Guest post by Zelma Broadfoot
As a social worker and a mother, I’ve experienced mental health issues both personally and professionally. It has touched my life, gently from time to time, and then knocked me over like a tone of bricks after the birth of my first daughter, Cadence, in 2015.
I was in a dark place, and due to my professional background, I knew exactly where to seek help. I voluntarily engaged with a number of professionals. Unfortunately, this ‘help’ usually consisted of questions like: “how does she sleep?” I was surprised to find that the entire therapeutic relationship was often centered around this topic.
I was shown videos on how to settle my baby as part of my treatment plan, which left me feeling uncomfortable and unsupported. Although I didn’t realise it at the time this approach undermined my natural instincts and innate knowing as a mother. It was condescending and left me feeling as though I was being treated like a child on their first day of school; being shown where to hang my bag and told what time recess was. It seemed too simple.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate the vast difference between what was culturally normal as opposed to biologically normal for infant sleep. I didn’t know that babies (and toddlers) weren’t supposed to sleep through the night. I didn’t know that ‘sleep associations’ were important and not to be avoided. I didn’t know to question the professional advice I was being given. I simply didn’t know.
So, I did as I was instructed. Each time I followed society’s rulebook my soul grew a little dimmer. The light within me that longed for my child was growing dark. I felt like a failure: I couldn’t get my baby to sleep the way the video showed me, I couldn’t be methodical or consistent.
How could I mother her in the way she deserved; the way the pamphlets with happy children on the cover say?
Eventually, a nurse came to my home to support me. After all, I wasn’t ‘getting the hang of it’ and needed some guidance. I wasn’t willing to let my daughter ‘cry it out’ so we stood outside her bedroom door as I was instructed to go to my baby when she was ‘grizzling’ but to avoid making eye contact.
It absolutely shreds my heart in two to write this as I remember my darling angel, crying for her mother as I sat next to her cot avoiding eye contact and patting her sobbing back. I was told to leave the room once more but I refused. I felt all of this; a stranger was in my home, telling me how to parent my daughter against my instincts and against what is biologically normal. In the end, I asked the nurse to leave. I held my beautiful girl until she fell asleep; still worked up from being very gently yet undoubtedly ignored.
By this time, Cadence was eight months old and I traveled eight hundred kilometres to stay in a mental health facility called a Mother and Baby Unit that I had waited over five months on the waiting list to go to. I anticipated nurturing and very skilled practitioners but I left after 24 hours due to being told to stop feeding overnight because my baby was manipulating me. The official advice was to wean Cadence so that I would sleep better at night and get the rest I needed to heal.
I needed to escape this toxic cycle. I was beyond exhausted but I was growing even more tired of the support I was being offered.
When I was offered a hospital admission without my baby with zero regard for our breastfeeding relationship and attachment, I finally canceled all future appointments with all health professionals. While the staff were concerned for me and my mental health had deteriorated, I knew it wasn’t because of my daughter’s needs. It was due to the intense pressure placed upon my shoulders to reach an outcome such as sleeping through the night that was neither possible nor a requirement for my healing. My daughter needed me and that extended into the nighttime hours.
I needed help but not the help that I was being given. I needed to be nurtured so that I could nurture my daughter.
My experience is a perfect example of the way a service or rigid response to a parent’s mental health can be unsupportive or even detrimental to a family’s wellbeing. At a time when I was proactive and authentic in my actions by seeking referrals to literally all of the professional support available to me, I was perceived to be the opposite. Every single service that I engaged with recommended sleep training. When I declined, it was seen as a rebellious and reckless act. There is no quick fix for postnatal depression, including sleep training.
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If we continue to undermine parents and their needs and wants by following a generic and structured approach to healing, we do parents a disservice. If we continue to perpetuate the unrealistic and false ideas about the reality of parenthood we are contributing to the prevalence of postnatal depression in our society. I am, to this day, extremely disappointed with the care I received.
I eventually found a private psychotherapist who said: “oh, I had postnatal depression too. We can definitely work through this together.” Just like that, I was on my way to wellness. This validation was everything.
I started to heal. I decided to dig deep and work hard. I realised that no one else could heal me, yet I knew that I could heal without compromising caring for my daughter in the way she needed me to. I trusted myself. I trusted my daughter. I trusted my instincts.
I worked on the birth trauma that no one had yet validated or even mentioned.
I worked on the childhood trauma that had resurfaced since becoming a mother; that again, no one had even thought to explore. It doesn’t matter how many times you tick “yes” to childhood trauma on hospital pre-admission paperwork if no one is adequately trained to support someone dealing with it.
I educated myself about biologically normal infant sleep.
I let go of tightly held beliefs about what “should” be happening or what I “should” be doing.
I focused more intently on my desire to practice attachment parenting (and found Raised Good – so to be writing this here is a huge honour).
I worked on unhelpful thought patterns.
I organised paid help with cleaning.
I read supportive books on motherhood, postnatal depletion, evidence-based parenting and mindfulness.
I spoke with family about helping me to get daytime naps and early nights.
I read about ‘sleep wants’ vs ‘sleep needs’ via The Beyond Sleep Training Project.
I looked after my body physically, emotionally and mentally.
I wrote a care plan and used daily affirmations.
I founded The Postnatal Project.
I felt so at peace knowing that the messages from my heart were stronger than the messages from my mind telling me to ‘perform’ and to ‘succeed’ as a mother.
It was as simple and as complicated as that. My recovery took over a year but I did it with the support of my partner, the bond between my daughter and I and my own sheer determination. I healed without sleep training my daughter. While I was still getting the same number of broken hours sleep, I no longer felt physically and emotionally broken by it.
As someone who has experienced severe sleep deprivation and healed from postnatal depression in the midst of that, I know that it’s possible for those experiencing postnatal depression to continue on their journey to wellness without compromising their parenting style and the wellbeing of their children.
I do not believe that postnatal depression is caused by sleep deprivation but I do believe that a parent experiencing sleep deprivation requires and deserves nurturing and support to carry out the rest of the workload. I also believe a parent experiencing postnatal depression deserves respect and should be able to direct the treatment in a way that supports their values and unique set of circumstances.
There are countries in which sleep training and postnatal depression are not prevalent. You can exist within your current circumstances and heal at the same time by changing your mindset and increasing your education instead of focusing on things you cannot change. You can focus and place importance on rest without obsessing over sleep or reaching for impossible outcomes.
You can accept that rest is achievable but it may look different now.
We’re led to believe that sleep training is a quick fix and that sleeping through the night is the holy grail of parenting. Of course, when experiencing postnatal depression, if one does not practice self-care through this season of parenthood, symptoms have the potential to exacerbate. BUT, when your baby sleeps through the night, anxiety and depression do not simply go away. Factors such as birth trauma, PTSD, insomnia, unhelpful thought patterns and physical symptoms are still very real. Placing such a huge importance on sleep as a cure-all for something as complex as postnatal depression does not address the core issues or causes of postnatal depression and instead, places a band-aid on the issue.
Being mindful of the language you use is important too. Broken sleep is not torture, it’s serving a monumentally worthwhile purpose; nurturing your children. This doesn’t mean we disregard how difficult it can be; it is extremely hard at times. But, when you stop seeing it a torture, it will stop feeling like it.
Changing your mindset and managing your expectations around sleep is one of the biggest favours you can do for yourself and your children.
Where did your beliefs about what sleep would look like after children come from? Was it from a brochure they gave out at the hospital? Did it form by speaking with other mothers about sleep training and how blissful their full nights of sleep are?
Are all babies broken? When did the industry of sleep training even come to be? Do we truly believe that our babies are born with the need to be taught how to sleep; which is the most natural thing in the world and something they did inside the womb?
In countries where sleep training is not the norm or even a concept, rates of postnatal depression are also very low. Family and the village nurtures the mother and the process is trusted.
What would happen to the sleep training industry and rates of postnatal depression if we were told the truth at antenatal classes and changed the entire parenting culture? What if we were told that our baby will wake, our baby will wake for years and it is nothing that you are doing nor is there anything that should be done about it? That babies who sleep all night are the rare exception and certainly not the rule? What if we supported you throughout this time, you were told you were doing a fabulous job and no one undermined our innate wisdom as mothers and as parents?
What would that feel like? What would our mental health look like then? I’d sure love to find out.