baby

"I tried sleep school and it was a complete waste of time for my baby and me."

“No more of this,” says the nurse sternly, with a small shake of her head, cuddling an imaginary baby to her chest.

I feel sick. My heart, heavy. Easy for her to say when the make-believe baby she’s holding is just that – make-believe. Fake. Not there. No sweet baby smells, no mewling kitten noises, no warmth permeating off a small human body, through her arms and to her very core.

Easy to say when she’s not being followed around by her baby’s cries – cries with the ability to penetrate the heart, body and soul with the force of a thousand pooey nappies. I wonder if she stopped cuddling her children at three-and-a-half months.

I left the sleep school shaken and downcast. How on earth was I going to settle my daughter into a second sleep cycle when even the ‘experts’ themselves could not? How was I going to wrap my squirmy baby the way they demonstrated on an immobile doll? An angel wrap they called it – far from angelic if you ask me. But most of all I left the sleep school wondering how I was going to avoid placing my daughter on my chest for a cuddle.

The mere thought of not feeling her wispy strands of hair against my cheek and sleeping weight in my arms made me feel physically and emotionally heavy with grief. I was hurting because I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to do it anymore.

“No more of this.”

The words bounced off the walls of my mind – colliding, combining, growing stronger. They consumed me. Every single time my daughter cried out, the words followed me into her room, reminding me to suppress my urge to pick her up and instead roll her on her side to pat her bottom.

I did it their way for approximately two weeks, during which time I was a complete wreck.

sleep school
Marina Kalcina did sleep training with her daughter for two weeks (Image: Supplied)
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Before we visited the sleep school, my daughter slept on me for almost every single day nap. I still remember everyone gasping at my confession and quickly telling the room that they had never ever done that with their child.

After our visit, I managed to gently pat my daughter to sleep in her cot for three 45-minute naps a day – sans crying. For us, that was a sleeping win. But that’s not what we were taught at sleep school. It had to be TWO long naps and ONE short one, not THREE short ones. So I kept at it, employing as many different techniques as I could, but I could not settle my baby into a second sleep cycle for any of her naps.

Like clockwork, she’d cry out at the 45-minute mark, whereupon I would rush into her bedroom, roll her on her side and pat her bum, while she screamed like a maniac, forcing big fat tears to fall from my eyes, and on one gloomy occasion for me to yell at her,

“Did you have A GOOD NAP?”

The nurses had taught us to always enter the room positively, no matter the outcome of the nap. Of course, in the midst of my positive entrance I snapped in a spectacular fashion. Two weeks of failing to resettle my daughter, combined with the constant crying and chronic sleep deprivation was more than I could take. I knew something had to change.

Listen: I Don't Know How She Does It talks all things sleep school, is it a game changer? (post continues after audio...)

Two weeks after our sleep school visit, the nurse placed a follow-up call to see how we were faring. I nervously confessed that Emi was only doing three 45-minute naps. My words were met with silence. I waited. Finally she launched into a description of what I ‘should’ be doing and how I ‘should’ be handling Emi’s catnapping. She didn’t say anything mean per se – but her words implied that what Emi and me were doing was wrong. That I had failed.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that actually, I hadn’t failed at settling my daughter into a second sleep cycle; she just wasn’t developmentally ready to connect sleep cycles. And the constant attempts at resettling were the basis of many pointless, tear-filled battles. She simply wasn’t ready to sleep that long in one go.

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Even though I wasn’t equipped with this rationale back then, I still knew that the resettling wasn’t working and that I’d be better off following my baby’s cues than the advice of a stranger. At the end of the phone call, I managed to gather up enough courage to say to the nurse,

“I’m OK with three 45-minute naps because she’s happy when she wakes, but inconsolable when I try to force her into another sleep cycle. This works for us, so I’m going to stick to it.”

Marina Kalcina and her daughter. (Image: Supplied)

As soon as the follow-up call ended, I felt some of the tension I’d been carrying slip away. It felt like I’d reached a turning point. Four months after my daughter was born, I was finally gaining the confidence to do things my way. I was finally gaining the confidence to be the mother she needed me to be – not the mother nurses, books, and society were telling me to be.

Eventually my daughter’s sleeping patterns began to change and at the 8-9 month mark one of her naps started to grow longer and longer. I still remember the first time ‘she did it’. I had actually just finished describing my daughter’s sleeping patterns to my MIL and SIL. She was sleeping at the time – and when we hit 45-minutes, she kept sleeping. For 70. Whole. Minutes. As much as I felt like an idiot for rambling on about her short naps – I was chuffed. I was over the moon that she’d overcome the dreaded 45-minute mark, but I was over the universe that I’d followed my gut and that it had worked out for us both.

I still think about the, “no more of this” comment from time to time and I shudder. Just like the dreaded angel wrap and resettling at all costs, I ended up ignoring this bit of advice. My daughter was way too young to lose her mother’s touch and I was flooded with an overwhelming ache to hold her when she cried. I yearned to comfort her. Every cell in my body wanted to go to her when she screamed out. Not just back then, but still.

It’s no wonder really – multiple studies suggest humans in general, and mothers in particular are neurologically wired to respond to a baby’s cries. This response is so strong it transcends species. Furthermore, babies are evolutionarily programmed to cry. This is how they communicate their needs. It’s a survival thing. If a baby cries, they are communicating that they need you.

A post shared by Marina Kalcina (@themarinesss) on

I realise that the nurses never told me not to go to my baby. Even they conceded that she was “too young to be left to cry-it-out”. But the no holding thing? No more of this? Millions of years of evolution and natural selection meant I was programmed to be there for my daughter in times of distress. So what the hell did the nurses expect me to do with this profound desire to attend to my daughter? Keep bum tapping? Cry with her?

Yearning and evolution aside, if I had not picked up my baby for cuddles, not only would I have been letting her cry alone, I would’ve missed out on her being there for me. That is; cuddling her calmed me - it was a balm to my depression.

This form of co-regulation works with my daughter and me to this day. She’s 2.5 years old now, and not afraid to have a good cry before bedtime (or just in general) – causing my anxiety to spike. In those moments, I stop what I’m doing, pick her up, and hold her close. My cuddles help her regulate her emotions – and often soothe her almost instantly.

But our proximity regulates my emotions too. I feel myself relax into the seat, relax into the cuddle, relax into her. I feel my anxiety wash away – along with all the child-rearing opinions, all the judgment, and all the bullshit in the world. My daughter and me – we comfort one another.

Looking back I realise how detrimental it would have been not only for my daughter’s happiness, but also my mental health, had I adhered to that nurse’s ‘advice’.

No more of this? SO much more of this. As long as I am her mother, she can have as many of my cuddles as she wants and needs.

Have you tried sleep school, did it work for you and your baby?

Marina is a freelance writer living in Melbourne. She splits her days between the written word and thinking of creative ways to hide vegetables in her toddler’s meals. She has been published on Mamamia, Mamalode, and Sammiches and Psych Meds, to name a few. Visit her website: www.slayathomemum.com, to read more of her work.

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