On this World Maternal Mental Health Day, it’s important that we have challenging conversations about how existing structures, supports and cultural beliefs are contributing to the mental health challenges being faced by 1 in 5 mothers and 1 in 10 fathers in the perinatal period.

Our team at Little Sparklers and The Beyond Sleep Training Project are doing our all to support families who are currently experiencing perinatal mental health challenges and also to prevent future families from having to experience the depths mental illness can bring. Many on or volunteer team and board have lived experience of perinatal mental illness and we wholeheartedly believe that there is strength in setting new families up for wellbeing and resilience through educating about the biological normal behaviours of our babies and toddlers.

Here, our founder, Carly Grubb shares her view of the role of sleep training culture and her own struggles with mental illness with her first baby.

Sleep training culture strongly contributed to my postpartum depression and I don’t believe I am alone in this.  

  1. ‘but sleep training saved my sanity!’
  2. ‘I was heading down the path of depression so I used controlled crying!’
  3. ‘my anxiety was crippling, I had to sleep train!’

Sound familiar?

I was heading straight for (a) though because we *failed* I was never *saved* and (c) definitely featured in my decision to go the sleep training route.

I get it, I really do but here’s where my experience as a *failure* has helped me look at this situation very critically and I’ve come to the realisation that perhaps so many mothers have to be saved by sleep training because we are being groomed by the sleep training culture to feel like we are doing something wrong when our baby does not fit the sleepy ideal.

Sleep training culture is so pervasive, it is virtually impossible for a family living in Western society to remain untouched. It has come through a number of generations now and as such, the advice from older generations who we often turn to as new mothers is riddled with it. Health care professionals hail it as a *fix* and with limited quality breastfeeding education as part of their training, many are ill-equipped to advise on the normal development of feeding and sleeping behaviours in breastfed babies and toddlers.

Read more on Breastfeeding and Sleep

Feeding and sleeping schedules that were so popular while formula feeding was the norm in the 50-80s have tainted what has become the benchmark and ‘norms’ for infant care.

First wave behaviourism struck fear into the hearts about bad habits, spoiling, negative sleep crutches/ associations, self-soothing/ settling and sleep as a skill to be taught.

Hands-off, distant, independent, solitary sleep, restricted responsiveness, authoritarian, prescriptive and strict- all words that help describe what is valued when parenting very young babies and toddlers.

Being told when you can hold, nurse or comfort your baby is standard.

Being told when your baby should sleep, where they should sleep and for how long is standard.

Being told when you should respond to your baby’s cry and when you shouldn’t is standard.

Being told that your baby only wakes because of the way you help them find sleep is standard.

Being made to fear long-term damage to your baby’s development and ability to achieve healthy sleep is standard.

Being made to fear that if you continue to comfort your baby in some way you’ll create a big ol’ rod for your own back and you should break the habit now or expect you’ll have to do it that way forever is standard.

Being told that it is your responsibility to your child that you fix their sleep is standard.

I believe that it is this standard that is at the core of why so many parents start heading down the path of depression and anxiety. I sure did.

I bought into the standard and bent myself over backwards, forwards and inside out trying to reach it. The standard that I could not meet, the standard my baby called bulls%^* on.

That standard left me feeling subpar as a mother every single day.

Every day that I bought into the *shoulds* for both myself and my baby was a day I finished feeling *less than*. We never measured up.

Every day of my baby refusing to accept anything less than the comfort, reassurance and assistance he needed drove a wedge into our relationship as I questioned again and again what was wrong with him and why couldn’t he do what he was *meant* to do at his age.

Feeling overwhelmed?

It’s hard to not feel anxious and have your anxiety grow as the noise that surrounds you assures you that every day that your baby sleeps less than they say he should or wakes more than he should or asks for more assistance than he should need is potentially affecting his long term health and development.

It’s hard to not feel depressed when yet again, you are told it is because you nurse him to sleep and haven’t succeeded in putting him down drowsy but awake and you have to learn his cries that you’re getting this mothering and sleep business so terribly wrong- THAT’S why you feel so desperately tired and miserable. If you just follow XYZ, then you’ll get the sleep you need. When you’ve already tried these things in a desperate vein for the 100 thousandth time to no avail.

It’s hard to feel confident, relaxed and at peace with your brand new mothering experience when at every turn you are told you are doing it wrong.

For me and my darling, wakeful little sparkler, the road to postpartum depression was paved in sleep training culture nonsense.

How on earth I was ever going to get away without eventually succumbing while surrounded by all of this noise is beyond me.

Yes, there are many more factors that may well contribute to the development of postpartum anxiety and/or depression in each unique person but I strongly believe this sleep training culture does nothing to set families up for success, healthy mental health and confidence as they grow and learn in their new identity.

So perhaps, instead of heralding and crediting sleep training with ‘saving’ so many mother’s sanity, we should look long and hard at how it took our sanity in the first place.

Families of today and into the future deserve so much better than this.

Re-evaluating, re-setting and re-establishing the norms of infant sleep from a biological and anthropological standpoint would be a great first place to start.

Read more on Normal Infant Sleep

Only once we can as a society come to a fuller understanding of the reality of infant and toddler sleep will we see a shift that is so needed to undo the damage and twisted accepted norms perpetuated by the current sleep training culture.

Little Sparklers and The Beyond Sleep Training Project and Podcast are all at the forefront of this much-needed change.

We can and will do better.

If you are struggling right now and need support, please don’t hesitate to call

Lifeline 13 11 14, PANDA 1300 726 306 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Banner Image: Vida Images

*Parts of this article were originally published on Carly Grubb’s blog, Grubby Mummy and the Grubby Bubbies in 2017 and has been updated for this publication with permission.

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