Why dads should go to sleep school

When they're little, just being there with your kids is the best thing you can do for them.
When they're little, just being there with your kids is the best thing you can do for them. Photo: Getty Images

We recently had a week-long stay at the O'Connell Family Centre, a residential unit attached to the Mercy Hospital. Yes, it's a sleep school.

There is a pretty heavy stigma attached to sleep schools. If you attend one it means you aren't coping or you're doing something wrong or you're letting your kids run your lives or you're bad at setting boundaries or you're raising a brat or you're too soft … or that, quite simply, you suck as a parent.

Before I go on any further let me say this: If you are struggling and you need help, stop reading (actually, read to the end of this paragraph). Pick up a phone, call your doctor or your maternal child health nurse, make an appointment and tell them you need help. Some days are a struggle for us all, but if every day is a struggle, something is amiss and there are people who will help you. And ask for help now, because help (like so many things) can have a long waiting list. You are not a crap parent, you are not failing, you are not screwing up your child, and you are not any less of a mother or father for asking for help. So go ask, don't wait.

Seamus and his children.
Seamus and his children.  Photo: Supplied

I've heard different things about different sleep schools out there. I've heard of parents who storm out because they feel they're being forced to do things they don't agree with. I've heard people who absolutely swear by them.

But when it comes to sleep school (and I cannot say this too many times), don't feel crap about going to one. You need sleep to be at your best. And your kids need you at your best.

Sleep school and dads

There was a time when if a father wanted to come and stay with his family in this kind of facility he would be turned away at the door. In fact, a male nurse working at the O'Connell had this happen to him when he and his wife sought support for their daughter. He turned up and was told to go home so they could work with mum – the 'real parent'.

But that was 30 years ago. These days dads are welcome at sleep schools, and are encouraged to attend. And there are three basic reasons dads should attend sleep school with their partner and children.

1. It's good for your kid(s)

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Kids are crafty little buggers. If mum and dad aren't on the same page they can sense it and exploit that division.

Your beloved children need consistency. The need their mum and dad to present a united front, and they need to know what to expect from the two of you, especially in the early years. Sleep is no exception.

While we were at O'Connell my wife and I performed a "kid swap"; at bedtime, I settled our girl (who never went to sleep for anything but a breastfeed) while she took our boy (who has been known to cry "I want Daddy" loudly enough to wake the neighbourhood when she tried to settled him). And now we're home, we've swapped back and are both using the same techniques with our kids, helping build patterns, routines and habits.

There's another extra benefit too. When you're at a residential parenting centre you don't have to cook, you don't have to clean, you don't have to commute to and from work. It's wonderful to just have a few days to parent with no pressure, no outings, no activities to drag your children to. You just have to be there with your kids and play. When they're little, it's actually the best thing you can do for them.

2. It's good for your wife/partner

If you're the working person in your family, or whatever the arrangements might be, being with your partner in this environment helps them. It helps them a lot when you're there and then when you get home. In fact, in a multiple-child family, if dad isn't there the whole exercise can be a waste of time. Even with a one-child family your absence drastically reduces the chances of anything changing when it's time to come home.

You know what my wonderful wife was able to do while we were at sleep school? Shower every day. You know what else she was able to do because I was there? Ask me questions, ask my opinion, use me as a sounding board, and discuss plans and strategies with me. And I was able to do the same thing with her.

We were talking to one of the nurses who said to us: "I'm so glad you're here because the most commonly asked question mums ask is 'Can you tell all this to my husband? He won't listen to me'."

So being there does really help. It helps remind your significant other that you are both part of a team. It gives you time to reflect on your parenting together.

3. It's also good for you

This is a big one. A really big one. If you're not sleeping at home (like I wasn't), you're putting yourself at risk of all kinds of nasty things. Exhaustion makes you stressed; stress makes you sick. The male nurse told us about fathers who had received warnings at work because their performance was suffering. He knew of dads who were suffering mental illness because of the strain on them, men who weren't seeking help because they wanted to be strong for their families. It's a horrible cycle, and one I have been stuck in myself.

I had a lucky escape recently. I was driving to work in the morning, missed a corner and wrote off a car. It was foggy and wet, but I was also tired. My sleep was sporadic, interrupted and generally disturbed. It had been that way for months. I walked away from the crash because I was lucky.

There's another dimension to this too. These places have psychologists and counsellors who can see you as part of your stay. Talking to a neutral person, a professional with experience in dealing with family mental health, can do you a world of good. It's stressful being a dad, and it's stressful being a dad with no sleep. It piles up on you: it makes it harder to concentrate, harder to keep your temper, and harder to see the positives in your own life. Talking about it doesn't fix it, but debriefing helps you cope.

We need to look after ourselves. It's no good trying to "tough it out" or have blind faith that a situation is simply going to get better. I'm sure your child will sleep through one day, but it's no good if it has caused you damage in the meantime.

I can't say this strongly enough: if your family needs to go to sleep school, go with them. You are part of that family and you are part of the solution. Try to find a way: take leave, give up a holiday, save up and take time off without pay if you have to, but do your utmost to go. If you're not there it's less likely to work, and more likely it is that things won't improve.

Seamus is a father of two who writes at www.dadinating.com. He calls himself "The Dadinator" on his blog, but in spite of his best efforts no one calls him that at home.

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