Doing Time at Sleep School

This article was written when my son was a baby. Since then, I’ve wrestled with my own sleep issues. I’ve written about what’s worked for me as an adult in the blog post titled How to Sleep. I wish you every success, with your own sleep and that of your child.

The article published in the Age newspaper:

My son and I have just come home from sleep school. He’s seven months old so you’d think he’d be good at sleeping. You’d think he’d welcome it as a break from the sensory assaults of the world. You’d think that of all skills this one would be a no-brainer for a baby. But he’s been awake a lot. And by the time my partner and I agreed that we needed help, our days and nights were such a mess of sloppy settling routines that he didn’t know what was expected of him.

We were exhausted, heavy with months of broken sleep, bewildered when each attempt to make our son sleep at two, three, four in the morning failed. We staggered through our days, numb and nauseous and cranky. We read every book. We talked to our friends and tried to tweak our routine when we came across new tips. But still, he woke, he cried, he woke again.

So we went to the experts. We went to sleep school.

When I spoke to friends about coping with sleep deprivation, a surprising number of them urged me to go to whichever place they, too, had sought solace. I’m not sure whether they’d simply never had the desire to mention this episode in their parenting or if, like me, they felt they’d failed by asking for help. But until recently I was unaware I knew so many people who’d spent time studying sleep. Smart people. People with good jobs. Spunky, funny, articulate men and women.

“Oh yes,” one friend told me. “I used to lay out the same outfit every night. And then in the morning I’d still get up and cry because I didn’t know what to wear. And the thought of all that was involved in getting from the bed to the shower and then getting dressed was…too much.”

There was a three-month waiting list, but I got in early due to a cancellation. With a day’s notice, I packed my bag (clothes, toiletries, books), my son’s bag (clothes, nappies, toys, blankets, pram), consulted the map and flung us all into the car. We drove to an outer Melbourne suburb. It was a place I’d never even heard of before but I didn’t care. I would have spent a week in a shoebox if I thought that would help.

From the time I first phoned my sleep school of choice it became my end of the rainbow, a place where all our problems would be solved. But having not spent any time at all considering the reality of a week cut off from my friends, home and, for the most part, my partner, it came as a bit of a shock.

On the first morning, the women in the modern hospital-like waiting room looked exhausted. Most were dark under eye, with glassy stares, wrangling wriggling babies while fixing an I’m-not-on-the-edge-of-tears’ smile on their faces. At least half of us had wet hair. We were all clearly desperate for a quick fix, anxious and vulnerable. We’d been told to arrive before nine o’clock and I imagine this was an effort for every woman – and man – there.

Each one of us was sheparded to our bedroom, given a brief tour of the communal kitchen, playroom and meeting room, and told the rules. There are quite a few rules: breakfast finishes at nine, wash your own plates and highchair tray, use only the highchair with your number on it, put dirty bibs here, clothes there. You can leave the building but sign yourself in and out each time. You must come to a one-hour group discussion every morning. My stomach dropped. Where was the magic sleep remedy? I felt like I’d signed in for a week at a women’s prison.

My quarters consist of a bedroom, an adjoining baby’s bedroom and an ensuite. The bedroom houses a double bed, desk and chair. The ensuite has a change table. The baby’s room contains a cot, chair and wall-mounted radio. There is a Venetian blind covering the one window in the baby’s room so you and the staff can peek in discreetly. The emphasis is on practicality, so there are no fussy details. And no mobiles above the cots. I was happy about that. I’ve never understood the point of asking a baby to sleep under such a thrillingly interesting thing.

Around the clock patient, efficient nurses guide you and your baby into a ‘routine’ that’s so logical you wonder why you couldn’t do it yourself. And then you remember that the last time you slept for more than three hours in a row was about a year ago, and that you stumble when asked your surname.

They steered me through a few days of ‘controlled crying’. This means letting the baby cry for short, timed periods before going in to settle, gradually increasing the minutes you spend outside the closed door. The theory is that the baby will be secure in the knowledge you are there but will learn to go to sleep without you being by his side. They helped me to stop feeding the baby every time he woke and taught me to listen to his cries. They sat with me in the small hours of the morning when I was trying to coax him back to sleep. They taught me how to recognise when he was tired.

Some sleep schools offer the mother a night off: a sleeping pill and a nurse to mind the baby. This sounded like heaven to me but I’d been warned that while the sleep would be magnificent, I needed to know how to settle the baby myself.

I learned one thing quickly: whatever nurses earn, they’re underpaid. Aside from teaching and parenting, there cannot be a job that demands so much of a person. Each woman at sleep school expected the nurses to be knowledgeable about breastfeeding, sleep, diet, women’s health, child psychology and development, men, in-laws, childcare.

Each one of us wanted personal connection, time, empathy, educated opinion, mundane assistance and life-changing counseling. We wanted them to solve our problems quickly, even as we were assuring them it could not be done. We wanted them to care about our personal circumstances, to know our children’s names, our partner’s name, our fears and hardships. We wanted and wanted, as did the women who were there last week and the week before that and the week coming up.

Not everyone at sleep school is there by choice, or for the same reasons. Some women were there to overcome exhaustion, some to demonstrate to social services an ability to be a good parent. Some women came from the country where no similar support was available to them. Some were wrestling with alcohol or drug dependency. One woman hadn’t been home for a month, going from place to place hoping for help with a baby who wouldn’t eat. “At least I’m never lonely,” she joked. One young, quiet couple was sent straight from hospital for instruction in baby care. The mother said they had another child, a two-year-old girl, but she lived somewhere else. Some women came at their partner’s behest.

A woman in her late teens, a mother of two, told me she was there in an effort to get her older baby out of foster care. “He bashed his head on the side of the cot. They thought my boyfriend did it.” When the drain of caring for two wakeful baby boys was all too much she’d disappear into the courtyard for a smoke with her mother, but was repeatedly called inside with the reminder “remember what you’re here for”.

“Can you imagine,” said one mother while we had a cup of tea, “how sad it’d be to spend a week with your babies and then have to give one of them to a stranger on your way out.”

But if the daily routine, the supervision and the long hours in a bedroom felt prison-like, it was all school camp when everyone was in the communal kitchen. Rows of numbered high chairs sat under fluorescent lights, ready to be wheeled over to long tables. At meal times the room was frantic, with women calling out to their children from behind the kitchen bench as they dished up mushy vegetables.

While I was grateful for someone else cooking, it was harder to feed myself here than at home. Not just because the food is god-awful (a nutritionist’s nightmare of overcooked, over salted, over sauced everything), but because the babies seemed to startle in the bright loud room. My son spent most of his time trying to wriggle free of the highchair straps, crying out to be picked up. I felt for the women whose babies were reluctant eaters – it didn’t seem a good place to learn to enjoy food.

It hadn’t occurred to me that one of the good things about doing time at sleep school would be the other women. There’s a camaraderie that comes from shared difficulty and, as I was told when I signed out with another woman for a walk around the block, “we can tell each other anything because we’ll never meet again”.

So we talked. We talked while we made toast, while jiggling babies on our knees, leaning against the walls in the hallway, in the courtyard nursing cigarettes. We talked about our kids, parents, partners. We talked about other solutions tried, and failed. There were knowing glances exchanged as one woman talked over other people’s stories, claiming that no baby, no baby ever, has been as bad a sleeper as hers. Even the nurses say how bad he is. Even her mother says she’s never seen anything like him.

Many of the nurses at the sleep school are mothers too. One wise and gentle nurse sat with me several times during the week, asking about my life and telling me about hers. Her partner had left her in the early days of her pregnancy and they’d reconciled when her baby was three months old. “He wouldn’t touch the baby when he first came to visit. I just cried and cried,” she said. It took him months to admit to her he was so dirty from work he didn’t think he should touch someone so small and precious.

She’d managed pregnancy and birth alone, then juggled work with motherhood. At sleep school she counselled fatigued women daily while being so exhausted herself that she fell asleep while driving. Her car slid across a central nature strip into oncoming traffic; she and her baby were almost killed. But she now lives with her partner, their baby, and occasionally his stepsons. They are engaged in a custody battle with the boys’ mother. It breaks the nurse’s heart to know that the mother picks the boys up from school drunk.

Every morning we had a one-hour session about parenting. The sessions were unpopular; reminders to attend were greeted with groans. But I found them eye opening. We listened to a woman who said she never tells her baby boy she loves him because she hates him. Which, while heartbreaking, was stunningly honest. We heard a woman confess she knows she should give up smoking since her baby has asthma, but just can’t. We sat quietly while one mother shook her head in angry confusion when the nurse tells her she must stop hitting her son. “But how else do I get him to do what I want?” she snaps. We melted when a woman asks what she should say to her husband when he tells her baby girl she’s fat like her mother.

By the end of the week we were all bored witless. For the most part, the babies were sleeping the requisite one to two hours, once or twice a day. They’d learned they wouldn’t be fed every time they woke at night so some awareness was dawning that going back to sleep was expected. Some of the babies were eating more food…but only some. And the mothers had exhausted all conversation, read the magazines, drunk too many cups of tea, paced.

As the last day approached the talk was of the same thing: what happens when we get let out? It’s amazing how quickly an institutional dependency develops. Without the nurses, the routine, the sounds and smells of this place, would the babies sleep? Would it all fall apart at home?

On the final day I’m one of the last people there. My partner is coming to collect me after work, so I sit on the playroom floor with my son. While he flirts with himself in the mirror, I stare at kids’ paintings on the walls. The nurse who saw me on my first night walks in to say goodbye and I think I’m going to cry. I know she does this for a job, but I feel like I’ve been on a journey with her. I’ve told her personal things, she’s seen me in my pyjamas, she’s met my partner. I passed out on the bathroom floor one night from exhaustion and the next morning she greeted me with “well that was a bit dramatic don’t you think?”, then had a doctor come see me within the hour. She’s tough, but I think she looks a bit teary when she says goodbye. “The changeover periods are hard,” she says as she leaves the room.

Babies often regress when they come home. Returning to a familiar room can signal a return to bad habits. But the nurses advise parents to be persistent and consistent. Evidently babies have short memories and if you keep doing the same thing over and over they will forget it was ever otherwise. That’s the theory anyway…

I’d like to say we have a baby who sleeps from seven to seven, but we don’t. We have a baby who naps predictably twice a day for at least an hour a time and wakes happy. He still yells out in the middle of the night and we don’t know why. Sometimes it’s for five minutes, sometimes an hour. We’re still tired. But it’s so much better than it was. I don’t feed during the night and my partner likes having a plan with numbers involved (‘Don’t feed again until 5am’, ‘Resettle if he sleeps less than an hour’), and we’re both more confident.

While the experience was useful, I now think that babies who sleep 12 hours at night are hardwired to do so. Routine is important but genetic make-up is king. Take heart in that if you have a wakeful baby: it’s not your fault.

Things can be improved, but you may simply have landed a baby that doesn’t sleep well. Some people whose babies sleep anytime and anywhere will believe it’s their doing. And you may learn a lot from grilling them, as I did, about exactly what they do, but it’s possible you’ll find you are doing the same things as a well-rested parent with radically different results.

As an aside, of the ten babies admitted while I was at sleep school, only one was a girl. Another friend tells me at her place three of eleven were girls. While it’s hardly scientific, anecdotal evidence suggests to me that parents of boys are more likely to wrestle with sleep and feeding issues than parents of girls.

Sleep school’s probably not the most fun you’ll ever have, but if you are feeling wrecked enough to go there at all, you won’t care. And things will be better – to a small or life-changing degree – when you leave.

There are places across Australia that specialise in teaching adults, babies and young children about sleep. They all have waiting lists, some as short as a week. You can choose to go to a public or private facility for a day course or a residential stay, typically four or five nights. Private doesn’t necessarily mean better since many sleep schools of good repute are attached to public hospitals. Partners are encouraged to stay for at least some of the time. Your local child and maternal welfare nurse, or GP, will be able to tell you which one is closest to you.

4 Responses to Doing Time at Sleep School

  1. MADC'S says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, thank you for sharing your experiences. You are right, sleep issues with children is an individual thing and each family does the best they can. Unfortunately there is no quick fix for some parenting dilemmas and you do what you think is best, and if it doesn’t work you try something else. It is important to remember that there are support networks who can help because sleep for children and parents is really important.

  2. Pingback: How to Sleep | Kirsten Alexander

  3. Emma Price says:

    Dear Kirsten
    I wonder if you remember me from somewhere? I stubbled across this wonderful article and your website as I was searching the net on what SS is like. Yes, I’ve had a little one, a beautiful little man who is booked into SS in a few weeks. If only I knew what you were going through when we worked together! I have since read many other articles from your site – especially the ones on sleep – and have thoroughly enjoyed. I cannot seem to subscribe to your site. Is there are option for this. Best wishes, E (oh, just found the option below – ha ha, blame it on lack of sleep)

    • Emma, hello! I’m so sorry for the slow response – your comment went to my spam folder (along with the copious amounts of actual spam I do get so perhaps my computer was confused?). It’s so lovely to hear from you. I will send a proper email to you separately. And congratulations! xxk

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