I am reaching out to talk about sleep training.
I know you don’t believe there is a need to talk about it, but there is.
I also know that you believe that criticisms against sleep training come from a place of judgement. Privileged judgement at that.
I hope that I can present an alternative perspective.
You see, the pressure to sleep train (or sleep training culture) is so pervasive that like sexual harassment, it’s not a case of *if* a woman will experience it, but how much.
And that is exactly why we need to talk about it, and the structures that uphold such a culture.
Western civilisation has the highest rates of postnatal depression, anxiety and psychosis in the world. We are failing mothers, and their babies.
Thus sleep training is often held up as both a cure, and a prevention tactic.
White, middle-class mothers, especially those of us outside the USA, are, you suggest speaking from a position of sanctimony and privilege when we challenge the idea that sleep training is useful, or necessary, either for baby, or for mum’s mental health.
Yet, in countries and cultures that we have looked down on for centuries as less civilised, savage, primitive, where sleep training has never been heard of, where breastfeeding and bed-sharing into the toddler years is the norm, their incidences of Post Natal Depression and associated disorders are so low that there’s no equivalent term for the “baby blues”.
These women are certainly not what we could call privileged. Many of them struggle for basic living conditions, clean water, a toilet, enough food. They don’t have paid parental leave, or a government pension. Rather than being forced to return to work in order to meet their mortgage repayments, they are forced to return to work just to eat. Often their work involves heavy labour outdoors, or cramped horrendous conditions indoors.
Yet they have not either adopted the western belief that sleep training is necessary for their own mental or physical health.
The question of course should be, why? What is it that is fundamentally different?
Even when running through a list of the usual suspects, patriarchy, capitalism etc, we come up short for an answer. Their cultures are still patriarchal, ome much more so than ours, and whilst neoliberalism doesn’t directly apply, they too need to work in order to provide for their families.
So what *is* fundamentally different?
Essentially, it’s how motherhood is constructed, and how babies (and their lack of sleeping 8 hours) are viewed.
In Kenya or China or Fiji or Venezuela a baby that wakes frequently throughout the night (even up to age two) to feed or for comfort, or simply because they can’t sleep isn’t considered to be broken and in need of fixing. That’s just what babies are like, and mothers (likely) go into motherhood aware of this fact.
Even if they are ignorant, the experienced mothers around them will soon normalise their baby’s behaviour, and point out that this is expected. It’s not something to be managed, controlled, or prevented. It’s not something that means your baby “needs” to be “taught” any number of skills that all develop naturally (circadian rhythm, linking sleep cycles, to sleep independently, to self-soothe). It’s simply not something that mothers worry about.
Yet in the west, every conversation a mother of a child under 12 months has tends to involve questions around sleep. Often moralised questions that connect your baby’s value as a person or your value as a parent to how much independent sleep your baby is capable of.
These concerns around sleep, niggle at us, worry us. They undermine our sense of self-worth, our confidence and our trust that we are doing best by our child. And the “cure” for all this worry. Is sleep training.
Sleep training, which often leads to breastfeeding complications because baby is no longer removing the milk on a regular enough basis. Creating yet another area of “failure” for the mother.
Sleep Training, which requires mothers to go against their instincts, and ignore their crying baby, with some mothers even resorting to alcohol and noise-cancelling headpones to help them “stay strong”enough to “give their baby the gift of independent sleep”
Sleep Training, which every health professional, family member and random busy-body tells you will save your marriage and your sanity. If you can just get through it first.
Sleep Training, which when you fail out of sleep school because your child doesn’t comply, or you can’t bring yourself to stay outside the door for that whole 5 minutes whilst you can see on the video monitor that your baby is literally shaking or throwing up from stress, leaves you feeling like even more of a failure. Especially when the so-called “experts” then wash their hands of you.
First you failed to know what your baby wanted.
Then you failed to teach your baby “good sleep habits” from birth.
Then you failed at breastfeeding
Now you’ve failed to be strong enough, to persist long enough, to harden up enough, to do the program correctly, and as a result your baby is going to have developmental delays and behavioural disorders as a result of broken sleep. So you’ve failed there too.
All in all you’ve failed as a mother.
Failed Failed Failed.
It is this culture, this construction of how babies should work, and the utter lack of tangible, practical support for new mothers that allows them to truly recover from birth, bond with their baby and allows them to nurture their instincts that creates such high rates of post-natal disorders in the first place.
Postnatal disorders are preventable.
But sleep training is not, and will never be the cure.
The cure lies in evidence based respectful birth care, a return to honouring the postnatal period with practical help: a focus on mum’s recovery and rest, accurate breastfeeding knowledge, normalisation of what infant sleep is actually like, honouring of the mother in her new role, practical support for an extended period of time, and experienced mentors who recognise the biological norms for our species and can help families to find ways to meet the needs of each individual without throwing another under the bus, and whilst still respecting those biological norms.
Hi I'm Nicole