|Posted on 30 September, 2015 at 5:00|
My daughter, Sally, has never been a good sleeper. There were 2 main issues: 1) she always woke in the night and ended up in our bed with us and 2) there were many nights when she’d stay awake in the night for up to 3 hours. Sally was a few months off full time days in school and many well-meaning family members and friends would tell me that when she did start nursery, she’d soon get exhausted and sleep through the night. However, I know my daughter. Instinctively, I knew school would not tire her out. In fact, it would probably make her mind more active, and therefore, more opportunities to lie awake at night. (And, I have been proved right!). So, I knew if I didn’t try and tackle her sleep, she’d get more and more exhausted. And, of course, an exhausted child is usually a poorly behaved one, who just can’t cope with changes to routine or new experiences.
Sally was that baby who would only fall asleep in your arms being rocked or in the vibrating chair. She was that baby who would literally scream the place down if you left to fall asleep on her own. This was right from the moment she was born, and she was now fast approaching her 4th birthday. Consequently, her father and I were exhausted. Nearly four years of disrupted sleep, night after night, was taking its toll on us.
During her 4 short years, we’d tried everything to try and get her to sleep in her own bed through the night. The “controlled crying” or “cry-it-out” method was the worse one we tried. She cried so much that after 5 minutes, she’d be close to throwing up. It just didn’t feel right to let a small person cry so much, unsupported and alone. It just felt wrong. And, it felt also like it would never work anyway. We tried it twice – when she was around 18 months and 2 ½ and both times, we gave up very quickly.
We tried the “sleepy cushion” which we sat on whilst she fell asleep, and every third night it would move further and further out of her bedroom. And, it worked! We could sit outside her room and she’d eventually fall asleep. But, that was it. It didn’t make any difference to the night time wakes, and after a bout of chicken pox, we were back to where we started – the sleepy cushion firmly back in her room!
We’ve had a mattress on her floor in her room – night after night after night… that lasted about 3 months. We’ve had her bed in our room – again for about 3 months. But, all we got in the night was “I want to be in the BIG bed” – didn’t matter she was right next to us.
So, in the end, we bought a king sized bed and just resigned ourselves to the fact Sally would sleep in our bed forever (or so it seemed!). But I knew this couldn’t go on forever, and with her fourth birthday approaching, I knew it was time to try and tackle it, hopefully, once and for all.
I was mooching around Mumsnet, and one thread was asking for any recommendations for a sleep consultant – with a gentle approach. One name kept coming up – Ann Caird. So, I looked on her website and was struck by how her approach was just what we were looking for. She didn’t look to train the baby/pre-schooler to sleep – instead, she tried to find out what possibly was causing the little one to stay awake, and try to address the underlying fears or concerns. As she said, sleep training was just like putting a plaster on a wound without trying to treat the underlying causes. This was music to my ears, as I’d always felt Sally “feared” sleeping on her own – and sadly, there’s no reasoning with a 3 year old, there’s no magic wand to take away their deep rooted fears, as they really can’t communicate appropriately how they are feeling or what they really fear.
I contacted Ann, and after an initial telephone conversation with her, giving a little bit of history, we both felt that she could help us. She was able to work with us during August/early September, so this would give us an opportunity to start the work during the summer holiday and into the start of Sally’s school.
The process includes completing an in-depth questionnaire, going right back to how the pregnancy and birth process was. I must admit, just completing the questionnaire felt cathartic – a chance to relive things, and maybe start to look at the situation with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.
Ann’s method is to try and get to the underlying causes of the sleep issues. To try and understand what the child might be feeling. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, as, let’s face it, the child will rarely turn round and tell us what they’re really feeling or why. Then, she aims to builds confidence, to give the child a feeling of control, to gently address any fears, but all the time allowing the parent to support, to be there and help the child through the process.
And, interestingly, the sleep programme didn’t start with the evenings or the nights. It started with play!
Another important part of the programme was Ann’s approach to tantrums. Before we started, Sally could have some humdingers – screaming her head off over the smallest of reasons – usually because we’d stopped her doing something life threatening or because she’d had the green spoon when she always has the purple spoon to eat her yoghurt! But, my approach was always to try and control the tantrum; to try and lower the volume, to try and stop it. Inevitably, this led to the tantrum escalating, and me getting more and more angry.
Ann explained tantrums from Sally’s point of view. The reason for the tantrum didn’t matter – they weren’t about getting at me, or because of the colour of the spoon – Sally just used this as an excuse to “let off steam”. She explained that as a little one without the ability to fully explain feelings and emotions, these feelings and emotions can, and do, build up and a tantrum is just her way of “letting it go” – channelling release in the loudest possible way!! So, Ann’s approach was to let them happen, but to support her as she went through the “tantrum” until finally, she collapsed in a flood of tears and would want hugs and cuddles with Mum in such a special and connective way.
So, second day into the programme, Sally had a tantrum – and this time, I got on my knees, and just waited. And, instead of everything escalating, after Sally had a good scream, out came the tears – big tears – but also cuddles. We’d cuddle and cuddle, and then she’d just jump off me and run off as if nothing happened. Job done!!
Well, a few tantrums in, I felt totally different to how I had at the start. I no longer feared them, I no longer felt the world’s worst Mum who couldn’t control her 3 year old… instead my attitude to tantrums now are “bring them on”… as I view them as Sally’s need to let off steam. She only really has them every now and then – and usually when things have been brewing up for a few days. In fact, they’re not really tantrums now, as Sally usually just goes straight to the crying part.
For example, at her fourth birthday party recently, things were becoming a bit overwhelming. She was becoming clingy to me and I could see a lot of tension building up. Let’s face it, she was looking forward to this party for ages – and being the eldest in her year, was the first one to have a party and so all the focus was on HER. Well, thank goodness a balloon popped, as Sally used it as an excuse to have a damn good cry – with lots of cuddles from me whilst I waited for the tears to abate. The tears were way out of proportion with the balloon pop, but I just knew Sally needed that cry to let off steam. And, she had a really good sleep that night!
So, that leads me back to the sleep. After the 2 weeks play, we started on the long road to sleeping in her own bed all night, without the need for Mum or Dad to be “there”. Ann’s approach is to involve Sally as much as possible – give her as much control over the situation as possible.
Ann told us at the start that there might be tears, but in no way, was this controlled crying. And, she was right. Putting Sally to bed, or during the night, when she was challenged to break the imaginary cord between us, there were lots of tears, but instead of leaving to cry on her own, we’d be there to support, to let her cry as a way of letting go of the fears.
Ann’s explanation about crying makes sense. When our child cries, our first instinct is soothe them and stop the tears. To say “sushhhh, there’s no need for tears” and to try and make things better. But, when they are crying because they have so many emotions inside they need to get out, when they need to cry to demonstrate just how deep their fear is, by stopping the crying, we’re saying their feelings and emotions are not valid. By letting them cry, but being there for them, we’re validating their feelings. And, let’s face it, when we feel emotional, a damn good cry does us the world of good.
So, where are we now? We’ve finished the six week programme. Sally is in her bed all night, but she does still wake up a few times, and calls out to make sure we’re still there. We’re not quite there yet – but we’re on the path, and I think, given time we’ll get there. We’ve got the tools. We know when to push Sally a little further along, to challenge her, to bring out the tears, but equally, we know that we can’t do that continually – we’d be too exhausted and I think Sally’s fears are so deep rooted we’re better off treading lightly and gently, and allowing her to settle after each “challenge”.
We also know when Sally needs to let off steam – when a tantrum won’t be far off, when she needs to have a good cry and usually, after a good cry, we know we’ll have a far more settled night too.
Ann’s approach has been enlightening. It’s opened my eyes to see things from Sally’s point of view. Why she has this fear of being on her own, I don’t know. It might be something from the traumatic birth experience, it might be something completely different. All I know, it’s been pretty much all her life, but, hopefully, given time and a few more challenges from us, we’ll get there.
What you get from Ann is understanding, explanation, support and encouragement. You get to go at your pace. It’s not easy at times. During the most challenging times, I found myself at night lying awake on the floor outside her room for hours, waiting for her to drop back off to sleep. But, if you get too tired, or too emotional yourself, Ann will suggest a back off and a gentler approach. You don’t get a quick fix and you don’t train your child to sleep. What you get is an explanation for the possible underlying causes, and then methods to try and overcome these, to enable your child to sleep for themselves.
Overall, I feel I understand Sally better now. And together we’ll get there.