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Summary- 

In this intense first full episode, Carly Grubb, our host and founder of The Beyond Sleep Training Project and Little Sparklers recounts in detail her experience of sleep with her first very wakeful little sparkler baby.

This tale is the backstory to what would become a worldwide movement and is an important starting place to understand why this podcast and the work of Little Sparklers and The Beyond Sleep Training Project is so incredibly important as we work to shift the narrative around infant and family sleep.

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

The Beyond Sleep Training Podcast- a podcast dedicated to sharing real tales of how people have managed sleep in their family outside of sleep training culture because sleep looks different with a baby in the house and because every family is different there is no one-size-fits-all approach to take.

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast is being recorded the Kalkadoon people I pay my respects to the elders of this nation and the many other nations our guests reside in from the past, present and emerging. We honour Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the unique cultural and spiritual relationships to the land, water and seas as well as their rich contributions to society including the birthing and nurturing of children.

I’m your host, Carly Grubb. I’m the founder of The Beyond Sleep Training Project and the founder and managing director of the Australian based charity Little Sparklers.  In this episode, I will share with you the first of two parts of my story of moving beyond sleep training. In this episode, you will hear the raw and sometimes heartbreaking experience that firstly broke me and then began to re-shape me with my first baby. It is this tale that would ultimately become the catalyst behind me creating firstly, TBSTP and then in 2019, registering our charity Little Sparklers to allow us to organise ourselves even more and build on the huge momentum we had going as we tapped into a very real need in the community for families to have options to explore beyond sleep training.

This episode comes with a Trigger Warning for anyone who does not feel up to hearing a very detailed account of our sleep training experience. It’s a hard listen and I found it incredibly emotionally exhausting to recount, but I truly believe that opening up and sharing what happened, will help you better understand where I come from. Where Little Sparklers and The Beyond Sleep Training Project come from. And why, this podcast is such an important resource and space for families now and into the future.

So who am I?

I am an Australian mother of three children. I live in outback Queensland with my husband, young family, hairy dog and three chooks.

Pre-kids, I was a primary school teacher. I had worked in a range of schools and year levels but loved nothing more than helping very young children develop their love of reading and reading skills. I was lucky enough to teach in the very unique and iconic School of the Air (distance education predominantly for children living on remote cattle properties). I really loved my job and though I was in the privileged position to be able to choose to take extended leave while my babies were tiny, I had every intention of returning to my role once we were ready.

That’s not how things have turned out.

In 2014, when I welcomed my first baby, my Little Sparkler (yes that’s where we get our name from), my life was turned completely upside down.

I know that most families undergo a pretty monumental shift when they welcome their first child, but for many, the transition comes in waves. For me, the shift felt like an endless tsunami. I felt sure I would drown.

My precious baby was like none I had ever met before. His intensity is hard to adequately describe. He seemed to be genuinely terrified of the world. He was tense, highly alert, loud, unsettled and extremely engaging. He was captivating and all-consuming. He could not be put down. He never whimpered he wailed. He never settled after a moment and instead hit full-blown hysteria in about 5 seconds flat.

And he was beautiful. The most stunning, sparkly blue eyes. The cheekiest of grins and infectious of chuckles. You could see his clever little mind churning away as he took the world in. But that busy little brain barely ever gave him any rest and his sensitive little system saw all of the world in technicolour and terrified the life out of him.

And then there was me. The process of labour, birth and immediate postpartum had me on the rails. I needed time to make sense of it all and get to know the new me and all that I had managed to do and all that was before me, but I was swallowed whole by this baby.

I had no idea what to do with him.

I really thought that for all that a baby needed that there must’ve been some time to catch a break. Like surely, the human race would’ve died out if babies didn’t have some time where they just did their own thing, or I dunno … slept, on their own?

But he wasn’t like that. He never eased up. And so, I started to drown.

I hadn’t heard of the fourth trimester. I had no idea about babywearing. The only thing I knew about cosleeping was that it was dangerous and taking our baby to bed could kill him. I knew other babies slept in a cot. I’d seen other babies happily cooing away on a mat on the floor. I’d seen my friend’s baby fall asleep happily in the pram after mum had pressed a dummy into their mouth.

I started to wonder if I was doing something wrong. Why was my baby so unsettled? Why did my baby need so much help to fall asleep? Was it because I always picked him up when he cried that he wouldn’t go down to play on the mat?

The doubts crept in and at the same time, the advice started to seep in, too.

  • Have you tried putting him down drowsy but awake?
  • You need to try a feed-play-sleep routine?
  • Maybe just pat his back when he wakes instead of picking him up?
  • Have you just waited for 5 minutes when he cries to see if he can put himself back to sleep?

All of this and more and it fed the beast growing in my mind that the way my baby behaved was because I was doing things wrong, or I was failing in some way and also sadly, the notion that he wasn’t a ‘good baby’.

I started to track everything- feeding, sleeping and nappies and I became obsessed with finding a pattern or solution to get us on track. And with my obsessive tracking came mounting confusion, anxiety and frustration with my baby. While I seemed to be watching him so very closely, I was simultaneously becoming more and more distant from him. I stopped trusting what he told me he needed and started to rely on outside advice and rules to dictate what I would do for him and when.

In hindsight, so much of this part of my story is weighted in my own lack of self-confidence and trust in myself. But it still pains me most, to recognise how much I ignored my baby’s genuine communication at this time. He still trusted me, even when I doubted him so much. I was always doing my very best though and I will always give myself credit for that. Every single thing I did through this time with my baby was done with heart and soul with the one aim of getting everything right for him. I adored him, even if I didn’t think I could mother him well enough.

And then came one of the defining moments in my life so far, a 5 day stay in the mother-baby unit (sleep school) in our capital city, more than 2000km from home. I accepted our admission after we’d been to my baby’s 4-month health check where after describing my baby’s wakeful, unsettled behaviour, the nurse told me that he was chronically sleep-deprived and it would be affecting his brain development. I knew we were struggling but hearing that he was actually being harmed physically/ developmentally due to my inability to get him to sleep was too much. And so we went for our stay.

In the lead-up, I tried to implement the strategies I had watched on the website, without any success and much distress for my baby and me. I grew ever more frustrated and intolerant of him as I became even more convinced that he was just being difficult and that he had to learn to sleep so we could all get back to being happy.

Trigger Warning for a detailed Sleep Training experience to be separately shared

I went into the program with a desperate hope.

This HAD to work. I couldn’t for a moment consider it wouldn’t because I couldn’t fathom what my life would be or what we could do next if this didn’t work.

My enthusiasm was there but I had a dull ache in my heart the whole time leading up to the stay that remained throughout. I had never wanted to listen to my baby cry. Why o why couldn’t my sweet baby just find sleep like all the other babies? I didn’t want to do this to him but I couldn’t allow his lack of sleep to impact him anymore. No, I was stronger than that and I would do whatever I needed to meet my baby’s needs and if that meant having strangers keep me in check so I didn’t give in too easily, then that’s what I’d do.

And so, the stage was set.

We started off with a meet and greet circle time. We had to tell each other why we were there. I could barely hold my head up as I confessed my child’s ‘sleep sins’ and my role in his ‘bad habits’; there were sympathetic head tilts, a knowing look in the eye, a shoulder rub and word of, ‘it’ll be okay, we can help’ offered up.

Then came the slide show that detailed the game plan. My 4.5-month-old was deemed too old for the ‘Comfort Settling/ Hands-on Settling’ group which was for the two newborns present. We were instead with the older ‘Responsive Settling’ group.

We started when it was time for his afternoon sleep.

We had to implement a Feed-Play-Sleep routine and so I had to feed my baby and make sure he didn’t fall asleep, then read him a story, kiss him and tell him it was time to sleep, place him in his cot and walk out and close the door.

Then, I waited by the door, to see what, if any, response my baby would require to find sleep.

The nurses had zero interest in hearing what I thought he needed, or even what I thought may happen next. It was assumed I had never afforded my baby the opportunity or space to try and settle himself before and therefore, we needed to ‘just wait and see as I might be pleasantly surprised.

Pleasant it was not. Initially, my trusting baby just kicked his legs around and chatted, no doubt feeling safe in the knowledge that mama would reappear soon. But she didn’t. He then started sounding worried. If he could talk back then, I’d say the sounds would roughly translate to, ‘Mama, I’m getting worried, where are you, I need you, where are you?’

I knew this, but I wasn’t allowed in. This was just him ‘grizzling’ because he was getting ready to sleep, apparently.

He then ramped it up. I explained that this only ever went one way and it most certainly wasn’t headed towards sleep and if anything, it was driving him ever further from it. The nurse assured me he was okay and suggested I move to the base level ‘response’ while we stayed at the door. We opened the door and ‘shushed’ loudly at him to let him know I was there but it was sleep time and he wouldn’t get picked up. My baby wailed on.

I told them it wasn’t working and they told me to persist a bit longer. He continued to cry.

We then crawled into the room (so as not to give him the false impression we would pick him up), and I patted the mattress next to his head and continued to ‘shush’ loudly, no eye contact was to be made. He cried even more.

I was then encouraged to place my hand on his chest and continue to ‘shush’ him. He was past hysterical by now.

The nurse then told me I could pick him up to calm him as we had to respond to that level of distress as it wasn’t good for him. I scooped him up and soothed my sweating hysterical baby. But, as if it wasn’t enough, once he was calm, down he had to go again. He immediately howled. I placed my hand on his chest and ‘shushed’ but my heart could take no more.

THIS is one of the key moments I look back on with great shame-

I could take no more, so I fled. I ran from that room, without my baby and sat in the hall and rocked in a ball crying my heart out. The nurse had picked my baby up at this point and she rocked him off to sleep as it was decided that was enough for that settle. I should have run WITH my baby, not away from him, but I guess this is a testament to how crushed I was.

Once asleep, she came out to find me to assure me we would try again next time and I’d be surprised how quickly he’d learn.

And so, a few hours later, we did it all again. It went almost exactly the same way. The only difference was that there wasn’t that momentary calm at the start. My clever little man knew what was going on and was crying before I could even walk to the door.

Door, shushing, floor, shushing, mattress patting, shushing, chest rocking, shushing, calming hysteria, shushing, place back down, shushing, hysteria, me running, nurse rocking.

This second time, one of the nurses came to me to give what she no doubt thought was a pep talk and asked me if I was going to be ‘stronger’ than my baby or not? I told her to sod off and get away from me.

Again, a few hours later for bedtime.

My mum came to visit the next morning and was upset by what she could see. She told me my baby looked pale and exhausted and asked what was going on. I told her and she told me that I either spoke up to the nurses and told them this wasn’t working and we needed a new tack or we’d be leaving. I was a mess.

The morning settle was the same so after lunch, I started packing our bags.

A nurse saw and came to ask me what I had hoped from the stay. I told her I NEEDED help but I didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere and no one seemed to have any better ideas to help my baby as their way still ended with hysteria and rocking in arms which were no better than I was doing at home anyway.

She asked me what I thought might work, and I told her that if I could at least go to him BEFORE he was so upset, I may be able to keep him calm enough to find sleep. She agreed to support me on the next settle and miracle of miracles, it worked.

I was elated.

It continued to work my way for the next few days there but nights continued to be a challenge as they wanted me to try to resettle before offering a night feed but I needed their help with this as the instant he had me, he wanted the boobs and my husband was a 2.5-hour flight away.

The nurse was ‘happy’ to help but just as they showed no faith in what I told them about my baby by day, they showed no interest in hearing my belief that being prompt was essential because if you allowed him to wake right up, the settle could take hours versus the minutes if he was still drowsy.

So, I’d hear him stir and knowing my baby, I knew this only meant one thing- he was waking and would not return to sleep without help, so I’d go to the nurse’s station and alert her to his waking and ask for her to attempt the resettle. She’d deliberately go slow saying I need to not rush to his side as he needs to try to resettle himself first. At 2 am in the morning, I’d say, we talked about this during the day and this DOES NOT work for my baby, please come now or we’ll be awake for hours. 

Feet.

Dragging.

Teeth.

Pulling.

Sloth.

Slow movements, before starting the ridiculous shushing at the door routine responses and then rocking a hysterical baby who was now wide awake and HAD to have a breastfeed to find any form of calm. At least an hour later, I’d finally crawl back to bed only for him to wake an hour or so later and rinse and repeat. It. Was. Horrific.

The next day, in daylight hours, I would reiterate the need for a prompt response and I’d firstly get reminded that the goal was to get my baby self-soothing and that affording him space was essential. I’d then try to explain the HUGE difference in awake time because of this and they assured me that this short-term pain and extra loss of sleep, would have a long-term pay off that was worthwhile.

I agreed to stick with it. He was sleeping a longer block at the start of the night so I felt that maybe they were onto something and I owed the effort to try and make it work.

So, after 5 days, my baby was sleeping in his cot, settling to sleep without much help and having a longer block at the start of the night.

I left feeling like the wheels of positive change were in motion and I felt positive that with continued commitment, we would have him sleeping ‘well’ in no time.

It wasn’t to be.

My husband and I threw ourselves at the technique with a 300% commitment to being consistent and persistent (bordering on lunacy).

Our baby, however, held an even greater faith in us and belief in his own needs and he continued to fight and call and demand our presence with an intensity that was even more than before.

Within a week of returning home, despite adhering to every responsive settling ‘rule’, we were up to 2-hour battles for every nap, every bedtime and ever resettle through the night. It was horrific.

We were all exhausted, frustrated and incredibly at odds with each other.

We WERE responding damn it!!!

We responded to every god damn cry, every whimper (well the whimpers that sounded ‘emotional’ anyway).

He couldn’t possibly NEED us, he just WANTED us.

This was ridiculous.

Why did he need more from us than they said we should give?

WHY?

Why wasn’t he learning?

Why wouldn’t he just let up?

On the other hand, our poor baby was no doubt deeply confused about why these people who he loved and needed so completely seemed to be so hellbent on pretending like they couldn’t respond the way he truly needed them. Why do they keep standing at the door or tapping my mattress when they know I need a cuddle? Why are they taking so long to let me nurse when all I need is a quick minute and we could all be back to the sleep we all need?

Responsive Settling gives the illusion of response.

Being told how to respond, when to respond and when to withdraw that responsiveness is NOT being responsive. It’s the equivalent of when someone is talking to us and we are busy or can’t really hear so we just smile and nod or say something like, ‘that’s nice dear'. It allows the adult to feel they are doing SOMETHING and therefore they are being ‘gentle’ while they train their baby. It is a disturbing mismatch that plays a significant role in the justification and vindication of the widespread use of these techniques in Public and Private facilities and by consultants around the world.

I desperately NEEDED help. There is an overwhelming need for help for new mothers, particularly those with mental health challenges and those with very wakeful babies.

The aftermath of my stay was perhaps worse than the stay itself. The key message of ‘be consistent and persistent and it will work’ was incredibly damaging to our family unit.

We were so utterly desperate, we truly believed we had to keep going and make this work. No one told us otherwise.

The follow-up care from the facility was woeful. 

I rang a week after discharge an absolute mess and was greeted very unhappily because they weren’t staffed for the phone call and I would receive my two-week call the following week. I was in tears and on the verge of a breakdown and all I got was to be asked who was going to be stronger, me or my baby?

The scheduled call the next week was at least slightly more compassionate but the nurse did not have any further suggestions for what we could try or consider and instead she reiterated that we needed to be consistent and persistent.

Three more weeks we continued. 21 long days and nights following what we’d already been through. I cannot believe we kept going. But, what it goes to show was just how lost and broken I was. If not this, then what? I’d completely lost my ability to follow my heart and my baby.

 It ended with me hitting rock bottom. I was so done. My baby, well he was crying in his cot, while I rocked in a ball in the lounge room on a call to my husband to tell him I couldn’t do this anymore and they needed to find him a new mother because I couldn’t be it anymore.

He couldn’t make it straight home and I felt such a danger to myself and my baby that I threw him in the pram so I wasn’t touching him and walked around the corner to a friend’s house and handed him over so I knew he was safe.

I went and sought help from my GP who diagnosed me with Post Natal Depression and I started therapy.

 

By a stroke of sheer luck/coincidence/intervention, a midwife from a free check-in service I’d been speaking to throughout my pregnancy and postpartum called to see how I was. It was her, the wonderful Kirsty, who broke through the wall I had built between myself, my heart and my baby.

After listening to all that we’d been through in the last 2 months, she calmly said, ‘you know you don’t have to do it all, don’t you? You can just do what he wants you to do. What do you think he needs you to do?’ and through my tears, I said with perfect certainty, ‘he just wants me to hold him and feed him,’ and she answered, ‘so just do it, just do that.’

And as ridiculous as that sounds now, I needed her permission to do that.

I needed to hear that it was okay just to cuddle my baby and feed him, whenever he wanted.

And with that conversation, something in me shifted.

I suddenly saw possibilities again when before I saw nothing but darkness.

 

It was an incredibly long, hard road I walked after that. None of it was easy. It’s hard to describe the experience of parenting a baby like this to anyone who hasn’t been through it. It’s not just a rough patch, it’s not just waking frequently as in every 2-3 hours, no, this baby of mine literally woke every 20 minutes to an hour every night for the first 12 months of his life. Even when he slept a bit longer, he never slept for more than 2 hours at a time until he was over 2 years of age. This isn’t like the wakeful waves I’ve experienced with my next two babies where times would grow intense but there was always a calm between each storm. There simply was no break in his pattern of extreme wakefulness.

And so, while surrendering to his needs was absolutely the start of our journey of healing and finding our way to wellness again when sleep training completely broke us, I really hope people reading along can see that there never was a magical answer to our story. And it was made even harder because none of the professionals I sought out to help me seemed to have any practical tools in their repertoire outside of sleep training. They were genuinely perplexed by my refusal to partake in any further sleep training techniques and saw this non-compliance or unwillingness to engage in this side of my treatment as a roadblock to getting better. Which was incredibly unfair. I can see now that this was a weakness on their part, they simply did not have the skills, knowledge or experience to know what else they could do to support me, but at the time, I felt so unsafe in their care when they seemed unable to understand where I was coming from.

But, I was still broken. I desperately needed help and once I realised I couldn’t really depend on anyone else to get me back to *happy*, whatever that was, I was determined that I would not spend my baby’s entire babyhood hating my life with him. And so, I started to work out my own way to re-imagine my life. Now, I looked for different ideas for how I could approach life with my baby. I couldn’t make him sleep, so what could I do to get me the best sleep I could get, even if it still wasn’t the quantity of sleep I wanted or the way I would normally wish to get it.

It was around this time that I got right into all things Pinky McKay, The Milk Meg, Sarah Ockwell-Smith and Dr Tracy Cassels of Evolutionary Parenting and in many ways, these trailblazing women saved me. It was through them that I learnt how to safely share sleep with my baby. I discovered the magic superpower of breastfeeding to sleep and though I really struggled to get the hang of side-lying nursing, my baby and I found our own little trick to make it happen and the first night we spent sleeping together on our spare bed, was hands down the best relief I have ever felt. It was far from perfect, comfortable sleep but after the sheer torture of being up and down every 20-40 minutes for 6 months, simply laying down all night felt like heaven for my weary body.

Read more about safer sleep

Aside from the physical relief of learning to share sleep, these wise women provided me with a profound shift in the way I saw my work as a mother. Suddenly, I could see value in the nurturing work I performed day and night with my baby and it wasn’t the act of a martyr. They taught me that I could trust my baby to communicate his needs and I could trust me and my heart to know how to respond. I no longer saw myself as weak for needing to answer my baby’s cries because the sound of it sent my anxiety through the roof. I no longer felt an urgency to put my sleeping baby down lest he learns to need my arms to sleep. Instead, contact naps became a call for me to rest, too.

And it all added up. I started to grow into my role and though there were plenty of times where the doubts would take hold and the exhaustion would start to eat at my fragile confidence, I no longer felt backed into a corner.

Unbelievably, I fell pregnant with my second baby when Mr Sparkler was only 10 months old. Apparently breastfeeding around the clock, being depleted, barely having 5 minutes to ourselves and me on the mini-pill wasn’t enough to prevent pregnancy … who knew.

I took the news terribly. I was nowhere near ready to have a second baby, not while my first baby still needed me so intensely. It was impossible to wrap my head around. It was not until the second trimester that I really came to grips that there was going to be another baby and I still struggled to tell anyone I was expecting without floods of tears.

How the hell was I going to manage two babies?

I was gripped by nursing aversions by the time I was about 12 weeks pregnant and I decided to get some help to night wean my then 15-month-old as they were becoming unbearable. I night weaned him pretty rapidly and though I believed it was gentle at the time, it really was a very distressing time for my baby. Hindsight is so very wise though, isn’t it? I refuse to give myself a hard time about it though as I know without a doubt that I did the best I could at the time with the knowledge and support I had available and that will always be enough even if it wasn’t perfect.

Weaning helped me a lot. I needed a break from nursing to get my head ready for this second baby. But it wasn’t the magic sleep elixir you sometimes hear about in people’s sleep advice. My little sparkler continued waking every 1-2 hours needing a cuddle, his dummy or a sip of water right through the pregnancy and up until his baby brother was about 4 months old.

And that’s where I’ll leave the first part of my story because part 2 takes in the next chapter in our Grubby family as we welcomed our second and third bundles to the fold and we got to experience a new round of parenting and challenges and also features the birth of The Beyond Sleep Training Project and Little Sparklers.

If this episode brought any issues up for you that you need some help with, please don’t hesitate to speak with someone you trust or if in Australia, place a free call to either the Beyond Blue helpline on 1300224636  or Lifeline 13 1114 who have trained counsellors on the line to support you whether it is during the day or in the depths of night.

My tip of the week is working out Side-lie nursing wasn’t easy and I had to figure out what worked with each f my three babes but it was of my favourite ways to help me get the best rest alongside them particularly when there was lots of development going on and sleep was in short supply.

To learn more, you might like to check out the Breastfeeding and sleep article on our Little Sparklers website and I’ll be sure to drop a link in the show notes to make it easy to find

Breastfeeding and Sleep

I would love to hear in comments if side-lie nursing has been a helpful skill in your experience

Until next time, thanks for listening.

*I really hope you enjoyed the podcast today the information we discussed was just that information only it is not specific advice if you take any action following something you've heard from our show today it is important to make sure you get professional advice about your unique situation before you proceed whether that advice is legal, financial, accounting, medical or any other advice. Please reach out to me if you do have any questions or if there's a topic you'd really like us to be covering and if you know somebody who'd really benefit from listening to our podcast please be sure to pass our name along also check out our free peer support group the beyond sleep training project and our wonderful website www.littlesparklers.org. If you'd like even more from the show you can join us as a patron on Patreon and you can find a link for that in our show notes if listening is not really your jam we also make sure we put full episode transcripts on our little sparklers website for you to also enjoy and fully captioned YouTube videos as well on our Little Sparklers channel so thanks again for listening today we really enjoy bringing this podcast to you.

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