Melbourne mum with postnatal anxiety provides an inside look at sleep school

Photo: Nicola Redhouse, 'hanging by a thread' before going to Sleep School (supplied)
Photo: Nicola Redhouse, 'hanging by a thread' before going to Sleep School (supplied) 

Nicola Redhouse suffered from postnatal anxiety after the birth of her first child, Reuben. This is an edited extract of her book, Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind which details her experience at Sleep School.

Four months in and I was coping better, in that I was now used to my permanent state of panic and not in a panic about the panic itself, but Reuben would still not sleep for any long stretch. It was on this superficial point that I tricked myself into attending the hospital's residential settling program. Oh, no, I assured family and friends, we're just going to Sleep School; I'm fine.

Sleep School was, as the brochures put it, where parents went when their babies hadn't learned how to resettle themselves after they rose into a light sleep during their REM cycle. It was where parents of chronically colicky babies went, even though I knew well, through my incessant googling, that colic was merely a word for a baby who will not settle. 

Sleep School had been named thus to assure parents like me, who were on a knife's edge, that there was something practical they could learn that would improve things. 

It seemed to me if I could get Reuben to sleep regularly and predictably, I would go back to feeling like my old self. I struggled to recognise that my mental state was not going to be fixed by a magic wand of perfect routine.

My husband, Gideon, seemed relieved that we were going. He was by nature defiantly patient and optimistic the sort of person who would be swept away by a tornado still smiling and assuring me that it was only a strong wind. Given how different we were in this respect, he had been amazingly supportive of my newly unhinged self, always taking my sobbing midday phone calls at his open-plan workplace with gentility.

Which is not to say we did not fight. The combined stresses of my fragile self, sleep deprivation, and our opposing sense of how to handle Reuben's wakefulness gave way to heated arguments. I seemed to have developed the sonar hearing of a bat, and I demanded to know why Gideon never seemed to wake to Reuben crying at night; but I also criticised whatever he did when he did go to him. 'You're jostling him too much; it's actually waking him!' 'Stop making that sh sound in his ear!'

I couldn't understand why he couldn't understand how terrified I felt when Reuben cried, and he couldn't understand why I couldn't let Reuben cry a bit. I begged for his help in settling Reuben at night, but then when Reuben did not settle with him immediately (used, as Reuben was, to my breast appearing in his mouth at the slightest peep), I would rush in and wrestle Reuben from him and breastfeed Reuben and cry and then blame Gideon for his failed attempt. Once, at the peak of this insane parental warfare, I threw a toasted panini at Gideon.

Now, settled in a bleak room, Reuben and I were assessed by doctors, paediatricians and a psychologist. The latter gave me a questionnaire: the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. Ten multiple-choice questions that reminded me of the Monty Python 'Dead Parrot' sketch, so avoidant was their tentative expression of my clear inner doom: 'I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things not quite so much now; I have looked forward with enjoyment to things rather less than I used to; I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason quite a lot.'


The psychologist tallied my score and considered me gravely. 'You know,' she said,'We can admit you. Just get you on an even keel; eating, sleeping.'

Some vague part of me had known all along that the program also catered to maternal mental health; but I was unable to acknowledge that of the two kinds of mothers there, the hollowed-out, shocked-looking ones and the simply tired-looking ones, I was among the former.

Out in the communal area one woman seemed to float beside a nurse, looking but not seeing while the nurse tried to calm her baby. That baby never stopped its wretched cry in the three days we were there; I got used to its sound as I did to the constant low air-conditioning hum. But I failed to see myself in that mother, because Reuben was nothing like that baby. He was calm, and settled, and I would hold him all day if it killed me.

Photo: Nicole Redhouse (supplied)

 At night, I was supposed to rely on the nurses to bring Reuben to me if they couldn't settle him. But it was this very separation, this severing of the soundwaves connecting us, that I couldn't tolerate. I asked to have a monitor in my room, the nurse who plugged it in looking at me with what might have been pity. I was not one who would be easily helped.

During the days, I sat with the other shipwrecked mothers in a waiting area with a cluster of numbered audio monitors. Despite our exhaustion, we attended to those monitors with uncanny alertness. It was heliotropic, all those maternal heads turning toward the bellows from those machines, and if the cry was our child's and it was not a 'scheduled feeding time', we received nods of support and encouragement that carried us over to our baby's room where we put to work our new strategy. I was a diligent student and, probably sensing his mother had found a rope to cling to, Reuben did indeed settle quite contentedly without my breast. 

We stayed for our three nights, with Gideon visiting each evening. I told him what I had learned each day about Reuben's needs, how he seemed to sleep well when the nurses rolled him on his side, how they had suggested I increase his food intake. I told him about the feeding schedule the nurses had drawn up for us, and showed him the patting and shushing technique we were to use when it wasn't a feeding-time wake-up.

I later learned this technique was the holy measure of parental competency for those who aligned themselves neither with co-sleeping nor with crying it out. Gideon listened patiently, employed the technique effortlessly. But it still felt as though the baby and I were in some netherworld which Gideon could visit but not enter.

I could not give myself over to hospital care as the psychologist had offered. I felt I was not sick enough: I already had a comparative glut of therapeutic help. I felt almost ashamed taking the space in this hospital, with mothers who might need help bonding with their babies, when I had bonded with Reuben achingly, overwhelmingly.

I felt I would embarrass my family and Gideon's family and disappoint Gideon, who had been trying so hard to carry on with life as though his wife hadn't suffered a malfunction, bringing takeaway Thai and magazines to the hospital like we were on some kind of getaway. I felt that close at hand but hidden from me was the source of my panic: if I could just find it, and bring it to light safely, I would be okay; I was sure.

I took the sleeping pill they offered me each night in the confines of my quasi-hotel room, where the oak veneers and complimentary biscuits abetted my delusion that I was not in hospital, and glided off into the glassy surface of its kind of sleep, which I rose from only briefly each time Reuben cried out.

Nicola Redhouse is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. Unlike the Heart: a memoir of brain and mind (UQP, $29.95) uses her postnatal story to investigate questions around the bodily and emotional experience of motherhood, and the way we think about and treat mental health.


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