The story so far: I spent last week with Joanna and Simon teaching their son Jack, aged 10 months, to sleep through the night. Millie is three years old and also struggles with disrupted sleep. This week it is her turn.
Monday night: Normally I would begin with a two hour consultation before I begin sleep training with older children. Children of Millie’s age have developed all sorts of different sleep associations and their sleep history will vary. Often I am told that the child in question hasn’t always been a bad sleeper and I need to find out what has changed their behaviour – it could be the birth of a sibling, a house move, starting nursery school. As babies get older and their understanding of the world increases, they begin to realise that it doesn’t revolve around them; they become aware of change that they can’t control and this can cause worries that they are unable to articulate. Deep sleep, known as non-REM sleep when the baby is totally relaxed and the eyelids don’t move, is when babies’ brains make sense of the activities of the day. Dreaming tends to happen in lighter REM sleep and this, too, is an important learning process for developing brains. So it is essential for babies of over 6 months to sleep for 12 hours each night so that their sleep cycles (approximately 45 minutes at this age, rising to 1½ hours by adulthood) can continue through the night without interruption, enabling both mental and physical growth. However, I have spent the previous week with Joanna and I have got to know Millie quite well; Millie certainly knows what I do and is quite keen to have “her turn”, so on this occasion I forego the consultation. I do, however, spend some time with Joanna talking through the different strategies we could use, and whether she wants to be part of the sleep training or not. I think it is important for parents, and particularly mothers, to feel comfortable with what is happening. Children are well-attuned to body language and other unspoken signals, and if Mummy is saying “This lady is here to help you” while she is thinking “but I don’t see how it is ever going to work”, then we are off to a bad start.
After some discussion about various types of gradual withdrawal, Joanna finally says: “I think if we do Rapid Return we have the best chance of success.” I am pleased on several counts: first, that she said “we”. It is really important that this feels like teamwork, even if I am the one doing the hands-on training because Millie will know if her mother buys into it or not; secondly, Joanna has decided which method she prefers, which means she is taking ownership of the training, not simply following my lead; finally, Rapid Return is one of the quicker methods of training so positive results are more swiftly achieved.
On the first night I always arrive in time to help with bath time so that the baby or toddler knows who I am. On subsequent nights I don’t arrive until 9pm because the disruptions tend to start after 10pm, so this gives us an hour to discuss our progress. It also teaches the child, indirectly, that it is good for Mummy to be around for bath time but once she turns out the light that is the last time they will see each other until morning. Millie, of course, feels that I am an old friend, which gives me a significant head start, but I still do bath time with her and Jack. Last week we adapted the evening routine to make it possible for Joanna to get both children into bed by 7pm, giving each child some time alone with her. This is now the norm for them both so I am not much more than an onlooker. Millie keeps looking at me and confirming “It’s me this week, isn’t it?” so I tell her that yes, I am here for her this week and that she will learn how to stay in her own bed all night long. Bed time is accomplished without stress or hassle; Jack goes down beautifully and Millie also kisses her mother goodnight before sticking her thumb in her mouth.
Joanna and I go downstairs and chat for a while. Despite Jack now sleeping through the night, Joanna has had Millie in her bed every night for the last week and is still exhausted. “She’s a noisy, snuffly sleeper,” laughs Joanna. “And she has a kick like a mule when she wriggles!” We talk about how, if Joanna isn’t sleeping well because of Millie being in her bed, Millie is probably not sleeping as well as she might from being with Joanna. This gives her pause for thought. It transpires that Millie started sleeping in Joanna’s bed when her husband, Simon, was away on business. “It is too easy when he is away just to let her slip in with me. I am so exhausted by dealing with two children during the day that I will do anything for a quiet night. The problems arise when Simon is at home – he really hates having Millie in with us, partly because he’s worried he’ll roll over and squash her. He’s read about the dangers of co-sleeping and knows you shouldn’t do it if you’ve been drinking, are on medication or are over-tired. Well, that’s a joke – we’re both permanently over-tired, it seems to come with the territory!” She laughs ruefully. We discuss different cultural expectations and Joanna tells me of some friends of hers whose children still sleep in their parents’ bed, which makes it difficult for Joanna to admit that she thinks this is a problem. We talk about how important it is to find your own way of parenting and to be confident about it, given how much conflicting advice is published on childcare. I hope I am reassuring Joanna and encouraging her to trust her instincts. Finally we both head for bed at about 10pm, aware that the night ahead is going to be challenging for all three of us. “See you soon,” smiles Joanna, as we close our bedroom doors.
For more information on anything mentioned in this article contact Georgie Bateman at Night Nannies on 01794 301762 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.nightnannies.com. Other useful organisations are FSID (www.fsid.org.uk), the Department of Health for advice on co-sleeping (www.dh.gov.uk) and UNICEF (www.babyfriendlyorg.uk).