My wife and I almost didn’t go to sleep school. It sounded like signing up for guaranteed emotional trauma – as much for ourselves as our infant sons.
We pictured a grim regime like something from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest intensified with marathon bouts of controlled crying. Frankly, we didn’t think we could hack it. Plus the Karitane compound was bloody miles away and they wanted us to stay for four nights.
But we were also utterly desperate. Our older son, Joe was almost two, but had only ever slept through the night once. His hard-wired wake-up time: 4.30am. And we’d just about learned to accommodate that. But then his brother Marc came along and he was far, far worse.
Marc was now six months old and the lack of sleep was taking its toll. Things were beginning to unravel and life often felt very fucking bleak indeed.
So we went along to the Karitane Parenting Centre in Sydney’s outer west. It’s no exaggeration to say the resulting experience changed our parental lives.
What we found was a crack team of professional baby-whisperers who’ve navigated every childcare issue known to man. These child and family nurses are essentially like tennis coaches for parents. Only instead of unpicking your backhand, they evaluate your baby-wrangling skills and offer tips to achieve better results.
On arrival, we were given a double-room with an en-suite bathroom. Leading off it, were two small rooms equipped with surveillance cameras that allow nurses to monitor the kids as they slept.
You need a referral from your GP to take advantage of these residential facilities that includes access to Karitane’s team of nurses, paediatricians, psychologists and nutritionists. As a result, the cost of admission is largely covered by Medicare – we paid under $250 for our four-night stay (including meals!).
That’s probably the single best investment I’ve ever made. Because the experience didn’t just focus on sleep, it gave us a toolbox of tactics to become slightly better parents. Here’s what we learned.
Your kids adapt fast
At home we’d fallen into bad habits. Every night our toddler was effectively anaesthetised to sleep with a bottle of milk and endless rounds of back-patting in a routine that could drag on for hours. And hours. We’d then labour through the same torturous process every time he woke up – at least two or three times a night.
Our GP told us that milk at night was a no-no because the lactose was bad for kids’ teeth. Megan, our dedicated nurse at Karitane, agreed. The milk was disrupting his sleep and would have to go.
Inwardly, I winced at this prospect. Feeding my son his bottle as he nestled in the crook of my arm had become our nightly ritual. It was totally engrained in our routine. I pictured Joe’s uncomprehending despair as he waited for the bottle of milk that would never come. He was going to be utterly inconsolable.
Joe adjusted in a single night. Sure, there were a few initial tears, but I sat by his side and soothed him through the bars of his cot. By the next night he’d forgotten all about the milk.
The take-home: Kids aren’t sentimental. Familiar rituals that you thought were set in stone can be undone with almost indecent haste. Keep an open mind.
You need to take charge
“Are you asking him or telling him?” That was the feedback from Megan our nurse on the way I was talking to my toddler as I struggled to coax him to lie down in bed. For the 16th time in 10 minutes.
The point she was making was that small children respond much better to clear instructions over vague invitations. Reticence isn’t helpful: kids ultimately need clear and consistent boundaries to feel more secure.
Being too gentle or indirect can backfire because it can make your demands lack conviction. Small kids are cunning opportunists. If they catch a whiff of ambivalence they’ll exploit it in the ensuing power-struggle as they yowl for another re-reading of Mog the Forgetful Cat.
The take-home: Issue calm, confident and decisive instructions. Be gentle and empathetic but firm. You’re the parent – act like one.
Settle for less
The ultimate goal is for your kids to go to sleep on their own. Right now, that may sound about as likely as talking your wife into hiring an au pair who looks like Angelina Jolie’s prettier younger sister. But you need to start laying the basic groundwork for your daddy utopia.
What that means when you’re settling your child, Megan explained, is to limit your interaction to the bare minimum required. From there, you’ll work towards gradually paring back your efforts. There’s a sliding scale of involvement here from holding your child in your arms to patting them and rocking the cot.
As you scale back your exchange, you’ll inevitably run into resistance. But we were told to listen to the timbre of the protests and learn the difference between half-hearted grizzles that’d soon subside and howls of genuine distress.
I was instructed to sit at the side of Joe’s cot and make “shushing” noises. Joe was predictably nonplussed by this feeble effort and would stand up in his cot to protest. “Lie down,” I was told to say. “If you lie down, then daddy will stay, But if you stand up then daddy will go.” If Joe stood up three times, I left the room.
Then, I’d let him cry for a minute or two before going back in. Joe quickly sussed out that if he lay down then I’d stick to my word.
The take-home: Less is more. Keep your interaction to the minimum to give your kids the chance to learn to self-soothe.
Embrace the darkside
Joe had become a heinously early riser – we’d come to accept any wake-up after 5am as a fist-pumping win. But after the first night at Karitane he woke at 5.30am. On day two: 6.25am. And the third day he got up at a relatively civilised 7.05am.
Darkness may have played a part in this improvement. The kids’ rooms at Karitane are almost pitch-black. That’s important because a study this year found that children’s eyes let in more light than adults’ eyes do. Their little body-clocks are very sensitive to light exposure – darkness keeps their snooze-button switched on.
The take-home: Keep your kids’ room as dark as possible. Blackout curtains are ideal, or try darkening shades that come with suction cups that you can attach to any window.
Consistent meal times
The importance of routine is Parenting 101. But kids don’t only have regular meal-times at Karitane. Morning and afternoon tea – think half a banana and a biscuit – were also scheduled at the same time each day.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise effect this had. But we did notice that “witching-hour” became noticeably less difficult with our toddler.
Snacks make a difference because kids’ appetites tend to be smaller than adults so they need to eat regularly to stock up their energy levels. A well-fed toddler is less prone to throwing a tantrum just because their baby brother has grabbed their toy train. We like those odds.
For our six-month old, my wife was told to only breast-feed him every four hours. The idea was to try and break the habit of perpetual grazing in which he was using her boob more as a soother than a food source. If the baby woke in the night and started crying for boobs, we’d roll the cot back and forth on its wheels until he went back to sleep. Sometimes this could take up to 30 minutes, but eventually it worked.
The take home: Lock down regular times for meals and snacks to limit hangry explosions. Teach your baby to fall asleep without a boob in his mouth
Signal your intentions
Life is disorientating for a small child. They’re happily playing with building blocks when, out of nowhere they’re suddenly plucked away, stripped naked and dunked into the bath. Or they’re running around the playground when, without prior warning – the fun ends abruptly as they’re bundled into the car.
Megan insisted that toddlers understand a lot more than you imagine. Signalling your intentions in advance gives them a chance to wrap their heads around the idea. For example: “Joe, we’re going to play in the sandpit for five more minutes and then we’re going inside for lunch”
Miraculously, this made a huge difference to our toddler’s all-round behaviour. The volume of his protests quickly abated when we started to keep him in the loop.
The take-home: Forewarned is forearmed. Give your child a heads-up as to what’s happening next.
My wife and I left Karitane feeling almost tearfully grateful for the guidance and support we’d received. Two months on, our parenting remains a definite work in progress.
On the plus side, our toddler’s all-round behaviour and sleeping has definitely improved. Once he’s asleep, he now sleeps more or less right through. That’s a massive win.
Our baby is more problematic. Right now, the nights are stinking hot and he’s teething. Although we know that we should only feed him every four hours, that’s easier said than done when he’s waking up howling at 90-minute intervals. We know what we’re meant to do. But good resolve often crumbles in the face of sheer exhaustion. We’ll keep plugging away.
Overall, our Karitane stay made us more confident, proficient and united on the daily practicalities of parenting. There’s no doubt that it bolstered the armoury of childcare tactics we had at our disposal. The tricky part? It’s now down to us to put them into practice.
FOR MORE INFO GO TO: www.karitane.com.au