How I Got My Son to Sleep Through the Night

I am a baby class teacher - positive touch and fourth trimester education. I regularly encounter mothers who are desperate for their little ones to 'sleep through', whatever that means. It can be hard sometimes adjusting expectations to newborn behaviour but I try.

When my son was born I quickly realised that sleeping apart was not going to work. Breastfeeding a newborn on demand would have turned me into a zombie very quickly had I not been able to just latch him on and drift back off into that intense, high quality sleep breastfeeding mothers manage to accumulate in between night feeds. 

I loved having him in bed with me. The way he would seek me out during the night and contentedly drift off in my arms. The way we would both accidentally sleep in on occasion and wake up dozy yet refreshed. The more research I did into sleeping the more it seemed to make sense. We as adults do not sleep through the night, we wake up, turn over, sip water, cuddle into each other. Babies are no different and when they are born have a stomach the size of a marble that needs to be filled little and often. In evolutionary terms, a baby who slept apart from a caregiver was in big trouble.

For little babies, sleeping next to a caregiver is essential to survival. Our breathing triggers their breathing, our heart rate stabilises theirs, we provide warmth and comfort. One of the risk factors for SIDs is putting a baby to sleep in a separate room for these reasons.

The advantage I had with having Judah in bed with me is that I was synchronised to his sleep cycles. I would be awake before he had a chance to stir and cry and soothe him before he completely awoke. There were nights that were hard - teething, growth spurts. There were nights I wanted to pack it in and had to conceal from health professionals we were bedsharing. Some nights I just wanted my boob back, wanted my space back, wanted my life back.

One of the hardest lessons to learn as a mother is that the life you had before is never coming back. The hard days and nights when you're touched out and you've had enough. It wasn't actually about the sleeping. It was the constant accommodation and sacrifice. Then remembering, I wanted and loved this child and what is best for him is not always what is most convenient for me.

I have long been an advocate of gentle parenting, particularly when it comes to sleep. New parents swiftly realise that parenting is a twenty four hour job which can be a bit of a shock. They're tired, they need a break, they want the night to escape from their baby and rest, they want to know how they can get these little ones to stop seeking comfort and food in the night.

There is a lot of research done as to what happens to the brain when a baby is left to cry. Although I would not categorically say that sleep training will affect that particular baby's brain, what it teaches babies is that nobody comes when they cry. Little babies that have not even learned object permanence think that when they cannot see you then you are gone forever. They think they have been abandoned. That legendary "self-soothing" is actually a baby passing out from being tired and internalising its own needs. This can have consequences for their relationships with others as adults and can even affect their digestion. Hearing your baby's cry and not responding trains the parent to become colder and less responsive to their child and has implications for their relationship.

We as a culture are becoming less touchy-feely, less empathetic, seeking comfort from things rather than people. Internalising our problems, leading to mental health issues. I have long suspected these things are linked to how we respond to our children during the night time.

Interestingly, the nights I was most frustrated with my son were the times I would find out that he was actually ill, or growing fast, growing teeth or learning a new skill. Babies who are sleep trained often need to be "re-trained" at many different stages in their development.

Being the teacher, I am often looked to for 'methods'. If you're reading this to try and get some magic tip or trick that will make your baby sleep then that's not what I'm going to give you.

I did get him to sleep through. Judah has been sleeping through the night (8pm-6am) for the last few weeks. He is 2 1/2 years old. I truly believe that developmentally he was not ready to sleep through until very recently. It really hit home to me how unreasonable we are to expect this kind of development from newborn babies. The advantage I have is that Judah now understands what he is told and I explained to him that when he woke up the milk would be sleeping but he could have water if he wanted to. On the first two nights he had a little protest and then cuddled back to sleep. Now he does not even care to wake.

I want to be able to say that I feel different, amazing from more sleep. I actually don't feel much different. I feel happy and relieved that I was able to wait and let him grow and develop on his own while responding to his needs. Every decision we make as mothers is fraught with doubt and it can be hard to see the future when the present is so demanding and difficult.

It may take children even longer than this to develop the true ability to soothe themselves back to sleep. The most important thing to remember is that they don't learn it from being left to cry, they learn it from a loving caregiver showing them how until they are ready to do it themselves, just like any other skill.

So how did I get him to sleep through?

I was always present, always caring, always responsive. A child that is secure that their needs are going to be met is less anxious and is able to develop the confidence and ability in their own time.