Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Sleep Training Conundrum

Ahh, sleep training. I know four things for certain about this particular parenting delight: a) I fundamentally disagree with it as a concept b) I have yet to find any viable alternative to it c) I hate doing it and d) I'm totally bloody shit at it. 

Here is my essential dilemma. My parenting ideals are not conducive to staying sane. On a sliding scale of mothering approaches ranging from strict, disciplined mother-led routine to baby-led attatchment stylee, I'm definitely nearer the hippy dippy end. I breastfeed on demand (still, at 15 months. Yikes.), I co-sleep, I carried Duckling in a sling for most of his first year... I've adopted this approach because it suits my personality, my child and my understanding of child psychology and development. However, I am also a pragmatist and I know I can't give everything to Duckling or I'll snap.  I need me time, I need adult company and I need SLEEP.  Who doesn't frankly?

Most nights (if made to sleep in his cot), Duckling will wake every 1-3 hours. In an ideal hippy dippy world, this wouldn't be a problem - it's normal child sleep behaviour after all. I'd just bring him into bed with us, he'd latch onto the boob and we'd all sleep happily ever after, until one day he would declare he was 'a big boy now' and could sleep through the night in his own cot. In the real world, most nights follow this pattern:

  • We have a splashy bath for 15 mins, some toothbrushing tantrums, then a fight to apply nappy and sleepsuit before the carpet is peed / pooed on.
  • We read Rabbit's Nap 17 times, interspersed with attempts to wriggle off my lap, some peekaboo behind the curtain and some desperate pointing at unidentified objects on the other side of the room.
  • Book is put away ("I mean it this time!") and breastfeeding begin in earnest, while I occupy myself with some inanity on my phone (if I've remembered to put it in my pocket.  Otherwise it's more Rabbit's Nap for me).
  • Sometime in the following 20-90 mins, the eyes will close properly, the nipple will be relinquished and I will transfer Duckling to his cot (after maybe just one more round of Candy Crush).
  • If Duckling's tilt switch is activated as I lie him down and wailing occurs, we repeat the process until he's asleep again.
  • Once properly passed out in his cot, I leave the room and try to cram in 95 household chores and some 'quality' TV time with a comatosed Drake / a Skype call with a nearly comatosed Drake (he works in Germany most of the week).
  • I go to bed too late.  Always, always too late.
  • 10 mins after closing my eyes, Duckling wakes up and cries.
  • More boob and Candy Crush / blogging (if I've run out of lives on CC). 
  • Duckling goes back in cot and I get somewhere between 5 mins and 3 hours sleep before he wakes up again and I cart him into bed with me.
  • Semi-sleep until 6-7am as Duckling attatches and detatches from boob, repositions himself horizontally, repositions himself upside down, gets tangled in duvet, kicks me, kicks Drake, falls out of bed, stands up in his sleep then falls over and headbutts me in the face etc. etc.
  • Get properly awoken by Duckling slapping me on the head or hitting me with his sippy cup and shouting "YESH!" (his universal word for everything).
  • Grudingly get up, noting exhaustion / bad back / buggered shoulder / black eye (it was fun trying to explain to people I'd been beaten up by a one year-old).
So, yes, as hippy dippy as I am, in the interests of getting some of my evening back, and being able to sleep without injury to myself, Drake or Duckling, sleep training has become a necessity. I have tried several different forms over the months, each time with some limited success, but nothing has yet resulted in the "quick to sleep and stay asleep" scenario I've hoped for. But then, as I state above, I'm awful at sleep training, and never do it properly, most likely because I can't get the idea that I'm doing Duckling some kind of psychological damage out of my head.

I started at six months with Pick Up Put Down training (PUPD - pick up when they cry, put down when they stop) as it sounded gentler than the other methods (I had already tried the No Cry Sleep Solution in vain - Duckling did not get the 'no cry' part).  I'd done my Googling and knew most paediatricians don't recommend sleep training before six months, as your baby still ideally needs at least one night-time feeding before this - Duckling definitely did due to his tongue tie related early growth issues.  Very few recommend simply leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep either ('Cry it Out'), due to the reasons outlined in my post on evolutionary parenting.  Controlled Crying (leaving them to cry but going back in at set intervals to comfort) still seemed too heartbreaking and stressful for a baby so small, so PUPD it was.  It took ninety minutes or so before Duckling started to follow the rule book by actually stopping crying when I picked him up, but eventually after countless attempts, he fell asleep in his cot through pure exhaustion.  I hated every minute, but I kept telling myself this was the solution to a better night's sleep for both of us and repeated the process each time he woke in the night.  The problem was, after a week, while he was going to sleep on his own fantastically well, he was still waking up every couple of hours after that.  I'm fairly sure the problem was hunger - Duckling was still underweight at this point, and I didn't actually want him to go the whole night without a feed because of this, so I was still feeding him at some of his wake ups.  Unfortunately that meant he remained used to that feeding pattern, and would wake up accordingly.

So, after a week or so of religiously following the schedule and always putting him down awake (and picking up and putting down ad nauseam), he was still waking up multiple times in the night and I was even more sleep deprived than before because I wasn't 'allowed' to co-sleep.  The 'rules' don't tell you what to do in such circumstances and my resolve crumbled - I started to bring him back into bed with me at around 3am.  A vicious cold caused him to wake every 20 mins one night, knocking things off track a little further.  Then I totally buggered my back up (PUPD is a spine killer) and before I knew it, I was back in the habit of feeding him to sleep, then bringing him into bed with us when he woke in the night. 

For a while I left things like this - I felt a failure, but even if I was being woken up repeatedly by little feet kicking me in the stomach, or a little finger exploring my nostrils, at least I could stick him back on the boob, we could both go back to sleep fairly rapidly, and I didn't have to freeze my bum off sitting in a rocking chair for hours.  Breastfeeding is natural, co-sleeping is natural, Duckling was getting lots of milk and warmth and cuddles and avoiding the stress and heightened cortisol levels of being left to cry - it was all so easy and peaceful so did I REALLY need to sleep train?

Fast forward a couple of months, and with the prospect of returning to work and needing him to sleep for the childminder (no boob!), I decided I did.  I repeated the entire process again, complete with bad back and a nasty cold a week or so in, and achieved the same outcome - a brief improvement at the cost of my sanity, followed by an inevitable regression to the co-sleeping norm.  I remember slamming the phone down (well, angrily pressing the disconnect button) on Drake one night after Duckling had woken and interrupted our Skype conversation for the third time, because I was utterly furious that Drake was several hundred miles away, in his PJs and all ready for bed where he would get to sleep soundly, while I hadn't even had the chance to finish my dinner and was facing yet another night of traipsing back and forth to an ungrateful, screaming child's room.  He said later I sounded quite unhinged that evening, and unsurprisingly it wasn't long after that that I gave up sleep training for a second time.

So the cycle of desperation and failure has continued, though I can now add Controlled Crying to the list of sleep training fails too.  As Duckling had amazingly taught himself how to fall asleep, unaided, in his cot at the childminder's (little sod), I felt reasonably confident that he might be willing to do the same for me with a little encouragement and reassurance.  Not so - he howled until he could barely breathe / was nearly sick every time I left the room, and I ended up cuddling him then patting him to sleep. Whether this makes me a caring and compassionate mother, or a weak-willed pushover I can't quite decide.  Probably both.

I therefore remain thoroughly ambivalent and also quite resentful about sleep training.  I feel crap that I'm going against my basic childrearing beliefs in doing it, crap that I'm being so inconsistent and useless when I do do it and crap that it's become a necessity in the first place - books (damn books!) say that you need to let children learn to settle themselves at an early age by not responding to them immediately at every wake up. Pffft. Tried it so many times and it never, ever worked.

All this said, we have recently (whisper it!) made some progress - the last round of training means Duckling will now go to sleep IN HIS COT reasonably easily most nights, unless he's had a late afternoon nap and isn't tired enough yet.  I can't yet leave the room until he's reached a critical tipping point of sleepiness and his eyes have properly closed, or he'll leap up and wail.  At some point though, when he's not teething or ill - and he's both at the moment - I will work on him letting me leave the room before he falls asleep because I'm pretty certain that once he can do this, he'll be able to 'self settle' properly and will sleep through the night. And this time I will not fail! No siree! Victory shall be mine!

Oh who am I kidding?


  1. Oh, I sympathise! Both my boys were crap at sleeping, and one still is. With my first I was determined to crack the problem of him not staying in bed when put there, and using the method of one of the so-called experts, ended up putting him back into bed (no eye contact, no kisses, the lot) ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FOUR TIMES in one bedtime. I have never been the same (or sane) since. Obviously I have nothing useful to impart, as the sleeping whims of my children are still a bloody mystery to me. But good luck!

    1. Thank you! Very good to know I'm not alone in being baffled by my child's sleeping habits. Can't wait for the "Yay I can get out of my bed!" stage! I'm not sure what's most impressive - that you managed to put your son back to bed 164 times or that you didn't lose count! Hope things have improved since...