After months of trying to get our baby girl to stay asleep we called in an expert... with great results
Reflux as a newborn meant Liadan Hynes's daughter, Sarah, needed to be rocked for hours before falling asleep - until she contacted sleep trainer Lucy Wolfe
It might have been the holiday when Sarah was three-and-a-half months where it felt as if I merely emerged sporadically from a blacked-out room to enjoy the odd hour of sunshine before retreating back into the darkness to bounce, rock or feed herself to sleep.
It could have been the hours of rocking in the middle of the night, desperately trying to get her back to sleep. Only rocking doesn't quite cover it; this was the full body-bounce, as we came to term it, which involved sitting on the edge of the bed, toes gently resting on the floor, and bouncing one's entire body up and down. Anything less would result in a beady little eye from the baby in your arms opening and fixing upon you, looking askance at such a paltry effort.
There was the day when a group of friends with babies the same age tried, but failed, to conceal their horror when I admitted that instead of getting better, sleep was getting worse, with two-hour stretches the best we could hope for. All the above, and more, convinced us that we needed professional help.
At three weeks of age, our daughter Sarah was diagnosed with silent reflux. Not serious, but stressful. The only thing that would calm her as her body went rigid as a plank and she screamed hysterically for half an hour after every feed was rocking. We discovered this, the first night the reflux kicked in, after seven hours straight of non-stop crying.
Reflux babies tend to hate the pram - lying on their backs is uncomfortable, and the car seat puts pressure on their tummies, so neither of those were options for getting her off to sleep. When she did go to sleep, day or night, she had to be held upright after a feed for half an hour.
And her sleep was light and restless, all typical reflux baby behaviour. At almost four months, medication had largely sorted out the reflux, but the habits had stuck. She could not go to sleep without one of us rocking her and would only stay asleep if we held her.
In pure desperation, I emailed sleep trainer Lucy Wolfe, begging her to help us. I had never planned on sleep training my child if only because, before becoming a parent, I had never even heard of sleep training. Obviously, I knew sleep was thin on the ground with small babies, but I'd never given it much detailed thought, figuring things eventually sorted themselves out.
Pre-baby, I would have scoffed at the notion of a sleep consultant as the kind of thing people with more money than sense engaged in.
Before contacting Lucy, I tried all the books.
The one that advocated a gentle approach, before unleashing the extinction method midway through, which essentially seemed to involve putting your child in their room overnight and leaving them to it. Gina Ford and her micro-managing schedule brought on a panic attack.
Mostly though, the books just enhanced the crushing sense of failure that I felt. Parenting shouldn't be a competitive sport, but it is. Are they good? Do they sleep?
At our wits' end, at 12 weeks in, we tried a spur-of-the-moment sleep training session one night, unable to face yet another evening of hours of rocking. We put Sarah on her cot, a co-sleeper, with Himself sitting right beside her. After two hours of crying but no sleep, we gave up. Another night, there was an impromptu attempt at the Baby Whispering theory. It involved a lot of picking up and putting down, which only seemed to irritate her, and attempts to shush at the volume of a loud tap, as the book instructed. Needless to say, complete failure, ending in a defeated co-sleeping huddle.
What appealed about Lucy, who will also conduct sessions by Skype, was the gentle sleep training approach she promised. We neither had the stomach for any sort of hardcore cry-it-out method, nor the belief that it would work.
Lucy practices the stay-and-support method. The idea is to teach your child to sleep, with increasingly lessening interference from you. But it's never about leaving them on their own to cry, and it's very much about what suits your family, co-sleepers and all.
Unlike the other books, which can sometimes seem to push their philosophies in a hard-sell manner that can suggest if you don't follow their approach, you're failing, Lucy tailors her method to suit each family.
It's not always necessarily about eradicating every waking; It's about what your child can manage, she says bluntly. But for the parents who come to her with a child who is waking every 40 minutes,"that's not sustainable", she says firmly. She combines a brisk, no-nonsense manner with an intuitive, supportive warmth. She herself is a mother-of-four, so unlike some in the sleep training business, she has experienced the brutal coalface of sleepless parenting. "I got into sleep training from the world of sleep deprivation", she explains with a laugh.
"My oldest child had come as a very good sleeper, and then turned into not a very good sleeper." She recalls arriving at her mother's house when the baby was 10 months old.
"I was so tired. I'll never forget it, I stood at her door and I felt like crying. What I couldn't understand was how he'd gone from being a contented baby to being up and drinking his own bodyweight in milk in the overnight period. I was back at work and it was really challenging and there were no resources."
She began reading books and became fascinated by healthy sleep habits. Word spread that Lucy was good at teaching babies how to sleep, and she began helping out family members and friends. "I loved it. It kind of ticked all the boxes for me", she reflects.
At that time running a property business with her husband, Alan, she decided to take this new calling seriously and got training in the UK and America.
Working with Lucy, the plan is that you start right at the cot side, intermittently interrupting the crying (singing, tapping lightly on the cot, occasionally picking up) and over time, each couple of nights move closer towards the door, simultaneously decreasing the amount of times you interfere. Eventually the baby starts to bring themself back to calm, and, on one of those occasions, they drop off.
"It's about having healthy sleep practices", Lucy explains. "I take two major strands. The first is the biological time-keeping element of sleep difficulties, which is all about the body clock."
This means routine, a word which had been anathema to me. Actually though, Lucy's routine is more a scaffolding on which to hang your day. Rather than minute-by-minute instructions, it sets out waking and bedtime times, and a guide for when, and how often, to feed and nap in between. Rather than being restrictive, it instantly made everything easier. I knew how long we had out and about; I knew what was the matter if she was out of sorts.
Bedtime routine is a must, something we struggled with until we finally realised all the bathing, book reading and other stuff was merely making her more alert, and all that was needed was singing a lullaby repeatedly as we prepared for bed.
Alongside getting something of a schedule going, the second part of the approach involves breaking whatever sleep supports you have fallen into. This is the crying part.
This may be a gentle sleep training approach, but it is not without crying.
I will be forever thankful that Lucy suggested Aidan do the nights, while I did daytime nap training, as Sarah would expect to be fed by me and only get confused. I sat at the far end of the house, radio on to block out the crying. It was not easy.
"I consider it to be quite gentle, even though that has different connotations", she explains. "I don't do a no-cry solution. I think it's difficult to change habits without there being an element of protest on a child's part. But I think what parents can do is support their child."
The most common sleep props are feeding to sleep, rocking, or lying down with a child. "It creates a dependency", Lucy explains.
"There's nothing wrong with a dependency, and I'd be very clear about that, but some of these dependencies don't help your child. The level of success, if we're measuring in terms of will they sleep through the night, is on a gradient, a spectrum", she explains. "Because we have to see what that child is tolerant of."
Sarah had never really fallen asleep without some assistance. I still remember the one time she fell asleep in my arms unnoticed by me while I chatted at our weekly coffee morning. So to be honest, I didn't think this would work.
That first night, it took under an hour. Aidan sat beside the cot, and intermittently tried to break her crying, by tapping on the side of the cot, or mattress and very occasionally picking her up.
She slept in blocks of four hours, having previously woken sometimes every 40 minutes. And instead of wriggling around in her sleep, she slept soundly.
I thought that resorting to a professional sleep trainer would be somewhat demoralising, but in fact working with Lucy was surprisingly empowering. She repeatedly asked what we thought, what was our instinct.
"It's a collaborative effort, because it's not one size fits all", she explains. "I want families to reach their child's optimal sleep, whatever that is going to be in that given moment in time." She knew exactly when to lean on us. When I described leaning over to rock Sarah in my arms while she still lay, technically, on the bed, she suggested that there might be a touch of helicopter parenting going on. It was exactly the advice we needed. I stopped secretly imagining climbing into the cot and lying beside her in an effort to speed things along.
At the outset, Lucy warned she needed a month of full commitment. I was on maternity leave, and this was essentially akin to a full-time job for four weeks; even Christmas Day was scheduled around the sleep training. Nap training can happen separately to night-time if this isn't realistic for you.
Lucy now sees couples who are pregnant, or parents of newborns, to give tips, and works with parents of children from six months to six years on addressing sleep problems. Most families will see significant improvements within the first seven to 10 days, she says. But everyone's idea of improvement differs.
"A lot of people come and they want sleeping through the night - that's their improvement", says Lucy. "I manage their expectations. If you come to me at four months, we won't be sleeping through the night.
"There's such a lack of proper information that it seems to be one way or the highway; you either subscribe to no sleep or you're looking for sleep in an unrealistic capacity. It doesn't always have to be about sleeping through the night. What I aim to do is enhance your particular child's sleep skill, and know that that can be improved upon throughout their development."
The decision to write a book was one she had mulled over for some time. "I wanted to write the book as an extension of what I already do with families on a one-to-one basis", Lucy explains.
"I really felt that parents deserve to read material that has an honest approach with realistic expectations and without having to cry it out."
Did it work?
When I went back to work at 10 months, we could put Sarah down in her cot and walk out and she would happily fall asleep for naps and at bedtime. She tended to wake once a night.
There have been regressions, major regressions, and having been trained out of our big issue - rocking for hours to get her to sleep - we've largely rolled with it, lacking the stamina to fully commit to training again. Now, she either sleeps through, or wakes once. And I consider Lucy's help, particularly given as it was in such a non-judgmental, non-dogmatic manner, unlike so much 'advice' new parents hear, to have been invaluable.
"Some children are designed to still wake and need reassurance from you", she herself says.
"As parents, it's one of our tasks to prove that reassurance."
And nowadays, Sarah sleeps until eight, even nine, most mornings.
We'll take it.
The Baby Sleep Solution by Lucy Wolfe, Gill Books, published this Friday, £12.99