*Editors note Monique De Villiers has just won Best New Voice 2019 in the South African Parenting Blog Awards which were announced on Saturday 27th July.
I have noticed that sometimes moms forget that every mom’s motherhood journey is unique and special and that everyone experiences phases differently – what works for you might not work for someone else and vice versa. The point I am trying to make is that in everything there are moms who have it easier, there are moms who have it hard and then there are moms who just get none of it… and for us, that was our case with regards to sleep. I decided to write this blogpost not to convince moms to change their minds about sleep training, not to suggest that all babies need to be sleep trained (because that’s not true) and also not to judge moms who have sleep trained because honestly, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I decided to write this blogpost for the mere purpose of education, because I have seen way too many moms “stoned” and judged unfairly (including myself), because of the misconception of sleep training, what it is and what it entails.
WHAT!, WHY?, HOW?
As a newborn Aryan was a dream and the first 2-5 months all he did was sleep (no jokes I got really worried at one point that something was wrong). Sure, we had our ups and our downs but for the better part, he was a good sleeper and had his set routine. We had a set bedtime routine and life was good. What we didn’t know, was that this was the calm before the storm because at about 7-8 months old sleep was no more. Aryan was breastfed and we co-slept and just like many other babies he would fall asleep sucking on my breast and would wake numerous times a night for a feed or some comfort, all which was fine and well. The problem was that by between 12:00 and 02:00 AM he would be up and ready for the day and there was no getting him back to sleep until around 05:00-06:00 AM, right about when we had to get up and start our days. Aryan refused to sleep, despite all my efforts, and it was starting to take a toll on our lives and his. By the time Aryan was 13 months old we’ve had enough – Aryan’s development started to take a serious dip, he was a very unhappy, grumpy little boy and we were exhausted and not the best versions of ourselves, and we knew that drastic steps needed to be taken. I was one of those moms who swore that sleep training was the most selfish, inhumane thing a mother could do to her child, obviously something this mom would NEVER do (Oh the humour of life). After trying EVERYTHING (natural remedies, massages, co-sleeping, not co-sleeping, routines, earlier bedtimes, later bedtimes, changing naptimes, protein at night, no sugar, no tv time, dark room, night lamp, white noise, weighted blanket – if you can think of it we tried it) I were forced to look at the very last option available to us as parents – the forbidden sleep training.
I reluctantly contacted a sleep training consultant and to say I were skeptical is an understatement, but it’s throughout this journey that I learned how quickly we can pass judgements when we have an uneducated opinion, and this is the reason why I chose to write this blog post. The very first thing I wrote down on that paper was “no cry-it-out method” and I made it very clear to our sleep consultant that I would not even consider letting him cry-it-out. She assured me that we would not have to do anything that we are not comfortable with and that we would take it one night at a time. Long story short – after about 2 weeks Aryan slept through for the very first time in months and it would not be the last time. Aryan was a happier, thriving little baby and my husband and I finally felt like human beings again and we could parent again. The atmosphere in our house changed significantly and we were all happier, more loving kinder human beings.
So, what is sleep training ACTUALLY?
I know the very first thought that pops up in a mother’s mind when they hear the term “sleep training” is a mother putting her child in their cot, closing the door and then leaving that poor baby to scream and scream and scream until he/she finally falls asleep and ignoring a mother’s instinct to act on her baby’s cry – this is cruel no doubt about that (in my opinion), but this is NOT what sleep training is! Sleep training is simply a way of teaching your baby to self soothe – to fall asleep on his/her own so that when your baby wakes throughout the night he/she is able to put him/herself back to sleep without a prop. If sleep training is done correctly you find a balance between parental soothing and teaching your baby to self soothe. Some babies develop “sleep crutches” as a newborn, like only falling asleep sucking the breast, when being sung to or when being rocked, which means they become dependent on the crutch to go to sleep and eventually no longer knows how to fall asleep without it. That’s why they cry when they wake up and then need mom and dad to come and either rock them, sing to them or feed them before falling asleep again – they do not know how to self soothe. Sleep training teaches a baby how to self-soothe so that the baby is no longer dependent on the “sleep crutch” to fall asleep but can do so themselves.
Self-soothing is an important milestone to reach and some babies learn it very early on whereas others need some help. Self-soothing entails a baby/child to use self-managed tools in order to settle down to sleep or to calm themselves when they are stressed and irritable. Some babies have “props” to help them self soothe like dummies, a special teddy, doek, etc but my child had none – I were his “prop” and this did not only make sleeping hard but a lot of other things to – like going to school or the park. The term “self soothe’ has gotten a bad reputation because of people’s misunderstanding of it. Self-soothing is however an important life skill and is often not something we inherently know how to do, but something that parents have to teach their children, through lesson and example. Self-soothing is the skill that helps us deal with daily challenges such as traffic jams, a rough day at work or an unexpected challenge thrown our way. It is also the skill that will help your child deal with a disappointment at school, exam stress or when their team loses a match.
Do all babies need to be sleep trained?
No! Well not in my opinion. I know of friends whose babies slept through within the first month and were able to self-soothe. If your baby sleeps well, is happy and you are getting enough rest there is no need for sleep training. I believe sleep training should only be done if it’s an absolute necessity and the bad sleeping habits are affecting your child and you. I also know that there are certain things that you can put in place within the first couple of months of your child’s life that will help establish good sleeping habits from the start, but I will discuss that a bit later on.
At what age can babies be sleep trained?
Most experts recommend sleep training when a baby is between 4-6 months old, because by about 4 months old, they have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings, which are signs that they might be ready for sleep training. It is also said that babies are developmentally ready to self-soothe at 4 months old. However, I would say start the process when you believe you and your baby are ready. There is nothing like maternal instinct. We started when Aryan was 13 months old because I wanted him close to me for the first year of his life. Would it have been easier for both of us if he was a little smaller? I don’t know. Do I regret only sleep training him when it reached a point of desperation? Heck No! I loved co-sleeping, I loved having him fall asleep on my chest, I loved all of those little moments and if I had to choose, I’d do it all over again. All I’m trying to say is the choice is yours, but never before 4 months old. But, isn’t sleep training stressful for babies and doesn’t it destroy the trust between mother and child? No and no.
This brings me to some myths and facts about sleep training. Let’s start off with some myths:
- Sleep training means leaving your baby to “Cry it Out”
This is probably the biggest myth I have encountered. It’s true you get a “cry it out” method of sleep training and it’s very effective (or so I’ve heard), but that’s not all there is to sleep training. In fact, there are many other methods and the method you choose will all be determined by your parenting style and your child’s personality. If you want to you can stay in your child’s room all night long, if that will make you more comfortable or you can even keep your child in your room as long as your child has their own space for sleeping. Almost every method of sleep training a baby or toddler includes some form of checking in and comforting baby or toddler during the transition from wake to sleep process. The key in sleep training is to not physically help the child to fall asleep, but visits and comfort is definitely okay. Sleep training merely gives your baby or toddler the necessary space to learn what it feels like to take control over their bodies and to allow them to fall asleep on their own.
- Sleep training is very stressful for babies
There is NO evidence that sleep training (done right) has any short term or long-term psychological effects on children. For us there were really 2 choices – 1. Let our child cry a little bit for a few nights (and not because he is traumatized, I will get to the crying in a bit) or do nothing and subject ourselves to years of systematic sleep deprivation. Not only that, but we will also then have to face the risk that these poor sleep habits continue into his school years of which there is actual evidence that shows that this could cause obesity, ADHD and other health risks… Which is truly more stressful? Science has proven that sleep training is not dangerous, nor damaging to your child, but that it is in fact more damaging not to sleep train (a child who needs it obviously).
- Your baby will love you less
This is about as true as saying that your baby will love you less when you take away her dummy or force her to sit in a car seat – both of which causes protests and crying. Really!? So, all the cuddles you give your baby, the food you provide, the diapers and clean clothes, playtimes, bath times, kisses, laughter and love are in vain, because of a few nights of crying and protest? No, your baby will always love you as long as you are a loving and attentive parent and in the contrary, you will find that your baby is even happier, more loving and healthier when he/she is sleeping well. Multiple studies have also shown that there are no negative consequences in parent-child bond due to sleep training, in fact, some studies actually show an improvement in security between parent and child following sleep training. If changing your baby’s schedule and creating a new routine over a few days somehow means your baby is not going to love you anymore, then we better start praying for our motherhood journeys right now, because a whole lot of exactly this will be happening, and sure they won’t always like it, but that doesn’t mean that they are suddenly going to stop loving you. If for instance you start giving your child some juice as a treat every now and then and your child suddenly becomes dependent on it, I am sure as a mother you will stop giving the juice because it’s unhealthy to your child. Is your child going to be happy about that? No. Is she going to cry and protest for a couple of days? For sure! Does that make you a bad mom? Heck no! And is she going to love you less? Definitely not! Here is the truth – making changes to any bad habits will be met with some frustration and protest – period.
- Sleep training robs me of special moments such as singing to my child or holding my child at night
This is simply not true. Sleep training does not mean you have to give up activities that you love doing with your child, it just means you need to avoid doing these activities at the time of transition from wake to sleep. You are still welcome to do these activities as part of your child’s night time routine and remember what I said – you start when you believe you and your child are ready.
- Sleep training is not for the benefit of the child but the parent
Not true! Sure, the parents sleep better as well once the child is sleep trained, but nobody benefits more from sleep training than the child itself. Sleep not only affects a child’s mood, but it is also detrimental for a child’s health and development. Pediatric Researchers found that sleep for babies and toddlers is as important as nutrition and exercise. Why? Sleep promotes growth – growth hormones is primarily secreted during deep sleep says Judith Owens. Sleep also helps the heart and a lack of sleep is actually linked to higher levels of diabetes, obesity and even heart disease. Sleep is also important to help beat germs, it reduces injury risk, increases kids’ attention span, and boosts learning. So no, when we decide to sleep train it’s because we have our child’s best interest at heart. Sure, a night of uninterrupted sleep is healthy for parents as well, since parents will then be more likely to be less frustrated, and more focused and involved in their child’s needs throughout the day, but it has so much more benefits for the child.
- Sleep training is a way to get your child to sleep through the night
This is untrue. Nobody really sleeps through the night; we all go through arousals during the night and this is in fact a natural protective mechanism for us all. Even after sleep training, your child will still wake up multiple times each night, the difference is they will now be able to put themselves back to sleep after the awakening, without necessarily waking you or completely waking themselves.
- Nighttime wakings mean your child needs you
This is not always the case. See, a lot of development occurs when your baby sleeps such as motor development, and it is therefore not uncommon for babies to accidentally wake themselves during the night. Unfortunately, parents automatically assume that a waking baby must need something, but those cries could just be them saying “I am tired, I need to go back to sleep, but I don’t know how because I am used to being rocked, fed or sung to sleep.”
- It’s a milestone that my child needs to reach, and he will grow out of it
So why are there so many 5/6-year old’s sleeping in their parents’ beds or needing a parent to lie with them, rock them or sing them to sleep at night? Self-soothing is a skill that needs to be learned. This study has found that sleep difficulties in infancy actually persisted through toddlerhood and into early childhood. The fact is in order to sleep better your child needs to LEARN how to fall asleep by him/herself and if they are already dependent on something to fall asleep, the habit would have to be broken. Sure, they might “outgrow” it eventually, but it could take 6-7 years and the damage would have already been done by the time they are finally able to fall asleep.
- Sleep training is a long process
Depending on your chosen method, sleep training can take as little as 2 nights, but in the end it will all depend on your child’s personality and the surrounding circumstances. The longest I’ve heard that sleep training took was about 2 weeks.
While sleep training can be a lot of things, at least now you have an idea of what it is and what it’s not. As mentioned, I have been on both sides of the fence and when I look back, I don’t regret being on either. Sleep training is not a magical cure to fix all sleep problems, the process is not all sunshine and rainbows and your problems don’t stop once your child is sleep trained – it’s a continuous process. It’s a process that requires a lot of discipline, consistency and sacrifice. In part 2 of my ‘to sleep train or not to sleep train” series, I will discuss some truths about sleep training, pros and cons as well as some of the different methods and last but not least, ways you can create better sleeping habits from the start. Once again, I am not writing to convince anyone about or push anyone into doing sleep training, I am also NOT a sleep training professional, I am simply a mom who has been through the sleep training process who wants to educate other moms and invested a lot of time into researching this topic. If you have any questions – please leave them in the comment box and I will be sure to answer them in part 2.
I could write a whole bunch about myself but instead I will just introduce you to my reason for and inspiration behind this blog. This is Aryan Connor – He is my little wildling. He dances to the beat of his own heart, he is an explorer, a dreamer, and an entertainer of note. His imagination bears no limits. Me? I am just Monique, a 25 year old mom with a passion to write and most importantly – mother of the wildling – who embraced this exciting little adventure with my son called Life.
You can find Monique over on Letters To My Wildling