Our very first guest episode with the wonderful Elise McMahon. Elise is one of our incredible volunteers for The Beyond Sleep Training Project and in this episode, she opens up about finding her feet as a new parent while facing her own childhood trauma. She talks about what it was like to navigate sleep challenges while living in a new country and how it helped her to question the advice she was given and helped shape her to find a way that felt right for her.


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. 

CARLY: And welcome everybody to The Beyond Sleep Training podcast. I'm your host Carly Grubb and today in episode 4, we are welcoming our very first actual guest to the podcast and this is the beautiful Elise McMahon. Elise is actually one of our volunteer admins for The Beyond Sleep Training Project and when did you start admining for us, Elise? 

ELISE: I think when my daughter was six months old so it would have been the beginning of 2018, I think so pretty much so about three years it's been a long time. 

CARLY: and Elise is one of our fantastic volunteers you probably if you're in the group you will have seen some of her comments and interactions but she also has a very busy behind-the-scenes schedule going on as well so we're very lucky that we can welcome her to the podcast today and she's going to be sharing a bit about her family's story about moving beyond sleep training. So Elise, I know you're over in Hong Kong would you like to talk to everybody about you and your family a little bit?  

ELISE: yeah so, I grew up in a family that well family dynamic that was not necessarily ideal we didn't have a lot of money when I grew up, we didn't have a lot of calm in the house, we had a very tumultuous family relationship- there was lots of fighting.

My father struggled a lot with rage and so, when my husband and I got married we had all of these ideas about what we wanted our family unit to look like when we tried to have a baby, we always knew that we wanted to have a baby. So that was when he has a job so that I can stop working and be a mum and we can afford to give what we needed to give to our child and for us what that meant when he got a full-time salary position as a pilot where we could rely on his salary. So, he got that- very lucky at the time, still lucky during these times to still have a job and we moved to Hong Kong. And around three months of partying and getting settled in we decided we'd start trying and fell pregnant very, very quickly which again very lucky and you know my pregnancy was fairly chill. I didn't have any medical issues nothing came up besides the fact that I was so large, like my stomach everybody kept asking me if there were two in there and of course, being in Hong Kong I'm already taller and wider than most people that I come into contact with any day and then having a baby and then that baby still in there at 41.5 weeks. I looked like just a whale walking around in Hong Kong summer.  

CARLY: Oh, in Summer ooph. 

ELISE: Feeling perpetually sweaty and hot and overwhelmed and towards the end there, my feet were the size of boats and my ankles weren't ankles anymore and she was just not coming out. So, they don't let you go more than 10 days overdue here so they checked me in for nine days after my due date for an induction and for a check and then if it was not going to happen then they induce and you don't get to find out that until you're in the hospital and they do a check, and then they tell you I've put a pessary in there and we have induced you.

There's not a lot of communication or choice and I didn't know the right questions to ask and so it just sort of happened that way.

I started feeling contractions very quickly and they were very manageable and I was like ‘oh if this is a contraction I'm fine’, you know like everybody does uh! And it progressed very, very quickly to the point where I was quite uncomfortable and sitting on a bouncing ball like they recommend wasn't helping a tens-machine made things worse I felt well and truly out of my depth very quickly and no one was listening to me so I ended up walking around the nurse's station just crying because that's what made me feel better. Finally, a young nurse that had not seen it all came over and asked me what was going on and I told her and showed her that my contractions were coming every two minutes and she said I think we need to monitor you so they hooked me up and within you know 20 minutes I was in the labour ward being told that I had uterine hyperstimulation and so it was a very painful experience. It was 19 hours and then right at that last hour the paediatrician wasn't available to come and help me push and so they asked me to hold it in. 

CARLY: Hmmm wow!  

ELISE: {laughing} Not push and I couldn't not push! So, I was basically not effectively pushing for an hour and then when the paediatrician was available by the time she was available my daughter was very distressed and came up out covered in meconium and she had breathed it in and so she was whipped away to special care. So, I basically was shown her and then she went away and I was left for about 20 minutes with nobody in the room, no baby, my husband had gone off with the baby and no water, no nothing. I could hear a cleaner and I yelled out to her because I was so thirsty and so tired and I didn't know what was going on yeah.

Finally, they let me go and meet my daughter 20 minutes before visiting hours were over and so I got 20 minutes with her and then I had to go back to the post-labour ward and try and get some sleep.  

I really struggled expressing colostrum. I was exhausted. I kept asking if I could go and see her and breastfeed and they kept saying, ‘in the morning’ and then in the morning, finally, had permission which was roughly 14 hours later. I went up and held her and breastfed her for the first time, direct-fed.

At that point, they'd given her glucose syrup because she was a *big baby* of 4.35 kilos and I just kind of felt like I didn't have permission to be with her. When I went up to breastfeed, I had to put her in the rolling cot and go and sit in one of the most comically low chairs for a person having just pushed a person out of themselves, like then having to stand up holding your baby to put them in a cot which was above head height while you were sitting down from this low. They were comfortable seats but very low and I still look back on that thinking that it must be a joke, it must be like a joke that they've got you seated in this very low position and you have to stand up using your thighs and legs and not your arms to help you. Anyway ... 

I didn't feel like I could do skin-to-skin or that I was welcome to just be there with my child. I kept going up, feeding, putting her back because I thought that's what I had to do. 

About on the second day, it was probably a day later that I was told that she was becoming dehydrated and that was my first advocacy moment where I said you have her in a humidy crib she's 4.35 kilos she doesn't need to be in a humidy crib. She's sweating every time I come up here. She's sweating and she's hot and no matter how much I feed her, it's not going to make up for the sweat moisture she's losing because she's sweating. ‘Ah okay, thank you’ and then moved her out. So, they were willing to listen I just didn't know the questions to ask or the way to advocate for myself. I didn't have enough information I went in completely unprepared. ‘Oh, women have been doing this for millions of years...’ and so it was about the second day where I was sitting and I was trying to wake my daughter up because she was dehydrated and the nurses said that we couldn't take her home until her urine had cleared and all of these things and the lactation consultant came over and said ‘you don't have to wake her up just sit with her on your chest and wait and she will wake up when she's ready,’ and I went ah and I was alright because I finally had permission to just be there and respond to my daughter's needs and not perform functions that I thought were required by the nurses in order to get home.

Then when they said they needed certain test results and they wanted to complete her antibiotics in the hospital, just because, and I said, ‘okay, well I will sit here on these chairs and sleep here in these chairs then until you let her go because I know she's healthy and I know she doesn't need that, because she's fine. Look at her! She's fine,’. So, then I kept pushing and the good thing about people here is that they or people in that hospital is that they listened and they said, ‘look if she does have a fever at any point or you know you notice any difference, please bring her back and we'll put her back on antibiotics but all of the tests are coming back negative. She's fine, take her home.’  

We finally took her home and I finally got sleep. You know, like when you have a newborn but I'd probably slept 45 minutes at that point in total trying because the special care unit is in a separate building to the after-delivery ward. So, you'd have to go down the elevator and then you cross over to the other building and then you go up in the elevator and you have to wear a mask and tag in, there are all these processes which, mask-wearing is completely fine now but at the time it was this big process.  

So yeah, when we got home, I felt completely out of my depth like all of the instinctual parts of motherhood that should have just kicked in had been disrupted somehow and so I just basically picked up my daughter and held her because I hadn't been able to do it until that point and I don't think I put her down until she was about two.  

{Laughing} Because it sort of had set up this anxious brokenness and I never sort of got over that I think. And at the time, I didn't think that anything was wrong but looking back, you know the intrusive thoughts and the what I would call psychological pain I felt like I was being cut by razors when my husband wasn't there, I felt like I was out of my depth. I was physically uncomfortable with being left alone with my daughter because I didn't have that...  

CARLY: You needed that support person there to kind of back up so you felt like you could be competent. Was it that kind of feeling?  

ELISE: Yeah, I felt like I was going to miss something or break something or I didn't know what to do and that was, I now have a theory,  that as I mentioned in my tumultuous upbringing, I feel like when you're still stuck in caring for yourself because you can't trust that you will be taken care of, which is one of those trauma reactions that I now put myself in front of because of a lot of information about you know trauma and the way different brains interact with people etc because I'm very intensely interested in that and looking at that, I've created this theory and I'm sure there's research done that when you've experienced so much trauma in your life and you do get stuck in that individualistic ‘I must take care of myself first’ and lack of trust that your needs will be taken care of, being needed, becomes very painful. That's my little theory in that when I had a person that I was responsible for it became a painful experience at the beginning because I didn't know how to care for somebody else while not knowing that I was going to be taken care of.  

CARLY: It's a trust thing, isn't it.  

ELISE: yeah! My husband is very nurturing and very caring it wasn't a logical response. It was just that deep fight or flight response in myself that came out when I saw this person and I knew that that was me. That if I wasn't there, there was no one else there and so I had to take on my own stuff while my child was at that time, blissfully sleeping.  

I know I read articles and had a look at what kind of parent I wanted to be because I had no idea. I was very stuck in I don't know I hadn't read the books I hadn't done any of the research I thought it would all just kick in and the only thing that kicked in when my baby was on the outside of me was a feeling of ‘what do I do?’  

CARLY: So, when you first started looking, what kind of advice were you seeing, like were you particularly drawn to a style of parenting or was it more just theories or what was capturing your attention at that time?  

ELISE: I was so lucky that the friends I had made in my journey so far in Hong Kong, like other mothers that had been mothers before me, of the pilot group that my husband was a part of, were gentle, breastfeeding, responsive parents and so what came up on my Facebook feed was you know Pinky McKay and the Milk Meg and I just was so lucky that that's what I was exposed to straight away because that's not the thing that's done here, as in breastfeeding. That is, we do have quite low breastfeeding rates here for a variety of reasons but at the moment the government is doing what they can I guess or are trying to increase their support of mums so that we can increase that rate. But I was just really lucky that I had that available to me and from there I found Grubby Mummy and the Grubby Bubbies and I found out that she'd created this book, I'm sorry this group on Facebook and I joined the group and saw articles on ‘Why African babies don't cry,’ and you know attachment theory and keeping your baby close and babywearing which is very traditional here (so the mayday carriers that's from this part, this region of Asia) because well you do see prams in our area but most of the time, we were in central at the time, there's no space on the sidewalk for a big pram with a baby in it so people are just getting around, their babies strapped to their chest and getting about life. So, I think I was lucky.  

I appreciate the information that I came across when I came across it because no matter what I tried when people said that they had found something that worked with their children for comfort and sleep nothing worked for mine. She was sleepy until about two and a half months and then she woke up and she wanted to be in your face looking at your face she still doesn't like to be back carried she's 3.75. We went for a hike yesterday on an island and she still doesn't like to be on my back she wants to go on your front and I said, ‘oh honey, my hips and back, they can't do that!’  

CARLY: That's a lot of weight on the front!  

ELISE: yeah, 15 kilos on my front! Not okay. So yeah, she's like, ‘But I can't see well and I can't see you!’ and she lets you know! That's who she's always been.  

With sleep, she was a rock star sleeper until she woke up and then she just wasn't anymore and I thought I had done something wrong and I thought there was an answer and I thought that if I could just XYZ and so many people gave me suggestions and nothing felt right. So, I think that's why I started searching for information that felt right for me. I think having gone through that post-birth experience where I wasn't allowed to hold my baby, had made me quite resolute in the fact that I didn't want to choose to not hold her. And so, she just she needed me and I needed her at that point. So, we spent a long time on the couch she was being held, my husband, she had this long witching hour where she would just feed one boob, next boob, next boob for like two hours in the evening and my husband would feed me food- cut it up and put it on the fork and put it in the  

CARLY: Good man, good man.

ELISE: He’d try not to drop it on her head.  

CARLY: Oh yeah! The crumbs on the baby's head, that's almost like par for the course for a breastfeeding baby. I think they just end up with it on there. I don't know if you can avoid that. 

ELISE:  I knew she wasn't allergic to nuts though because I kept dropping it!  

CARLY: It's one way to test it out. Before you bought your babe home, did you set up a nursery area or where were you thinking she'd sleep? 

ELISE: Oh, that. It's funny, up until about two weeks before I gave birth, we had the pretty expensive cot and the aqua and white nursery all set up in the room next door and now the room next door is like two-three steps away so because Hong Kong apartments and so it wasn't like they were down the end of the hall. But just about two weeks before she was born, I freaked out and told my husband we needed a bassinet to be in our room. She slept in there for about two months before she grew out of it because big baby and I tried to put her down in the room next door and didn't like it. 

CARLY: Who didn’t like it? You or her? 

ELISE: Both! So, we took the whole thing apart, brought the crib into our room which then meant we had to move it every time we were opening the wardrobe and she slept-ish in there for maybe a month and then when she woke up and she was waking up very often...  

CARLY: Sorry for the interruption! So, we were talking about how you'd moved the cot into your bedroom, it just fitted, you had to do those things. So, was she sleeping, like when you had her in your room then, she'd grown out of the bassinet was she's still sleeping relatively okay? Did she start the waking in the bassinet or was she actually sleeping in the cot? 

ELISE: I guess... but not really. I was trying to put her down in the cot thinking that it was necessary and I was just turning myself in circles trying to get her to sleep longer in the cot and I went over to a friend's house and she sort of guiltily mentioned that she was bringing her baby into her bed and it just hadn't occurred to me that that was an option. I don't know why; I think this was all before I had found The Beyond Sleep Training Project and that's when I started looking into what we can do you know safely to improve her sleep and improve her feeling safe and I was talking to friends and you know a friend mentioned that she was bringing her baby into bed with her and then another friend mentioned she'd tried the pick-up, put-down. And, I put Paige who was sort of drowsy put her down... she looked at me, cried, I picked her up and then I was like she's not gonna settle, she's not gonna get settled enough for me to put her down again. And so, that was my foray into sleep training and where it ended for me because I was like this is just not my baby! She just doesn't do the chilled out, fall asleep thing, and that's fine.  

Learn more about Safer Sleep

CARLY: oh see, I so admire that! I wish I could have, just like you, only given a couple of things a crack and been like, ‘yeah no, I can see this isn't going to work for us or it doesn't suit us’ but yeah, no. I was just so hell-bent. Like I really felt like it that was how. So, I really admire that! Good on you! 

ELISE: I think it's exposure, too, right? So I'm in a culture that is not my own and it's a very, very different one and so it does lend you to question everything you've been taught and what you're told and it opens conversations and we've had a lot of conversations here about the way things are done in different cultures because there's also a very big immigrant community from countries all over the world here and they all have their own way of doing things. So I think having that exposure to so many different views leads you to trust looking into what works for you a bit more than when you're in this homogenous population where something always works for everybody. Like you tend to think, well why isn't it working for me when it should work for me? Right? Whereas you know when a doctor says something here, you do think, well now is that their values or is that the what they've learned and how does that relate to what I'm used to from back home and you know  

CARLY: it kind of broadens the view it doesn't have that strict right/ wrong kind of thing going on because you've got this broader cultural perspective. 

ELISE: Yeah. So, it does make you think a bit more about what's working and what's not working and like health here, for example, meat is more of a seasoning here. It's a little bit of meat with a lot of veg and a lot of rice in meals here and they have one of the longest living populations in history. So, you know, when you do sort of think about it I think when you're in one country, you grow up in that country, you're surrounded by people who grew up in that country, you get the same messages over and over again about how things are done and so it does lead you to believe a little bit more in what you're told, whereas, I think for me, being removed from that comfort of home I didn't have, you know my parents weren't here giving me advice, my husband's parents weren't here giving me advice, there was no one you know. I didn't have aunties and uncles and they're all over the world so...  

CARLY: Carving your own path,  

ELISE: yeah  

CARLY: and finding your own feet -what felt right for you. 

ELISE: And being exposed to a lot of different stories and a lot of different ways of doing things where everybody thinks that the way they're doing things is the right way of doing things and so when you're like me where I don't think the way I grew up with was definitely the right way to do things it does lead you to question everything you're told and to give space to more ideas. So yeah, with the pick-up put-down method, I was I put her down and she wailed and then I picked her up and held her to my chest and she calmed and I was like I'm not doing that again.  

CARLY: That's fantastic! It's a great way to … and I guess this is also part of the whole idea that people can try things, like there's no harm in trying but it's the listening that goes along with it and actually being able to trust your baby and trust yourself to know when something's not a good fit for you because you never know, you might have put her down and she might have fallen asleep. But you know... 

ELISE: Another person I know, same genes, same parenting, very responsive breastfeeding she's tandem feeding her two gorgeous kids now and she makes these beautiful unicorns that just chill out and go to sleep when they're tired, and I’m like, hey {laughs} 

Sleep and temperament

CARLY: this is the thing there really is a huge spectrum in the way our babies find sleep. It's not that somebody's doing something particularly right that is why their baby sleeps that way. I think that's a bit of a lesson most of us have to learn. Now I can just see that we're coming up to a half-hour for our episode and I wanted to make sure that I checked in with you for your tip of the week because I'm going to be asking all of our guests what their top tip is that they'd like to share with our listeners. What would be your tip of the week Elise?  

ELISE: My biggest tip is, if somebody, who doesn't know your child tells you that they should be able to do anything and you know that that is not within their capacity, let it go. Let it wash over. They should be able to anything at all or that they shouldn't be breastfeeding as much, they shouldn't be waking as much, they should be able to go to sleep on their own by now, daddy should be able to settle them, all of the things that come up-the shoulds  

CARLY: and the shouldn'ts.

ELISE: Yep, they shouldn't be needing you this much, they shouldn't be crying as often as they, just like everything, everything that has should in it- question it. Question shoulds. Most don’t fit and if it does look into it but should is a word that I think is over utilised. 

CARLY: I would totally agree and I think that's a really great note to end this episode on Elise and thank you so much for coming on and being our very first guest to talk a bit about your journey beyond sleep training. I feel like we might have another episode with you later down the track so we can hear a bit more about your story because we only got really to the very beginning so if you would like to, I would love to have you back on for a future episode. 

ELISE: Sure!  

CARLY: Awesome! Thank you so much, Elise.  

Next episode

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