The early months of parenting were not especially enjoyable for Serlina Wong-Ellery. She was struggling to get her four-month-old daughter to get enough sleep, and was becoming increasingly sleep deprived herself.
"It was really difficult to put Olive down. She'd cry for an hour or more – sometimes for three hours. She would be fed and everything, but she'd be screaming and I had no idea what she wanted."
Olive fought her naps during the day as well as at night, when she woke up every two hours.
"I was getting so tired and frustrated. I wasn't confident about putting her down. And I wasn't enjoying spending time with her because I was so exhausted. I was barely functioning," she recalls.
Serlina, 34, and her husband Nick decided to call in a sleep trainer for help – and for a time, Olive's sleep improved.
"The sleep trainer suggested a hands-off approach. We could only go in if she was really crying. We were told not to rock her or pick her up."
However, at seven months of age, Olive went through a sleep regression. At a time when she could have started sleeping through the night, she began waking more frequently. Serlina and Nick were once again at breaking point.
This time, Serlina contacted Narisha Ashelford at Baby Sleep Consultants Australia. The Sydney couple had an initial consultation over the phone and began a tailored sleeping plan in August.
Serlina and Nick knew it would be tough. They even wrote their neighbours an apology note before they started that said, "Sorry guys. We're doing sleeping training. Just to let you know that there might be screaming."
'Willing to do anything'
The couple were somewhat divided in their approach to settling Olive, but quickly had to get onto the same page to implement Narisha's plan.
"I was so tired that I was willing to do anything," says Serlina. "But Nick was more of a soft touch and he kept wanting to go in and comfort her. I was like, 'If you go in, it will ruin all the work I've put in during the day to get her to sleep. There were moments when it was really tense between us."
Serlina and Nick were using a technique called 'spaced soothing' – which is simply a new term for the dreaded 'controlled crying.'
The plan was this: Olive was to cry for eight minutes before her parents were allowed to go in and soothe her. They then had two minutes with her, during which time they weren't allowed to pick her up. And if she was still upset when the two minutes were up, they had to leave the room regardless.
"That first night was brutal," says Serlina. "I had to put her down and walk away and listen to her crying. It goes against all your instincts."
But the change in their daughter was almost immediate.
"On the second night, Olive slept for 11 hours. By the third night, she was doing 12 hours. We just couldn't believe it," says Serlina.
That was several months ago, and despite teething and the odd illness, Olive has maintained her new sleeping routine of going down at 6.30pm and rising at 6.30am.
"It's definitely worth it to get through the crying. We've set Olive up with the skills she needs to sleep well."
Common sleep mistakes
Ironically, one of the most common mistakes Narisha sees when it comes to babies and sleep is mum and dad trying too hard.
"A lot of parents try to put their children to sleep: they think they need to do all the work. Many aren't prepared to give their child the space to do what they need to do. I often say that if you just give your child a chance, they are going to surprise you."
She says that a common trap is rocking or feeding a baby to sleep, as this becomes a substitute for them being able to self-settle.
"If a child already knows how to self-settle, they can better cope with sleep regressions, because a regression is actually just coming in and out of a sleep cycle," explains Narisha.
Narisha has been a sleep consultant for five years, and it was through her own difficulties in getting her firstborn to sleep that she discovered her passion for sleep consulting. She says that Nick and Serlina saw quick and lasting results because they were committed and ready for change.
Pick a technique
It's important to choose a settling technique that suits your parenting style, says Narisha. Otherwise it will be done inconsistently, and therefore ineffectively. But sleep training will never be easy, she cautions.
"There is no settling technique where there is no crying involved. That's because crying is the way your baby voices their opinion to change. I tell my clients to try and hear what their baby would be saying, rather than hearing the crying. They are saying, 'Hey Mum, this is not what we normally do. Why aren't you rocking me to sleep?' But if you run in and rock them to sleep, they're not learning anything. So you have to help them push through that initial period of change. I agree that it's brutal. As carers, our built-in instinct is to attend to them as soon as they cry."
A less 'brutal' technique involves staying in the room until your baby falls asleep, using your voice to calm them. This can be effective, but results take longer than the usual three to five days.
The wired baby
Another mistake Narisha sees is parents not realising how tired their children actually are. This is because when babies are over-tired, they go into overdrive.
"When you are overtired, your body releases adrenaline to give you that second wind. Many people think that their baby looks fine and even happy, but it is running on adrenaline. Kids don't get to a point where they conk out and just fall asleep. They generally get more and more and more wired, to the point where they can't actually get to sleep."
Narisha says that it's important to visit a paediatrician to find out if an underlying condition like sleep apnoea or cow's milk intolerance is causing your child to have sleep difficulties.
But if it isn't?
"Ask for help. Don't wait."