Are 'sleep schools' like Tresillian the miracle cure for babies who refuse to sleep?

Jasmine and Leo.
Jasmine and Leo. Photo: Supplied

Jasmine Glover had certainly tried everything in the baby book. Here she was, 41 years old, an experienced public servant. Amazingly capable, with an equally capable mother on hand to help out.

But they just couldn't - could not - get baby Leo to sleep.

Glover had taken Leo out of swaddling just over Christmas. Then whatever good sleeping patterns he had established went straight out the window. And so did Glover's sanity.

Kelly Cheung and Ava, 5.
Kelly Cheung and Ava, 5.  Photo: Supplied

"Everything that I was trying wasn't working. I was too anxious and too overwhelmed to make the changes.

"We were in such a bad sleeping position and it spiralled out of control. I never settled on one firm way of settling him.

"I couldn't ever put him down. The last six weeks to eight weeks before sleep school were terrible."

He'd cry. She'd cry.

She rang Masada, a sleep school, begging to be taken in early. They finally took her in. Leo was six and a half months old and she hadn't had more than an hour or two of sleep in a row for what seemed like forever.

There was good news for Jasmine and Leo though.

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The staff at Masada gave her some confidence in dealing with the baby. She learned to tell the difference between a grizzle and a cry. Now he is sleeping, goodness, 11 or 12 hours a night, plus two naps during the day of two hours each.

You've read all the baby books. You've talked to your mum. Your friends from mothers' group have given you their tips. Then the baby arrives. And you have no freaking idea.

Crying. Not sleeping. More crying. More not sleeping. You look in the mirror and all you see is a zombie face. You can't actually remember why you wanted to have this little baby in the first place.

Kelly Cheung and Ava, 5.
Kelly Cheung and Ava, 5.  Photo: Supplied

The theory of being a mother could not be more different from the reality of being a mother. At six weeks, you are exhausted. At eight weeks, you wonder whether your nipples will survive. At 10 weeks, you are pretty sure you don't even love your baby. By 12 weeks, you are crying almost every time your baby cries. That's nearly all day, every day.

And some kind friend, or maybe your GP, or maybe your mum, suggests you get help. Real help.

They might mention Karitane. Or Tresillian. Or Masada. Somewhere to stop you from feeling the way you do.

"Ava cried all the time. All the time. Other babies were happy and smiling and she was always crying. 

"She was one of those refluxy babies and she'd have a feed and then vomit it back over both of us."

Ava cried between 12 and 15 hours a day. Every day.

The best thing for Kelly Cheung, mother of that crying refluxy Ava, now five, was going in to Tresillian and seeing that there were so many others who felt just like she did. Her Facebook feed was filled with smiling babies, peaceful mothers.

"I found Tresillian to be useful for me because I could see other women struggling. We weren't the only ones in this situation."

What actually are those places like Tresillian, Karitane and Masada? Places you can live with your baby for a few days and get real, practical advice.

They are mostly described as "sleep schools" but these days, they are so much more. Most not only have expert mothercraft nurses but a whole range of services to help you get your self and your baby sorted. Paediatricians, psychologists, nutritionists.

There is a boarding cost for the parent/s which includes the accommodation and food and that's around $40 a day but may vary from place to place. The baby is admitted either under Medicare or under private health insurance. And in most instances, you need to be referred by a health professional, usually your GP.

People with expertise who don't have all those crazy hormones flooding through their bodies. People who can look after your baby so you can get some joined-up sleeping time. And people who can help you navigate the tricky path for settling babies.

Jasmine Glover says: "There's a lot of negative chatter about sleep schools." But it worked for her and Leo. "I love routine and Leo does too."

Nick Hopwood, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, has spent years researching residential mother and baby programs. Last year he followed 15 families, and he tracked from their first contact with some of these services, such as Karitane, Tresillian, or Northern Sydney LHD.

He interviewed them and the person working with them at the end of the program and then contacted the parents again several months later.

"In many cases there were really transformative, lasting outcomes: parents who felt helpless and hopeless now had a new understanding of their children and a diverse repertoire of strategies to respond to them in a loving way."

But during his research in Tasmania this year, he also found some parents are terrified of services like these. They may have had negative experiences with child protection or safety services in the past. And they worry their children will be taken away.

He says that the best result for mothers and babies is one where the professionals work in partnership with parents, "respectfully negotiating the way through with, with unconditional positive regard".

So how did it pan out for Ava and Kelly?

"[There were] no Tresillian miracles in our house - I've heard some people do get them but that didn't happen for us. On our return, she continued to cry herself to sleep - often up to three hours of crying, before exhaustion took over, during her day naps.

"I started our night ritual of reading a book and sleeping alongside her. I initially slipped out when she fell asleep. Then, as the months went on and she continued to wake and cry, co-sleeping became the solution. We have the three Bs: books, blankie, bedtoys, for familiar reassurance but co-sleeping made for better night sleep overall."

So was that sleep school a waste of money? No way.

"Tresillian was a godsend because the experience developed my understanding of how differently babies and children behave and develop. It gave me the confidence to make choices that suited our family. And all those bloody baby books on development and sleeping went in the bin."

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