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Secrets of Sleep School

As a dedicated yoga practitioner, my views about how to raise my child naturally aligned to the ‘attachment’ style of parenting. For nine months, I carried my baby in a sling, fed her to sleep, co-slept and generally tried to be gentle and sensitive to her needs. The idea of controlled crying to ‘teach’ her how to go to sleep horrified me. Why would I let my baby cry herself to sleep and collapse from exhaustion, when I could just ease her into a peaceful slumber?

This worked well for us for a while, but things started to fall apart after a two-month trip to the UK, followed by a series of cold/flu type illnesses and a house move. While it was not a problem to share my bed with my baby per se, it soon became apparent that she had developed a sleep association, needing to be fed back to sleep every time she woke…which was after every 45 minute sleep cycle. We both became exhausted and cranky. For a couple of months I cruised in survival mode, doing what was necessary to get by. But I knew a major intervention was needed and I simply didn’t have the energy to do it by myself.

I had used the Tresillian Parents’ Helpline a few times and had always been pleasantly surprised by their compassion and sensitivity towards both the baby as well as the parent. I asked my Early Childhood Centre to refer me to them for some help, and five weeks later we arrived at the Penrith Tresillian centre for a residential stay.

The whole experience was amazing and I can’t praise the service highly enough. From start to finish, we were gently and expertly guided to help my daughter, Samaira, to sleep longer, in her own bed, and to self-settle.

I knew it was going to be tough, and I was prepared for some hard work. What I hadn’t quite realised was how much I needed to change my own behaviour in order to help Samaira change hers. It was a really emotional journey which took me outside of my comfort zone but ultimately helped me to become a better and more confident mother.

Day One

My husband, Samaira and I arrived at 9am on Saturday morning. We were shown to our room, given a tour of the facilities and discussed the problem and our goals for the stay. It was then time to put Samaira to bed. We were shown how to wrap her – in a square sheet, with the top edge folded down, put the left arm under the fold with her hand up near her face, bring the left side of the sheet over her body and tuck it under, then repeat with the right side. We popped her into the cot, which was in an adjoining room to ours, and although ugly, was very practical with tall legs and a side that dropped completely down – so much easier on your back! Because my husband was only able to stay during the day for the weekend, he was shown how to lay his hands on her to comfort her, before leaving her to give her the opportunity to fall asleep by herself. Samaira responded well to the ‘hands on’, but got upset when he left the room. The nurse sat with us and distracted me with the booking in forms while my husband went in and out of Samaira’s room to reassure her that we were still there. After 20 minutes, he stayed with her until she was asleep. The sleep was a short one – only 35 minutes – and she really needed to go back to sleep again, but we decided we weren’t quite ready to tackle the re-settling process just yet.

Lunch was served in the dining hall from midday. With 19 families staying at the centre, it was quite hectic and overwhelming. There were so many highchairs, so much noise and so many rules. The food was not going to win any Michelin stars, but we didn’t have to cook or clean up, and they made a big effort to accommodate our (many) dietary requirements due to Samaira’s food allergies.

After lunch, we repeated the same settling process. It took another 20 minutes for Samaira to drop off to sleep, although this time she stayed asleep for just over an hour. Instead of laying my hands on Samaira, I stood in the doorway and sang to her. I had had success with this in the past and I wasn’t quite ready to shut the door on her and walk away while she cried. The nurse suggested we re-settle her when she woke, but after a few minutes of crying I went into the room and she was standing, her nose was dripping and she had done a poo. I didn’t have the heart to try, and to be honest, I questioned whether she really needed it as she had not had more than two 45 minute day sleeps for several months.

That afternoon, we popped out to the nearby Westfield to stock up on food supplies and have a coffee, before heading back for dinner and bath time. The evening sleep took slightly less time to re-settle, and this time I was outside the door, but reassuring her with my voice and popping into the room if I felt her crying was getting louder. Another mum from the room next door came and sat with me. She had arrived with her nine month old girl the day before, and had a very similar story to mine. She reassured me that she had felt exactly the same last night as I was feeling now, but she was already seeing some good results. To be honest, I had already gone through quite a few tissues and I was feeling less than happy about the situation, so it was great to have this glimour of hope.

Samaira woke five times that night. The buzzer in the room got quite a workout as we called the nurses to help us to re-wrap and settle her. The nurses suggested that we feed her once before midnight, with an optional post-midnight feed if she needed it, as long as it was more than three hours later. She had both feeds but the second feed she was not really all that hungry, which gave me the confidence to drop it the next night.

Day two

By now, we knew the drill and were starting to feel more confident about how to wrap her and settle her. We were starting to get better at interpreting her cries and I was feeling a bit better about not running straight in to comfort her. Samaira was starting to take less time to settle and was managing to go to sleep without us in the room. In the afternoon, she went straight to sleep without a peep and slept for an incredible 1 hour and 40 minutes! However, putting her to bed in the evening was quite difficult and I was shocked to see her sitting up, and then standing, in her cot. Previously she had been wrapped in a ‘Love to Dream’ swaddle, so she wasn’t able to sit or stand. The sheet wrap we were now using was fairly easy for her to get out of and it didn’t take her long to get up onto her feet. The nurses encouraged us to leave her for a bit before going in to re-wrap her and lie her down again. She eventually went to sleep on her side, which was also a new position that she hadn’t previously been able to get into.

The other mums staying there were really friendly and supportive, and it was nice to be able to talk to other people who truly understood how tough it is to have a baby who doesn’t sleep well. But not all the children were there for the same issue; some had problems with eating and behaviour, as well as sleep issues – including getting too much sleep (and therefore not eating enough), bad day sleeps and night waking.

That night, we were offered a ‘time out’, whereby after she had had her first feed, we could give her to the nurses to look after. She woke at 11pm and then I took her into a spare room further down the hall and waited until she had settled back to sleep before going back to bed myself. Ironically, and annoyingly, I found it hard to sleep and was back at 5:30am just to see how she was. She had woken twice more but slept soundly until 7am, on all fours with her bottom sticking up in the air!

Day three

Samaira is such an active and sociable baby that she doesn’t tend to display very obvious tired signs. So today I kept an eye on the clock and removed her from the stimulation of the toys/people after a maximum of three hours. Once in her room and having a cuddle with me, she would then start to realise she was tired and rub her eyes or pull her hair.

Today, she slept for an hour and half in the morning, and the same again in the afternoon. Clearly she was starting to like this sleeping business! Both sleeps were easy to settle, so I felt happy we were starting to see results.

However, the poor little girl had gone hoarse from all the crying, and she seemed to be considerably more subdued than usual. The nurses reassured me that this was normal, as her body was realising how much sleep it had missed out on and the more sleep she got, the more she craved it.

We had a real breakthrough that night, with Samaira waking only once for a feed and managing to self-settle back again when she woke briefly the second time. I was finally starting to get some sleep myself too – a whopping four hours of undisturbed sleep!!

Day four

We were well and truly into the swing of things now, with Samaira having some great day sleeps. I was due to go home the next day, but was asked if I would like to stay an extra two nights. In the end I decided I would as I wanted to build my confidence and had still not done any re-settling during the day. As it turned out, this was a great decision as that night was a real shocker, with Samaira waking five times. This was a really exhausting night as we got to bed late after being offered a night out – our first night out as a couple in nine months! We got dressed up and went in search of a nice restaurant. Let’s just say that Penrith is a little short on fine dining options, so we ended up at the Penrith Panthers – not quite the romantic, candle lit dinner I had imagined, but nice nonetheless!

Day five

I felt really down today as we had done all the hard work but seemed to be going backwards. After a good discussion with one of the nurses, I realised that I had been doing more and more of the ‘hands on’ over the last day or so, and she was now expecting me to be there when she woke. All I had done was to substitute rocking or feeding her to sleep with putting my hands on her. So I decided that I needed to be more consistent if I was really going to help her, while remaining flexible enough to respond more appropriately if she really needed it. It was a fine line, but now I had a much clearer plan in my own head which gave me the confidence that I knew how to respond and didn’t have to turn to the nurses for their opinion anymore.

Samaira decided to give me the opportunity to practice my re-settling skills during both her day sleeps, and amazingly both attempts were successful.

That night I didn’t have to leave my bed once – she slept the whole night without even a feed, waking briefly twice but managing to self-settle back again quickly. I couldn’t believe this was my baby!

Day six

Our last full day today, and I felt on such a high after last night. The morning sleep re-settle was a failure, so the strategy in this case now is to give her three day sleeps, instead of two longer ones.

Samaira seems much more her usual self today and enjoys her first experience of playing in the sandpit. As it’s our last night, my husband and I were offered another night out, so we decided to go late night shopping. Samaira slept well again that night.

Back at home

It’s time to go home today and I feel ready and confident. We say our goodbyes to the other mums and the nurses who have helped us so much. Samaira sleeps in the car on the way home, so we go for the three day sleeps again today.

I always knew that it would be hard for the first day or so when we got home. For a start, Samaira was back in her own environment, and back in our room, so it was inevitable she would test the boundaries somewhat. In addition, we are temporarily living with my husband’s parents, and I knew they would find it difficult to hear her cry, which makes me feel guilty.

As predicted, the first day is challenging, but after a while everyone gets used to the new routine and Samaira settles into a pattern of waking once during the night for a quick feed, and sometimes a second time when she will need settling back to sleep. We moved her cot into the spare room and that really helped…it was also great to have our room back so we could have the light on and talk in bed!

A typical day

We have been back for over a month now and everything is still going well. Every day is slightly different, but the overall routine is working well for us. Tresillian are able to offer ‘typical’ routines depending on your baby’s age, but stress that the most important point is to watch for tired signs. I was a bit concerned that I might feel like a prisoner in my own home, but this hasn’t been the case and we are still able to get out and about.

A typical day for Samaira looks something like this:

6:00am Wake up, morning feed and snuggle in bed
7:00am Breakfast
7.30am Play with grandparents
8:30am Breastfeed on the second side, followed by more play
9.15am Sleep
10:30am Out to playgroup/walk/shops etc
12:00pm Lunch
12:45pm Breastfeed
1:30pm Sleep
3:30pm Play/shops/walk etc
5:00pm Dinner
5:30pm Bath
6:00pm Breastfeed, story
6:30pm Bed
11:00pm Breastfeed
4:30pm Wake, needs settling

Samaira is so much happier now. Her appetite is much bigger, she feeds without being distracted and we both enjoy the time we spend together. She used to get upset if I took even one step away from her, but she will now quite happily play by herself while I leave the room. And instead of spending hours rocking/patting/feeding her to sleep, I now wrap her up, give her a cuddle, pop her into bed and leave the room.

Wrapping Samaira remains a somewhat controversial point amongst my mummy friends, all of whom have worked hard to get their little one out of the wrap or swaddle. The Tresillian attitude however, is that as long as they are wrapped with their arms up and can get out of it, they are safe. It is simply a cue that it is sleep time, and if they wear themselves out fighting to get out of it, then all the better. One of the nurses even told me that she wrapped her children until they were 2 and half! I guess Samaira will grow out of it when she is ready, but I’m in no rush to lose it as long as it continues to work for us.

While I don’t regret parenting Samaira in the way that I did, with hindsight I would have made the changes sooner as it has made such a positive impact on our lives. I feel deeply appreciative to live in a country that genuinely cares about the well being of families and provides such fantastic resources. More importantly, I can never repay the kindness and patience of the amazing nurses who helped me on this journey.

Five myths about Tresillian

1)      They give you the first night off, so they can go hard on the baby with you out of the way. I was offered a night out with my husband on my last night staying there. I was also offered ‘time out’, where they looked after Samaira overnight. This was on my second night. It was not compulsory and I could take her back at any time.

2)      They let babies cry themselves to sleep. Before I went, people told me horror stories of mothers being locked out of their baby’s room while they cried for two hours. Maybe in the old days but this certainly isn’t true now. Tresillian don’t advocate controlled crying. Instead, they sit with you and help you to identify what the cry means and how best to respond to it. For instance, if they are at full volume crying, you will need to go into the room to comfort them more frequently and stay longer than if they were just grizzling.

3)      You have to be desperate to go there. I was, but you don’t need to be. They welcome everyone and let you stay extra days if you haven’t quite achieved your goals or don’t feel confident to implement the changes when you’re back home. The nurses also said to me several times that I was welcome to go back again at any time if I needed their support again.

4)      All the babies are there because they can’t self-settle. People get referred to Tresillian for all sorts of issues for children between 0 and 5 years old. While I was staying there, there was a baby as young as 7 weeks who couldn’t sleep during the day, and a 2.5 year old who had behavioural issues.

5)      Tresillian is for first time mums who don’t know what they are doing.There were several mums there who had more than one child (and one single super-dad!). In fact, there was one lady who had been to Tresillian with all of her previous three babies. Each child is unique so the nurses help you to develop an approach that works for your child.

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One Response

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this story. I have just been booked in to Tresillian sleep school after hoping my (now 15 month old) would eventually learn to sleep. I’ve been so worried about it as I too am more aligned with the attchment style parenting. You’ve given me a bit of relief that it is a good thing for us to do!

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