Last week, my physiotherapist asked me what I do for a living.
We talked about my day job and then I told her about Raised Good, mentioning that lately, I’ve been writing a lot about sleep.
She’s a strong, independent, confident mother of adult children.
I knew that if we disagreed on our approaches to infant sleep, it would still be a healthy conversation so I was honest.
But, it took a turn I wasn’t expecting.
Her demeanour changed. Her posture shifted. And her voice softened as she recounted her experience with sleep training.
Twenty-five years ago with her firstborn baby, she was pressured into sleep training by her (well-meaning) mother-in-law.
She went through with it, leaving her baby to cry for a few nights until she heard an eerie silence.
She’d been trying to do the “right” thing.
But, she was heartbroken.
She felt as though she and her son had lost something special.
And all these years later her emotional wounds are still fresh; the scars haven’t formed, let alone healed.
She said if she had one wish in this life, it would be to go back and find the courage to decline unsolicited advice while bringing her baby into her bed, holding him close, making him feel safe, and never leaving him alone to cry it out.
And so, twenty-five years later this mother still questions what impact sleep training may have had on her son and their relationship.
That question comes from a place deep inside of her.
And, she’s not alone.
I’ve heard the same story countless times from mothers and grandmothers who feel exactly the same way.
Weeks, months or years may pass but the sense that walking away from their helpless, love-hungry, attachment-seeking baby for some greater good still doesn’t feel right; instead, it feels like trauma.
So while we may attempt to rationalise, explain and retrospectively justify a means to a predetermined end, our hearts know sleep training is not in our babies’ best interests.
And so parents – and those who support them – need to block out the white noise of society that has normalised cry it out and its many variations.
Otherwise, we begin to cast doubt over our own internal compass.
We lose our way.
We dismiss our heart’s wisdom.
We come to accept the myth that others know what’s best for our babies.
Because most parents would rather be wrong with the crowd than right on their own.
So, it’s time to push back.
It’s time to say, “You know what, we got it wrong. We were trying our best but when we know better we do better.”
It’s time to ask the tough questions.
Because when we give babies no choice but to cry it out, we need to ask what is the “it”?
The “it” is safety. The “it” is connection. The “it” is tenderness.
The “it” is us – their parents.
They are crying for us.
For us to come, for us to not leave, for us to pick them up, for us to soothe them, to hold them close.
As harsh a truth as that may seem, there’s no escaping it.
And what’s harsher is expecting babies to do what we can’t even do as adults – to ‘self soothe’.
The reality is that self soothing is a buzzword, a marketing tactic, a fugazi that is used to sell non-responsive sleep training as a solution to parental exhaustion while papering over lack of support – nothing more.
It doesn’t teach babies how to sleep, it teaches them how to be quiet, how to disconnect, how to turn to things rather than people when they need help.
Because none of us self soothe. As adults, we’re soothed by calling a loved one, hugging our partners (…as we fall asleep), binge-watching Netflix, scrolling through social media, meditating, eating chocolate, drinking alcohol, exercising, shopping, journaling.
So, when a mother says she’s exhausted, that she misses her old life, that she needs a shoulder to cry on or that she doesn’t know how she is ever going to get through this…she is not asking you for sleep training advice, a pair of earplugs or a shortcut.
She’s asking you for support – to make her a cup of tea, to care for her baby while she takes a shower, to make her bed and fold her clothes.
She’s asking you for unconditional love – to see her at her lowest and love her through it all.
She’s asking for you to see her – to acknowledge the sacrifices she’s making, to bear witness to the life-changing transformation she’s experiencing and give her reassurance that it will all be ok.
She’s asking you to see her baby as she does – not as a problem to fix or a scapegoat to blame but as a brand new, immature soul trying their best in a world that is completely foreign to them…other than mum, mum was home on the inside and she still is on the outside.
She’s asking you to accept her choices – whether they mirror yours or not. Approach her choices with curiosity and an open mind.
She’s asking you to meet her where she is – to sit with her in the dark, to be willing to walk through discomfort with her rather than searching for a quick fix.
Because she isn’t scared of her baby’s wakefulness.
She isn’t scared of 3 am.
She isn’t scared of rocking or nursing or holding her baby to sleep.
What she’s scared of is feeling alone, judged and unloved. She’s scared of feeling devalued, weird and misunderstood.
What she fears is being asked to justify her choices or feeling pressured to bury her maternal intuition and leave her baby to cry to sleep.
And you have the power to change all of those things, just by showing up with compassion, humility and a willingness to acccept the way things are rather than trying to bend reality. Evolve alongside her and become part of her story, because either way pressuring a mother to distance herself from her baby is a lose-lose situation. She will either take the advice and lose a piece of herself along the way, possibly coming to resent the advice giver. Or she’ll dismiss the advice and distance herself from the person giving that advice.
Remember, we can’t mute the hard, without losing the good. So, be her safety net, become her greatest cheerleader and let her have her messy middle because that’s where transformation and growth truly unfold.
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.