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How I Healed My Postnatal Depression Without Sleep Training My Baby

Hi there!
I'm Tracy 
I'm the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world.

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.

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 journaled.

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Zelma Broadfoot

Zelma is a Social Worker and Founder of The Postnatal Project; a multi-award winning website, blog and email consult service dedicated to supporting families to thrive within parenthood. Zelma has a special interest in and passion for birth, birth trauma, gentle parenting, breastfeeding and mindfulness and has written an eBook, Mama, Let’s Be Honest about how to heal from postnatal depression and parenting with soul and authenticity. Use code RAISEDGOOD for a dicsount. Zelma lives in South Australia and has two children, Cadence aged 3 and Asher aged 7 months. Connect with Zelma on Instagram.

Hi there!

I'm Tracy

Hi there! I’m Tracy - the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world. Based in Vancouver and originally launched in 2016, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response and the global community that’s developed. 

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  1. milly says:

    I LOVE this. My 15 month old still wakes 2x a night. The only options are..let her scream and wake everyone up or nurse her. I always run right in and nurse her – no matter what anyone says.
    I love the last paragraph especially. We are under such pressure to have the ‘perfect’ everything with our kids – perfect sleepers are so coveted for some reason.
    I’m changing my mindset – instead of groaning and gritting my teeth every time she wakes, I’m going to just be glad I get to go in there and snuggle her for a few minutes. Because we really are lucky to have these babies.

    • Alisa says:

      Same with my 15 month old but he’s in bed with me so it’s a quiet wake-up and he starts nursing as soon as I turn to him.

  2. Anouk says:

    Hi Zelma!

    Thanks so much for this article. You have put in words what is going through my mind for some time now and i wish i could have written this myself. I am from Belgium and i am a first time mom to an 8 month old boy. We are doing well today but the first 6 months were very difficult due to his congentital heart defect and all the traume around it on one side but more importantly, i spent 6 months questioning and torturatinf myself on the “professional” advice i was given regarding the care of Max. All of which felt totally counterinstinctive but put such an amount of pressure on me that i felt like i was litteraly drowning. I have come out the other way because i found some other sources of comfort and i let go of other people’s expectations. I truly believe i ONLY felt bad because of the conflicting advice, and because they had managed to convince me that my boy and i were doing everything wrong… had i just listened to myself and my instincts i would have been able to enjoy motherhood much more!!! Love this!!

  3. Kerri says:

    Thank-you for writing this article!! I have 7 biological children including identical twins. I had no family support nearby & followed my instincts along with having read a very old copy of La Leche League’s “The Art of Breastfeeding”. I found a group about 45 mins drive away from where we lived. What a sense of relief to find people who supported my intincts to care for my baby. They had a lovely library & I found out there was a term “attachment parenting” for following my heart! I went on to support other moms for over 20 years! I am “retired” from LLL now, but still help moms who seem to still find me. Now I help my kids & their friends who are having babies! I hope your article gets shared far & wide!!

  4. Ruth says:

    Thank You, Thank You!
    So Beautiful and heartfelt.
    We need to share this important aspect of mothering. As a postpartum doula, I can recognize the added stress to clients when too few voices from mental health professionals, pediatricians, and popular culture are telling them to ignore their own voice and instincts as a parent and replace the tender nurturing feelings with CIO, don’t attend to your baby’s needs, and to stop breastfeeding…
    For so many women, these are the things that don’t fix their mental health or make parenting easier and make it worse when it’s counter-intuitive when you are longing for the closeness to your baby.

  5. Amanda says:

    Thanks so much for this very thoughtful and authentic article. I wonder if all these attempts to “control” babies are really attempts to control the overwhelming experience that is motherhood. If our culture accepted and valued the actual experience of motherhood we would never be forced to regiment our children’s natural patterns and needs. The need for mother’s to maintain a regular sleep wake cycle is more a requirement of capitalism which values paid work over relationships. Why else would we pay childcare workers far less than bankers?

  6. Katie says:

    This was absolutely beautiful. I love everything you said, you covered every angle and it resonated with my heart. I just kept thinking “YES! YES! That is exactly how I feel!” Thank you for the validation and for speaking this truth.

  7. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for writing this article. So glad you were able to find support and healing through what sounds like a very traumatic time. I have 3 gorgeous boys- 9, 7 and 11 months. They are testimony to the fact that you can parent all your children similarly- but they can all be completely different- and that includes regarding sleep!!! We are currently in a season of very broken sleep and it still seems sad to me that even amongst many good friends an admission of feeling low or overwhelmed is still often met with questions/criticism about why we’re not sleep training our youngest! I have found it hard to stick with my ideals and wondering if I should just relent because i’ve found it hard not to be impatient with my oldest two boys lately. However, I think things are rarely experienced in isolation. Thank you for your honesty and the very helpful list of things you did to heal – you’ve given me food for thought on how to take better care of myself during this season, so I have more capacity to take care of the others too.

  8. AMELIA LOPEZ says:

    I’m balling my eyes out with resonance! I’m in the midst of not sleep training my 5 month old and have hit so many walls thinking I was a bad parent because she wakes up so much. Am I creating bad associations? Like “they” say. And being so alone in it all has cause some postnatal depression and anxiety. Lack of support and a tribe can do that. And yes thanks to groups and blogs like this I have become a more confident nurturing parent as I intended to be. Now I too am inspired to potentially work with people postnatal. I can see how needed it is and how many moms are left with no support. Thank you again! My heart is full ((( ♡ )))

  9. I ran across this article on my friend’s post on Facebook. I haven’t experienced childbirth yet, but I am so glad that I am prepared! Depression runs in my family so the possibility of postpartum depression has always been in the back of my mind. That sleep training sounds horrible! Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  10. Stah says:

    Thanks so much for writing this.
    So many should read it before the birth.
    Fathers should read too…
    And be a part of mother’s postnatal care and not run away to “care” for the family at work.
    So much more to write.. (ptsd!)
    Thank you!

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