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Sleep – The Other Side

Today I’m pondering the highs and lows of our family sleep journey over the past years.

Last night my 8yr old actually sent me away from his bed!!

This is the boy who challenged everything about what I thought baby sleep should look like.  The boy who night woke and that I worked tirelessly to get into his own sleep space during the first months of his life.  In the end we co-slept consistently from around 10months, then aged 2-3 we did partial night time co sleeping until he was 5yrs old (he would go to sleep in his bed and then come to ours in the night) this gradually changed to him joining us in the early morning at 5-8yrs……

We found once we embraced co-sleeping, life became so much easier.  Yes, there were nights he was pummelling my back, laying on my back like a koala, making me hot, laying like a star fish whilst we lay on the edge of the bed – and I often wished for the time he would be in his own bed.

Laying with him at bedtime whilst he dozed off there were times where I desperately needed to get downstairs for me time, to get downstairs to work, for box set binges, for wine! Sometimes i’d just want to go to bed myself – and sometimes I felt resentful of laying with my children – it wasn’t always enjoyable and perfect…….but mostly it evolved into something that I cherished – finally lights out, loving back strokes and tickles, no distractions – these were the times they would tell me all the important stuff, what was on their mind, something that was worrying them. Laying with my children at bedtime has been very responsible for re connection and sharing.

The things I wished I’d known and been reassured about much earlier on were that it’s ok to co-sleep, how to do so safely, and when you do transition children to their own beds to make it big enough and comfortable enough for you to get in it too.  No more laying on the floor with arms through cot bars, leaning over cots, rocking or cradling heavy toddlers whilst trying to transfer them to their small bed.  I wish someone had encouraged and reassured me about how special and important it might be to your relationship to lay with your child whilst they go to sleep, without putting age limits on this………… because eventually they don’t need you so much and they tell you…… It makes me wonder what I was so frightened of.  Why was I once so determined to get him in his own sleep space?

Contrary to Health Care Professionals and Main stream Media – who would have you think that intense night time support might be wrong, might cause an overly dependent child and you might be feared into keeping focused on getting children to not need you as quickly as possible, particularly at bedtimes.  You might also feel pressured that you need to achieve this night time dependence by a certain age.  My now 8yr old is fiercely dependent and has been for a lot of his young, daytime life – he makes me a cup of tea in the morning, gets his own breakfast, his own lunch, bakes cakes with little help, throws himself off of skateboarding ramps, climbs trees, disappears with his friends at the park for hours, parkours around the park, navigates his way to the post office on his scooter, crosses roads independently……

Of course he still needs me, he needs me and wants me differently.  I still lay with him at night time, heck, I still lay with my 11yr old – now through choice rather than necessity!  The difference is I can tell them that sometimes I can’t, sometimes I might only lay with them for a few minutes, sometimes I need to be at work and they accept that – but they also tell me when they really need that time or want me to be with them.
And now they also tell me when they don’t need me………….

I think about all of those times when I was knee deep in their little lives, the endless needing me, the lack of dependence, the fact that it felt never-ending…….and sometimes unenjoyable.

In reality, when you think about how long you hope their lives will be, the first 8-10yrs is such a small chunk of time to give intensely, to build strong foundations, to build good and positive associations with sleep.  I now reflect that the biggest problem I had was not being prepared for that intensity, having unrealistic expectations and not having access to evidence based, empowering support.  Someone that simply was able to say ‘do what feels right for you, be guided by your individual children’s needs’………and the evidence backs what you are doing…………listening, responding, supporting…… wont break them by being with them at bedtime, and giving them what they are asking for.  Its ok for them to want and need you at bedtime.

Can you imagine if we had crawling training, walking training, talking training for children? And after showing them what to do expecting them to do it independently, without loving encouragement and reassurance?  And if they couldn’t do it at the age we thought they should, we leave them to work it out on their own?

Why do we accept that our children learn how to put their hand to their mouth, feed themselves, sit up, crawl, walk, talk………in their own time, with plenty of encouragement, support and modelling from us – but we cannot accept that they will learn to sleep in their own time? and that they might need us to be with them whilst they are fathoming this out.  There are loads of developmental reasons for these needs.  We are just not very good at sharing or educating about these needs……….

Yesterday I’d been at a conference all day, I got home late, so I went up to say goodnight to my 8yr old – he had just fallen asleep………as I got into his (double) bed and cuddled him he briefly woke and told me a few things about his day, asked me if I’d had a good day, then said: “Thank-you for my cuddle mummy – I think you should go now cos I’m really tired and I need to go to sleep”

“Pardon?? Eh?!”  Slightly taken aback, slightly proud, slightly tearful…….

I think that means we’ve cracked it!!??

I can tell you, as a mother on the other side, it certainly feels bittersweet……….

To all you mamas in those intense years of night time parenting, trusting your instincts, trying not to be feared into forcing independent sleep, feeling the desperation that sleep deprivation sometimes brings, I salute you……….

This will be you one day………and I hope you will tell us all about it.

Katie Olliffe is a Home schooling Mum to 2 boys, Step Mum to 3, Partner to Rich. Birth and Postnatal Doula, CalmFamily Consultant and Parent Coach, Public Speaker and Writer, Rewind Birth Trauma Practitioner and Positive Birth Movement Facilitator. She loves reading, rollerskating and cuddling babies. She also loves talking about normal infant sleep and brain development. You can find out more about the services Katie offers here.

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