There are few things that polarise a group of mothers like the two little words ‘sleep school’.
When my first daughter was six months old she started waking every hour during the night. All night, every night.
"She has reflux," we told ourselves. She didn’t. "She must have a cold," we thought next. Then, "She’s teething."
When she still kept waking we tried blacking-out the room, playing music, giving her the dummy, taking the dummy away. And on it went for months.
When I was so tired that I spent all day crying and even started hallucinating from exhaustion, I began to think about sleep school.
The responses from my mother friends ranged from "sleep school saved my life" to "it’s child abuse" to "it can cause autism", with little in between.
One mother begged me not to go to sleep school. She said that Violet would come back a different child.
She was right, as my daughter did become a different child. She became a child who slept. And because she slept well she fed better, she played better, and I started to smile again.
My only regret about going to sleep school was that I didn’t do it sooner. Having learned from experience, last week I took my four-month-old daughter, Ivy, to sleep school so she could learn to sleep before things went down hill as they did with Violet.
But the myths about sleep school persist nevertheless. Having been to sleep school twice I’m happy to be able to bust them.
Myth 1: Sleep school is selfish
"Can’t you just stick it out for a few more months for the sake of your baby?" was the advice of a maternal and child health nurse. Her rather unsubtle message was that if I really loved my baby, I’d just put up with the debilitating sleep deprivation.
All the people who suggested I shouldn’t get help had two things in common: 1) they had never experienced such extreme or prolonged sleep deprivation themselves, and 2) they weren’t offering to come around to my place in the middle of the night to assist.
The bizarre reasoning here is that ‘she who does it toughest is the better mother’. This attitude actively discourages mothers from getting help, even when they so desperately and obviously need it.
It’s ridiculous to think that we can separate a baby’s needs from the mother’s wellbeing. We are so interconnected that by looking after ourselves - fitting our own oxygen masks first - we are also helping our babies.
Myth 2: Your baby is just not ready to sleep for longer blocks of time
Babies need to learn to do almost everything, from suckling to walking and talking. Sleep is no different.
Being able to go to sleep and self-settle is a skill that needs to be learned just like any other. Some babies master it with little support, while other babies need more help.
There are many older children and some adults who haven’t been able to master this skill on their own, yet we expect babies to do so.
Providing an opportunity for your baby to learn the skill of sleeping is a life-long gift.
Myth 3: They just let your baby cry
This is one of the most common myths: that babies are just shut away in a cell and heartlessly abandoned to cry themselves to sleep, creating all kinds of psychological damage.
Yes, babies do cry at sleep school, but it’s not cruel or negligent. Often they’re crying because they’re over-tired or frustrated. Babies are carefully and lovingly monitored by the staff and the mothers so that they’re given the opportunity to learn how to self-soothe on their own, but are not allowed to get really distressed.
One of the most empowering things I learned at sleep school was to tell the difference between cries. And there is a world of difference between neglect and giving my baby an opportunity to work something out for herself.
As a psychologist pointed out to me the first time round, there’s more potential for harm in long periods of sleeplessness than a little spell of crying in a nurturing environment.
Myth 4: They take your baby off you and you have no control over what happens
Sleep school is a partnership between the baby, the parents, specialist nurses, doctors and psychologists. The staff supported and educated me, as well as my daughters, to learn new approaches that foster sleep.
They certainly pointed out things I was doing which were counter-productive, but not once did I feel like I wasn’t being listened to or that I didn’t have the ultimate say over what was happening to my baby.
And if you really don’t like what’s going on, you can just leave at any time.
Myth 5: You’ve failed
What sort of mother am I if I need so much help? With my first daughter, sleep school was a symbol of how clueless I was as a mother. How crap must I be if I can’t even get my own baby to go to sleep?
With my second daughter my thinking was completely different: there’s no prize for doing it the hard way.
Kasey Edwards is a writer and bestselling author. See more at www.kaseyedwards.com.