We've lost our village, and it's making us tired

We've lost our village, and it's making us tired

I just read a great article that cuts through the cultural attitude of "mommy martyrdom" around the issue of sleep deprivation and its effect on postpartum mental health.  


We've all joked about having "mommy brain" and falling asleep mid-feeding in the rocking chair at 4 a.m., but as a society, it may be time to wake up. Pardon the pun. The Canadian Mental Health Society names sleep deprivation as a contributing factor to postpartum depression - a condition 10-15 per cent of new mothers will experience, some to the level of psychosis.

Having a newborn baby is blissful, joyful and exciting. But it's also constant - not to mention critically important - work. If women are lucky, family members pitch in with meals and grocery runs in the first week. But then what happens? 

Typically, Dad goes back to work and Mom is up three to four times a night feeding and soothing baby so that her partner is well rested enough to function at the office. Then chronic sleep deprivation really starts to kick in - chronic because there's no time to catch up on lost sleep.

As new moms, we're often told to "sleep when they sleep". But that's assuming someone else is cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and taking care of your other children. (Notice there's no time in there for showers or relaxing with a heating pad around your shoulders.) Not many of us have a super-grandma down the road who gives up the next six weeks of her life to take care of household business while her daughter (or daughter-in-law) feeds and bonds with her new baby. And almost no one has a village to rally around them any more. 

According to a Huffington Post article on birth traditions in other cultures, the Japanese have a concept around post-natal care called Ansei, or "peace and quiet while pampering." Um, yes please. Traditionally, Japanese women spend the first three weeks after the birth of their baby at their parents' house staying in bed, recovering and bonding with their baby.

In Nigeria, the mother, or mother-in-law, gives the new baby its first bath, symbolizing the care she will give in the early part of the newborn's life.  Maybe that sounds worse than labour to you; that depends on the mother-in-law. But we're talking about a concept here.

Just four decades ago, my mother spent a full five days in a hospital bed after each of her babies' natural, uncomplicated births. For one birth, she was sharing a room with an Irish-Catholic woman who had just delivered her 12th or 13th child. "I love coming in here," she said. "It's the only break I get all year." 

Another interesting read outlines the culture shock that a Korean nurse had when giving birth in the United States. In her article Postpartum Beliefs and Practices Among Non-Western Cultures, Yeoun Soo Kim-Godwin, PhD, MPH, RN says, "It is interesting that women’s status has been considered relatively higher in Western cultures than in non-Western cultures, yet paradoxically less recognition seems to be given to new mothers in the United States."

True - for baby showers and the postpartum period, the focus is most often on the baby.  Now, I'm not saying we should ignore the miraculous new bundle of joy, but we need to take care of moms so that moms can be fully present to take care of their babies. Don't get me started on the insanity of some countries that require women to be back to work after six weeks. 

So what to do?  Reach out. Make food - lots of it, and often. If you have a friend or family member who has just given birth, show up with two containers: one for tonight and one for the freezer. Ask the mom (and/or dad) if they would like you to watch the baby while they take a shower or have something to eat. Then bugger off. 

I'll never forget visiting my friend Jean a week after the birth of her first baby. Not yet a mom myself (and admittedly out to lunch on the whole thing), I brought flowers. You're welcome. And I stayed for an hour (total rookie). About a year later I had my own baby, so by the time Jean had her second, I had smartened up. I showed up with a big pot of nourishing soup, held her baby for five minutes and then left her in the capable hands of her husband-on-paternity-leave to rest.

That said, if you know someone who is really suffering, treat it seriously. Get them to talk to their doctor, and connect them with a local women's mental health or postpartum depression group. Make sure they're being followed by health professionals. And if they have a difficult baby who literally keeps them up all night, gather the troops, step in, and take shifts. She needs to sleep.

If you need a great platform for organizing postpartum meals or other support, check out Lotsa Helping Hands to make your own online signup calendar.

So what is sleep training?

So what is sleep training

This is the question a mom in the park asked me the other day when I told her what I do for a living. She had joked “we’ll sleep some time” as she gently pushed her seven-month-old in the swing for the first time.

There seems to be a lot of talk about it, but I realized there are probably a lot of new parents who don’t know what it means to “sleep train” their baby. I was one of those parents; although in the months after my first child was born, I dreamed of walking into the room with a clipboard and whistle to command her it was time to sleep. For the love of….

Simply put, sleep training is giving your baby (or toddler/child) the opportunity to learn self-soothing strategies.  We all have self-soothing strategies – I lie on my left side in the fetal position and pull the covers up to my shoulders. Ahhh… now I can fall asleep. And I stay asleep, all night. Even though it is completely normal to wake three to four times a night, we don’t remember waking because it’s so brief. Somewhere in our infancy, we learned self soothing. We wake, shuffle / turn over and go right into the next cycle of sleep without being consciously aware of it happening.

Babies need to learn how to fall back to sleep in between sleep cycles. It helps (or is essential, actually) if they’ve learned to fall asleep independently, meaning, not while breastfeeding, sucking a pacifier or being rocked in mom’s or dad’s arms.

So why do so many babies have a hard time putting that together? It seems an anomaly these days to have a baby that just sleeps through the night after the first couple of months of life. Often parents intervene too soon with baby's every fuss and cry; their little one doesn't have a chance to develop the ability to soothe themselves back into another cycle of sleep.

Another possible contributor is "back to sleep". This is the educational campaign that has literally saved babies’ lives. Since government programs have urged parents to put babies to sleep on their backs rather than on their bellies, as had been done for probably a millennium, the rate of infant deaths due to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) has dropped by 50 per cent. But when not sleeping on their bellies, babies will startle themselves awake more often (that jazz-hands-looking reflex present in early life).

Just to be clear, I strongly advocate putting babies to sleep on their backs. It is the single biggest factor in reducing cases of SIDS. But that means many of us have to work a little at helping our babies learn the critical life skill of independent sleep.

Sleep training can take on many forms.  A lot of people assume this means “Cry It Out” or CIO as it’s called in sleep literature. Many of our parents did this, and a lot of experts recommend it for exhausted parents and overtired babies, but it can be pretty hard on the heart – the parents’ figurative heart as they put their child down and close the door on their crying baby, not to open it again until 7 a.m. It can also have less-than-lasting success compared to other methods.

Then there’s increasing check times, often called “Ferberizing” as it was popularized in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Ferber. Using this method, you put your baby down awake and return at predetermined amounts of time to comfort them with gentle pats or rubs and a soothing voice; those intervals gradually increase in length until your baby falls asleep.

Then there’s “camping out”. This is the method popularized by Sleep Sense founder Dana Obleman; she calls it the “stay-in-the-room method”. This is the method I most often recommend to parents.  Using this method, you are beside your child for them to see and hear you, and occasionally feel your soothing touch.  The method then progresses and changes over the ensuing nights to allow your child to learn complete independence. In my experience, it’s a game changer.

If you Google 'sleep training', you'll find strong opinions from online moms on all sides of the discussion; everyone is absolutely entitled to an opinion. But one fact always remains: if you’re sleep deprived, you’re not at your best. At worst, you could be unable to properly attend to your child, unsafe to drive or even heading into depression. And parenthood is all hard enough.

We're all just doing our best

We're all just doing our best

I’m a sleep coach. It’s where I’ve decided to put my efforts and attention to help kids and families. Sleep training worked for me, and it’s worked beautifully for my kids. The research on the effects of sleep training on children’s future emotional health and well-being alleviates any second guessing I had about my decision. My kids sleep in their own cribs through the night and they fall asleep independently (i.e. no “props” like breastfeeding-to-sleep, rocking or pacifiers). That was my choice, and it’s worked for us.

Then there’s my friend C, whom I just bumped into on a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning – she with her two kids and me with mine. Both of us have relatively new babies. She said something about her littlest one napping for three hours every afternoon and my heart swooned.  “You hear that?” I said to my baby. “Three hours – want to give that a try?”  She said she puts her almost-three-year-old on one breast and her baby on the other and they all fall asleep for a family nap every day. Sometimes it’s one hour, sometimes it’s two or three. And it works for them. Her kids get sleep, she sleeps and she feels good about her parenting decision.

So who’s right?  The answer is, both. From what I can tell, my friend C seems wholly committed to the Attachment Parenting philosophy made famous by the Dr. Sears group. I was too until three or four months into my first child’s life when I had to admit the bed-sharing part wasn't working for us.  No one was getting enough sleep.  And if I breastfed my baby to sleep, she’d have a guaranteed, crappy 30-minute nap and continue the vicious cycle of overtiredness.  My baby and I were getting by on snippets of rest but we were both chronically sleep deprived.

While the Sears family write at length about the benefits of co-sleeping, demand-feeding and baby wearing, they also say very early in their Attachment Parenting book that the best sleeping arrangement for any family is the one in which everyone is getting a good night’s sleep.

So while my heart wanted the co-sleeping cuddles my friend C had, it changed its tune when I learned how much consolidated sleep my child was missing out on. And while C is happily feeding her babe to sleep, she’s recommending me to friends who need a sleep coach. She understands that every baby is different, every family is different. As mothers, we have to support each other and respect that each of us is doing our best and what we truly believe to be best for our children – it’s the one and only thing parents have in common.