Many of us have heard the conversation before – and we may have even been a part of it. I heard it just last Tuesday at a mums and bubs fitness class.
“Is he sleeping through yet?” a mum asked another.
“No, I was up three times,” a tired-looking mother replied.
“Oh no, that’s terrible,” the first replied. “Hope you get some decent sleep soon.”
The questions and sentiments are well-intended, but the sleep-deprived mother is often left with a feeling of failure and guilt. No, my six-month-old baby is not sleeping through. Should he? Why isn’t he? What’s wrong with me, and what am I doing wrong?
With my first baby, I navigated the rough seas of these questions and their accompanying broken nights. I listened with envy as friends told each other over cups of tea how, after three nights of sleep training, their baby now sleeps through.
In a moment of weakness (and, let’s face it, exhaustion), I hauled myself and baby to the local family centre to get sleep trained. “You need to teach your baby how to sleep” and other words of wisdom echoed through my head.
The nurse, again with the best of intentions, rocked my screaming baby back and forth in a basinet on wheels while tinny nursery rhymes played through a mounted television. After an hour of rocking she relented and handed me my red-faced, exhausted child.
“Sorry love, I think you’ve got a difficult case there. Keep trying though.”
At last, I read parenting consultant Pinky McKay’s book Sleeping Like A Baby. The book helped assure me that normal baby sleep doesn’t necessarily equal “sleeping through the night”. In fact, the idea of sleeping through is a complete misnomer – it actually refers to babies sleeping for a seven-hour stretch.
I then looked beyond the book to blogs, forums and Facebook pages where parents shared experiences of nurturing their babies through the night. Babies typically don’t sleep through the night in the first year, I learnt, unless trained to do so.
I finally started to relax. So my baby was normal, and so was I. Well, that was a relief.
Then, of course, was the next thought: should I be training my baby to sleep through?
But after talking about it, my husband and I instinctively felt that sleep training wasn’t the answer for us.
Instead, I surrendered to the way things were. I came to enjoy lying with my baby of an evening, nursing her to sleep. She woke up every three hours, I would get up, feed her, and put her back to sleep. That was just how it was, and I told myself that it wouldn’t last forever.
And of course it didn’t. By 17 months, my baby put herself to sleep, and slept through the night. Some babies achieve this when they are younger, and others when they are older. That was just my baby’s pace.
Sleep training, also known as sleep behaviour techniques, controlled crying and comfort crying, is normalised in our society. And I get it, I really do. When exhaustion takes over and you feel like a zombie, you crave a solution, a fix-it. Sleep training offers an answer. It’s a way we can control our situation. It’s something we can do.
But many parents don’t feel comfortable using sleep behaviour techniques.
Perhaps it is not our children's sleep behaviour that needs to change, but our own attitudes and expectations. Children do learn to sleep at some point. As parents, we need patience and acceptance to allow our children to reach this sleep milestone in their own time.
Recently, I was with another mum when she was asked how her baby was sleeping.
“Fine,” she replied. “He woke up a couple of times, but I’ve given up worrying about it. It’s made me feel so much better.”
And those are wise words for any new mum, I think.
Zanni Louise is a freelance writer and mum of two. She blogs at My Little Sunshine House.