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Emily Writes: Putting to bed bad advice about infant and toddler sleep

Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes has a message for parents whose kids don’t sleep: don’t fall into the same traps she did. There’s heaps of advice out there, and she took all of it. But did any of it work?

Let me start by saying I’ve tried every single thing possible to get my children to sleep at night. Now, aged two and four – they mostly sleep. Usually for about five hours straight. Which to me is “through the night”. This is a relatively new development.

For a period there – about three and a half years – I didn’t sleep at all. So when it comes to getting your baby to sleep, I’ve heard it all and I’ve tried it all.

And let me tell you, a lot of the advice about sleep is… how do I put this? … absolutely batshit and often literally made up by someone who wants to charge you $300 a “consultation” to teach you something your baby will eventually do on their own anyway.

So in the interests of saving the sanity of any mother I can, here’s an exhausted list of not exhaustive sleep methods that absolutely did not work for me. And a few that sort of did. And one that very definitely did.

The beginning: Emily Writes, her son Eddie and newborn, Ham

Cry it Out

Oh she’s going there! Right off the bat! Well, considering “leave your baby to cry” was the advice I got the most relentlessly I figured I’d tackle that first. Now, I’m not going to talk about the ethics of the method – because I would like to live longer than eight minutes after this has been published. Instead, I’m just going to say that this didn’t work. I tried every variation: “five minutes of crying”, “eight minutes”, “12.367 minutes” whatever crazy stupid number a book or sleep consultant told me. I tried it – and it didn’t work. I know you’re about to tell me that I have to do it for 15 months for it to work, but listen: If something takes half a year to work, it doesn’t work.

Cry it out made my child worse and made the whole family stressed and upset. At one point my oldest son was sobbing and rocking back and forth. It was so traumatic. I can’t believe I tried it – but I did because I was exhausted and I thought it would work because any time you say you’re tired people leap on to your chest, pin you down and scream in your face: CRY IT OUT CRY IT OUT YOU HAVE TO LEAVE THEM TO CRY.

I’ve talked to a HEAP of mums offline (because you’ve got a deathwish if you want to talk about this online) about cry it out and every one of them has said it only “worked” for a very short period. Generally it worked until baby got a new tooth or got sick. So the thing is – you hear about the time it did work, and not the month or so later when it doesn’t and everyone has to go through screaming and crying and trauma all night all over again.

So in my view, it doesn’t work. And if anything it makes everything worse, because everyone is crying and feeling terrible as well as not getting any sleep.


More from Emily Writes on sleep, and the lack of it:

When you’re tired enough: On the hell of having a child who just won’t sleep

Dispatches from a long night featuring vomit

Top tips for getting your child to sleep

How to survive daylight savings when you have kids


Getting a sleep consultant

Well, I’ve seen like four of them – maybe? I don’t know, it’s hard to remember when you’re getting no sleep. I kept seeing them because each time I’d hope they’d have some secret. They were all very nice (which is good because you’re paying a lot of money so it’s the least they can do) but none of them knew why my baby wouldn’t sleep. Some had little things to tweak, like earlier bedtimes (also they all contradicted themselves on this – literally one month after one said no naps during the day the other said he has to nap during the day). Most just said “keep doing what you’re doing”. Which is nice, but I could say that to myself while crying and drinking wine for free (or $8.99 for a bottle of clearskin pinot gris). The truth is, there is no secret. Kids will eventually sleep. But that’s not advice someone is going to buy.

Tanking them up with formula

My first child had formula and didn’t sleep. Despite knowing this I STILL BELIEVED THIS MYTH. Which I guess just shows how prevalent it is. I weaned my son because every other day I was told breast milk was stopping him from sleeping. Guess what – didn’t work. If anything it made it worse because I had to fuck around with bottles all night which woke me up WAY MORE than just sticking my tit in his mouth. Oh the regret I felt when I couldn’t settle him because I had no milk left. I used to just lay there and imagine decking internet commenters like whack-a-mole as they said “They’re hungry! They need formula!” or “Mine slept all night because he was formula fed”. Don’t even get me started on the time someone shared a study saying breastfed babies sleep less than formula fed babies and under the related tab was a study that said mothers who breastfeed sleep more than mothers who formula feed. God give me fucking strength. Which brings me to my next point…

Don’t give them fluids overnight

This one is so dumb I can’t believe I fell for it. As my baby was waking himself up completely – screaming himself into oblivion as I denied him a bottle – I took a sip of my drink bottle and suddenly realised I was being a total fucking idiot. Since when do babies and kids not get thirsty overnight? I wake up a couple of times a night to drink water. I always have water by my bed. When I’m coughing or feeling sick, I drink (water usually) all night. Yet we keep being told there’s no way babies are thirsty. Some say “Past six weeks they don’t need milk overnight”. Says who? One baby doesn’t get thirsty therefore no babies are allowed to drink overnight? That’s quite weird if you think about it.

Your baby is being a manipulative asshole and can actually sleep but chooses not to and you have to show them who is boss by not giving into their demands

It is quite a thing to switch your brain over as soon as 7pm comes and start viewing your babies as tiny terrorists when all day they’ve been your pride and joy. So this myth is harder to buy into but it sure is common – especially with the ummm older generation. Those who buy into this believe that the thing wrong with mothers today is they’re too soft. Modern mothers just don’t understand that babies are super beings with very high IQs who purposely wake all night just to anger their parents. I did go through a period where I wondered if my baby was intentionally waking – because I so often heard “he is manipulating you, he can sleep, he just wants to show you he has you wrapped around his finger”. But it just didn’t work. Every time I went into my baby’s room he was sobbing and reaching out for me. He was often shaking all over and the second I held him he began to calm down. Was he an Oscar winner in the making? It’s possible. But why? Why would he do that?

Frankly if a cuddle is so important to him that he’d wake himself up hourly for it and put on a performance that completely convinces me that he’s scared and upset, he deserves one.

If there’s a chance of sleep, you take it – even if you’re in the middle of your work day

Routines

We have had our children in routines from day dot. Didn’t do a thing in terms of sleep. We still have them in routines because it works well for us as a family. Some kids really thrive on routine and need to know when stuff is happening. But since we have always been in routine, I fail to see how it helped with sleep (it has helped my sanity though).

Put them on solids early

Just gave him a sore tummy and the shits. Sorry!

Give them food during the night

This actually worked for a friend of mine who had a chronic non-sleeper. But it just made my child wake up completely.

Put them in their own room

We did this. He’s still in his own room. But he always, always slept better in our room. Our oldest one day said “I want my own room” and we moved him in when he was two and a half and he mostly slept better. But when we’d tried it about five months earlier he’d woken 10 trillion times more than a usual night. So I’m a believer in moving them when they’re ready – unless they’re driving you absolutely up the fucking wall like our baby. We had no choice but to move him. And really, he still ends up in our bloody room because he’s too determined and we are too broken. So putting them in their own room isn’t an immediate fix.

The floor bed

Put them in a big bed

Things we have put our child to sleep on: a bassinet, a cot mattress in a cot, a cot mattress on the floor, my mother-in-law’s cot mattress on the floor, my mother-in-law’s cot mattress in a port-a-cot, a single bed on a single bed base, a single bed on the floor, a double bed on a double bed base, a double bed on the floor, our king size bed, his brother’s bed which is the same mattress but we thought we could try, a pile of pillows on the floor, and just a duvet on the floor. Things our child will sleep on: my chest, his father’s chest.

To be honest, the floor bed has worked the most for us. And the cot has worked the least for us. We have a double mattress and a single mattress on the floor of our youngest child’s room and he mostly sleeps OK there now. It’s a hassle because you have to stand the mattress up each day so it doesn’t get mouldy (unless you’re rich and have a completely dry house). He wakes up a handful of times a night and gets a quick kiss back to sleep, or if we are too tired he wanders in and climbs into bed with us. It has worked for us a lot better than anything else. It also means we can sleep with him if it’s a bad night. AND he can’t hurt himself trying to climb out of the cot. We have found he sometimes gets up and we don’t wake – he walks to the kitchen and eats some cheese. But you know I’m fine with that. I don’t care as long as I get some sleep.

*

Now, the only thing that worked. *Drum roll*. You’re going to hate this:

Waiting for him to just sort it out himself.

Oh my gosh I feel like such an asshole. I’m sorry. But it’s true. And it is true for everyone I’ve spoken to with seriously bad sleepers. Some kids just don’t sleep. It’s a development thing. It really is. Our four-year-old just one day started sleeping. We didn’t do anything differently. He just started sleeping. The same thing is happening with our two-year-old.

Prior to this he’d seen two paediatricians, a mental health team (to see if he was having night terrors), a dietician, a chiropractor (definitely didn’t work), the best sleep specialist in the country (she has actual qualifications – unlike sleep consultants, she works at a hospital), a Karatane nurse, a neurologist and three GPs. Nobody knew what was wrong with him. He had MRIs and heart scans and cat scans and monitoring and blood tests and nobody knew what was wrong.

Because there was nothing wrong. He’s just a baby who didn’t sleep for a long time.

Near the end of all of the testing, the child who slept for only 45 minutes at a time for two years slept through the night. For no reason. We didn’t do anything differently. I wish there was a secret but there isn’t. Some babies sleep through the night from early on, others take a long time.

The one constant we heard from specialists was “you’re not doing anything wrong”.

And that is a message we don’t hear enough when it comes to infant sleep.

If we could end the obsession with the idea of “good babies” sleeping through the night – and began to focus on the wellbeing of parents who are waking all night – we’d go such a long way to getting rid of the crazy things we think about infant sleep.

I felt a huge sense of failure at not being able to get my children to sleep at night. There is a whole industry set up around making sure mothers feel terrible about themselves because their children don’t sleep. If parents blame themselves they will spend money. If they accept sleep is a developmental milestone and every baby is different, there’s no money to be made.

I am a fairly broke person and it makes me want to cry thinking about how much money I have wasted. I’ve bought every sleep device and paid unqualified people to assess my baby and my apparent failures.

Believe me, I know how hard it is. I really wish someone had told me at the beginning that it’s not my fault like those specialists did. The only people we didn’t have to pay were the ones who told us the truth.

So I’m saying that to you if you need to hear it.

This post will mean nothing to parents whose kids sleep. But if yours don’t, I’m speaking to you.

It’s not your fault. I promise.

Ignore the chorus telling you you’re doing it all wrong and you need to wean or leave them to cry or sleep train or give them solids or get a sleep consultant or perform some weird juju past life shit on them because if you don’t you’re not “respecting their need to sleep”.

(Yes, I’ve been told that too – and it’s bullshit).

Ignore it. You’re doing great. This will pass I promise. It’s long and hard and awful (so, so awful) but you’re not alone.

You’re not a martyr – that favourite word to attack sleep deprived mothers with – you’re just trying your best.

I see you trying.

You’ll sleep soon.

So will they.

And so will I.

Promise x

Emily Writes is editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Follow her on Facebook here.

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