my selfishness within my selflessness, which led on to busting beliefs and judgements I’d held about ‘the right way to parent’ and on mothers who were ‘selfish’. She helped me heal my mother wound.
- She opened me up to the wisdom of ALL the mothers around me, not just the ones I considered ‘worthy’. All of a sudden, as if someone had lifted a veil, I saw what was always there and yet I had never seen; I saw mothers who loved their children just as deeply as I did. Mothers who showed their love and care in equally valuable and yet different ways to me. Mothers who were genuinely having fun by taking parenting far less seriously and not carrying the baggage I had attached to it.
Summed up by “bliss and congruence”
- Number 4 was my biggest shock. Completely unexpected, it took me nearly the whole nine months to get ‘on board’. In this time, what I feared most was the loss of sleep. I feared the pure exhaustion that came with sleeplessness and I feared the endless hours of settling. This time I wanted a baby who would sleep in a cot and I was equally as scared that perhaps she wouldn't!
- As my third had opened me up to the genius of all the mothers around me, I had witnessed a great deal of ‘mainstream’ mothers with their babies and realised there was actually quite a lot I liked and that was OK!
- Now unencumbered by my fear of selfishness, I was ready to say “I still need me”.
- Ready to have a ‘portable’ baby who didn’t always need me to sleep, I was prepared to fully utilise every sleep cue I could.
- I had enough wisdom and experience to reframe:
§ Attachment parenting being the only way to have solidly attached and connected children
§ Routine spelling the end of intuitive parenting and on being ‘child led’
§ Suppressed or soothed tears being all about repression
§ Control patterns being a bad thing
§ Every time I made a ‘non-natural-parenting’ choice that I was fucking my kids up
- So, like my first I followed “feed, play, sleep” so breastfeeding didn’t become a sleep cue. Like my second I cuddled and cooed and focused on attunement and attachment. Like my third she slept in a cot and I listened to tears.
But this time as sleep cues I used:
§ A dummy (until she would no longer take it which was around 3 months old)
§ A swaddle early on and a sleeping bag as she got older
§ A white noise machine, I used the waves sound, which I played for every single sleep (yes, even right through the night)
§ A toy or blanket to snuggle, which she likes having on her cheek
§ A short sway/rock to initiate the cue of “sleep time”, which always means a period of tears, although for her its more like 1-5 minutes before she’s ready to be placed down and given her toy/blanket
§ Put her in her cot or pram before she’s asleep, once I’m feeling congruent and confident that she’ll ‘be fine’ and it will feel good for her (I focused on the feeling within me of flopping on a much-awaited soft bed)
- Unlike my others, this time at 4 months old I moved her into her own room. I chose this because I realised I had no space that was just mine, just about us as a couple, and I was feeling 'dampened' and unable to open up to myself or my husband. 'It' was no longer working. Plus, she was in a cot and my getting up to feed her and put her back down, could absolutely be done from the room next door. So I moved her and she slept just the same, the difference was I had extra freedom.
In making this choice, I chose 'me' and even though way back when I would have judged me and my choice, this time I didn't. This time I knew more than I knew back then, that my lusciousness mattered and my children would beat to the drum of my inner state. My serving me first (not last), meant everyone was served 'first' and no one had the scraps left over.
- My fourth is now 6 months old. She wakes 1-2 times a night from 7pm-7am, but is unpredictable on the times. I still carry a fear that tonight I'll be up settling if she wakes more than twice, wakes before midnight, or wakes in under 3 hours...and even though SHE is far easier to settle than any of my others, I feel the creeping anxiety of all my past experiences stacked up when I walk towards her room. I still parent myself every. single. time.
- She is extremely portable, sleeping just about anywhere as long as we have her sleep cues.
- Sometimes she'll sleep 45 minutes and sometimes she'll sleep for 2-3 hours. The point is, now I know not to sweat it. Now I don't make it mean anything. Now i know how to stay in a loved up state with her, how to ask for time out if it's getting to much and that really its just the difference of 2-3 naps in the day. Now I know how to follow her tired signs and how to put her to sleep, the stress has gone. Plus, now I don't judge myself, if she's crying and it isn't working...well, she's crying and I know how to 'stay there' until 'it' passes (which it will) and to 'wait it out' until she does go to sleep, which at some point she will.
- She LOVES being in her cot and I adore her sleepy noises - the 'wind down noises' are now my best friend and one of the easiest tired signs she has!
She'll happily play in her cot and fall asleep, or wake up and play before she needs us to come and get her. She's genuinely a connected, content, cot sleeper. Trust me, I know, I never believed they existed either....but they do...
- Anyone can put her to sleep if they follow the cues, it doesn’t have to be me.
- With her sleep cues in place, I rarely have to settle her. Her entire “got to bed” routine takes 1-5 minutes. It's actually enjoyable! Who knew that was possible?!
I actually LOVE putting her to bed, the intense connection, eye contact, and cuddle time we have in that 1-5 minutes is really something I cherish.
- I still find her ability to go to sleep, and stay asleep, astounding. It’s still a total revelation to me, every single time she sleeps.
I’m in wide-eyed awe of what I had missed with all my other kids;
o that a baby is a soul, ready to learn and ready to teach
o that what I had assumed was my responsibility to ‘do for them’, actually deprives them of the opportunity to do it for themselves
I really wish I knew me now, back then. Back when I was starting out and couldn’t find the answers, back when there were no FB groups or podcasts and I thought I had to be “X” in order to do and be the best for my kids.
I wish I had had someone tell me:
“There’s this whole area of grey between black and white! You don’t have to choose between the two!”
No matter what you choose, if you are all one way, you are creating a cage for yourself. The freedom and joy you desire exists in the middle, at a fluid intersection between the two poles.
The judgement you feel towards yourself and others, is completely self-imposed and calling you to heal, to balance your 'black and white' perceptions and to love more wholly.
It is ok to own the fact that you have needs, beyond those of your child.
That in fact, these needs are necessary to your growth and your ability to foster attachment and presence during your day in a meaningful way.
That pleasure in motherhood is dependent upon a unique blend of head, heart and community. When you choose one; head or heart, you’re being ‘sold’ a lie and when you close yourself off to the love that does exist around you, motherhood is isolating and lonely.
That you are not defined by what your child does or does not do.
That your unfolding is never separate to theirs.
If being all attachment and everything to this one person, or all routine and bound to home for fear of not being able to get your baby to sleep elsewhere or cope if they don’t go to sleep produces anxiety in you…then I feel you. I get it.
I’ve been both and what I can tell you is there is a WHOLE spectrum in the middle! You literally can have your cake and eat it too.
You can have rhythm, instead of routine, and have the flexibility to go where you want to and do what you want to.
You can have connection that respects the needs of self (for us and them) and you can have love that is intense and vast and is still built on a foundation of strong attachment.
I wish someone had showed me that.
I wished someone had given me permission to follow my heart, but not at the expense of my soul.
I wish someone had expressed to me the benefits and the drawbacks to each and every way of parenting.
I wish someone had let me glimpse the hearts of mothers all around me, mainstream and alternative, who were all hurting, all unsure what they were doing, and all running an anxiety story of some sort that formed the basis of their choices.
I wish I had someone around me to help ‘de-code’ my suffering, without shame.
I wish I had. But then, I likely wouldn’t have heard the advice anyway. I wasn’t ready. I had so many layers of hurt and mother-wounding and belief to wade through.
Perhaps this whole blog is more a letter to myself than help to you, but what I can tell you is this:
With each layer of my own story I shed, I saw my kids more clearly and I found pleasure at the heart of parenting, not pain.
Find a tribe who hold your heart, but also challenge your story.
Surround yourself with the women who you want to be like and absorb their wisdom, for wisdom is not easily won.
Wisdom requires pain and a hard-trodden path through the ‘muck’ to find the answers. Absorb. Learn. And listen. Listen even when it hurts. Listen especially when it hurts. Listen to the breath of love, sometimes if sounds like pain, but pain is just a disguise for deeper connection, deeper knowing and unbounded loving. Go there...and find sleep.
If you're ready to delve into your own triggers and dynamics to expand both your own capacity and change what's possible in your family, then please check out our online program Loathing to Loving - 5 weeks, 3 times a year, you go online with us to workshop through your life, your challenges and your dynamics.
You may also be interested in our Transitions Toolkit, a downloadable eBook for dealing with all sorts of beginnings and endings with your children.
Julie Tenner is Co-founder of Nourishing The Mother and is The Pleasure Nutritionist. Julie is a Naturopath, specialising in women’s and children's health, with specific focus on awakening women to their full potential – health for the mind, body and soul – creating lasting life change for you and your family by “coming home” to your magnificence.