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Bonnie on postpartum depression and sleep-training

mom playing with baby on a bed - an essay on unsuccessful sleep training

Content warning: Discussion of postpartum depression, birth trauma, domestic abuse or other tough topics ahead. If you or someone you know is struggling with a postpartum mental health challenge, including postpartum depression or anxiety, call 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (tel:18009435746)—The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline This free, confidential service provides access to trained counselors and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in English, Spanish, and more than 60 other languages. They can offer support and information related to before, during, and after pregnancy.

Tons of mothers who suffer from postpartum depression can become obsessed with trying to “control” their infant’s sleep. Lost in first-time motherhood, with a colicky baby, who never slept longer than one hour at a time (day or night), I felt so much pressure to sleep train my son and “sleep when the baby sleeps.”

But once my son fell asleep, I was awake—Googling wake windows, advice for “drowsy but awake,” how I was creating bad sleep habits, among many other (false) sleep representations that our sleep Industry sells to us. When my son was six-months old, we hired a “gentle sleep coach” at top-dollar. This came with a promise, that after 28 days he would be “sleeping through the night.”

Related: Sleep like a baby: Your expert guide to 12 months of rest

Not only did that not work for us, but it also went against my instincts. I cried even more not being able to look at my son, pick him up and having to follow someone else’s “plan.” I believed that if I just did this one thing, like the sleep coach or the sleep expert in the books said, and if I could just get him on this schedule, then it would fix everything.

Yet it only made things worse and I felt so much guilt and shame. I was comparing my son to stock “wake windows” and “sleep schedules” which did not work for him. It made me feel inadequate and made me feel like something was “wrong” with my son. I was trying to force him into North American’s Sleep Industry mold and he was crying night after night to me. “Mama, please no.” He needed closeness. He needed proximity. He needed me.

Related: Baby Sleep Schedules and Guides

Yet there was something inside that continued on night after night, with these promised results in the back of my head, until we hit the 28-day mark and had not come close to our goals. 41 nights and 42 days of unsuccessful sleep training, I just couldn’t do it anymore. There was nothing worse than spending one-two hours in a dark room after each short wake window, just trying to get my baby to sleep, all day and all night.

I truly believe these false beliefs of infant sleep and social pressure of sleep training played a HUGE role in my postpartum depression and anxiety. It wasn’t until I found Baby-Led Sleep, which made me tune into my son, learn that everything he was doing was completely normal and developmentally appropriate, that I was then able to tune out the world.

Related: When can you sleep train a baby? There’s only one hard-and-fast rule, according to experts

I could I begin to shift our sleep to a positive place, offering him a solid foundation of attachment. Now I feel good about offering him support during his night wakings and can follow his own unique habits. I’m now healing from my own journey, but there are scars and scabs on my heart. A would that may never heal from my first year of grasping onto any control I could find, which showed up for me as attempting control my baby’s sleep. I was searching everywhere for an answer. When in reality, I just needed to BE the answer for my son.

When it comes to infant sleep, just remember, there is nothing wrong with your baby. Each baby is different, your baby’s sleep is normal and you’re doing an amazing job mama.