We recently had a week-long stay at the O’Connell Family Centre, a residential unit attached to the Mercy Hospital. Yes, it’s a sleep school. Sleep schools are a touchy topic for a lot of parents so I thought it was worth discussing and I am going to write a series of posts on the topic, there’s a lot to cover.
This post is about what sleep schools actually are, why the exist and what kind of stuff they do. I’ll also talk about why dads should join the family on their stay, and I’ve got some suggestions for how to approach them/pick them and access them.
My second post will relate my experience of our stay at the O’Connell to help give you an idea of what it might be like if you attend one of these units with your own family (although I understand there’s a lot of variation between centres).
There may be more if I can think of more that I wish to say, perhaps relating some of the fundamental lessons about parenting and family life that I learned (many of which have nothing to do with sleep by the way). Also, the Mamanator may relay her experience of our stay, and write about what lead her to ask for help in the first place.
I must insert this important disclaimer: this was our second visit to the O’Connell. We were admitted back when The Lad was about 14 months old and The Mamantor had just found out she was pregnant. It was a week before we moved into this house and only a few weeks before my wife became so ill with “morning” sickness that she basically was stuck in bed for 4 months. With the pressures temporary-pseudo-single-dad-ness, moving house and taking a significant amount of time off work, I wasn’t in a place to make major changes. We managed to get The Lad to sleep in his own room, but I still found myself rocking my son to sleep every single night… till he was about 2 and got too heavy. And yes, I do miss rocking my little boy. But my back thanks me for giving it up (he’s over 16 kilos now).
What is a sleep school?
Prior to our stay, I asked a my fellow Aussie Daddy Bloggers if any of them had experienced sleep school before, and what they thought of them. The response I got was mostly: “What’s a sleep school?”. So here’s the answer:
Sleep schools are residential units, often attached to hospitals, where families stay supported closely by nurses who specialise in infant care, childhood development and parental support. Stays vary in length, we were there for a week (5 days), which is pretty common. Once upon a time the, these places were called “Mothercraft Hospitals”, and were staffed by “Mothercraft Nurses”, but now days they are a mix of Maternal Child Health Nurses, Midwives or Paediatric Nurses. These guys are there to help, to answer questions, to advise you on how to settle your children and to stand beside you at night while you try to get your baby to go to sleep.
In spite of the fact that we all call them “sleep schools” they don’t exclusively focus on sleep, but offer support to parents on a number of fronts. They run classes and support groups. They offer counselling and other kinds of services for mums and dads who are having a tough time. Some run phone advice lines or produce material on their websites to provide information to parents. They participate in and run research into parenting and early childhood development as well, so are often furnished with the latest knowledge in the field.
“Mothercraft Hospitals” first sprouted up in Australia in the 1920s as awareness around how family life can cause struggles, conflicts and can impact on the welfare of mother and child increased.
Oh, and more recently, they worked out dads matter too… But more on that later.
Nonetheless, there is a pretty heavy stigma attached to sleep schools. If you attend one it means you aren’t coping or you’re doing something wrong or you’re letting your kids run your lives or you’re bad at setting boundaries or you’re raising a brat or you’re too soft….
or that, quite simply, you’re a shit parent.
Before I go on any further let me say this (it’s important): If you are struggling and you need help, stop reading this article now (actually read to the end of this paragraph). Pick up a phone, call your doctor or your Maternal Child Health Nurse, make an appointment and tell them you need help. Some days are a struggle for us all, but if every day is a struggle, something is amiss and there are people who will help you. And ask for help now, because help (like so many things) can have a long waiting list. You are not a shit parent, you are not failing, you are not screwing up your child and you are not any less of a mother or father for asking for help. So go ask, don’t wait.
I’ve heard different things about different sleep schools out there. I’ve heard of parents who last a night before storming out of the place because they feel they are being forced to do things they don’t agree with. And I’ve heard of people for whom it makes little difference. I’ve also heard people who absolutely swear by them.
There are sleep schools attached to hospitals as well sleep schools that are privately run. Different centres espouse different philosophies for helping children get to sleep. If you are looking into it make sure you do your research, and try to find one that you think aligns with your philosophy and parenting style. If you fundamentally disagree with the advice you’re being given you won’t follow it at home. Talk to your Maternal Child Health nurse, talk to your doctor and talk to your friends who have been through it to work out what has the best chance of working for you. Don’t just take my word here as gospel, do your own research.
Most importantly, and I cannot say this too many times, don’t feel crap about going to one. You don’t suck, you aren’t a failure, the other mums and dads out there whose children sleep from 7-7 every night aren’t better than you. Ask for help, you need sleep to be at your best. And your kids need you at your best.
Sleep school and dads
Now, let’s talk about dads. There was a time when if a father wanted to come and stay with his family in this kind of facility he would be turned away at the door. In fact, a male nurse working at the O’Connell had this very thing happen to him when they sought support for their daughter who was one of those babies who just wouldn’t sleep. He turned up with his wife and child at the door to be turned away and told to go home so they could work with mum – the real parent. Dad didn’t count. Dad wasn’t important. Dad had to go to work.
But that was 30 years ago. These days dads are welcome at sleep schools and are encouraged to attend. There are 3 basic reasons dads should attend sleep school with their partner and children. They’re pretty simple, and I hope you’ll agree they are pretty important. Here they are:
1. Your kid(s)
Kids are crafty little buggers. If mum and dad aren’t on the same page they can sense it from a mile away and exploit that division. They say “Divide et impera” (Divide and Conquer) was coined by Philip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s dad). The history books say he was talking about the Greek City States he was fighting at the time, but I reckon he was talking about his toddler when he said it.
Your beloved angelic little children (they’re all angelic, right?) need consistency. The need mum and dad to present an united front, and they need to know what to expect from the two of you, especially in the early years. Sleep is no exception. In fact while we were at the O’Connell The Mamantor and I effected a “kid swap” at bed-time, I settled The Lass (who never went to sleep for anything but a breastfeed), while she took The Lad (who has been known to cry “I want Daddy” loudly enough to wake Guildford when The Mamanator has tried to settled him). And now we’re home, we’ve swapped back and we are both using the same techniques with our kids, helping build patterns, routines and habits.
And there’s an important extra benefit too, when you’re at a residential parenting centre you don’t have to cook, you don’t have to clean, you don’t have to commute to and from work. You can just be there and be with your children. It’s wonderful, it really is, just having a few days to parent with no pressure, no outings, no activities you have to drag your children to. Just be there with your kids and play. When they are little, it’s actually the best thing you can do for them.
2. Your wife/partner/husband/primary care giver person
If you are the working person in your family, or whatever the arrangements might be, being with your partner in this environment at this time helps them. It helps them a lot both while you’re there and when you get home. In fact, with a multiple child family, if dad is not there the whole exercise is a waste of time. Even with a one child family your absence drastically reduces the chances of anything changing when it’s time to come home.
You know what The Mamanator was able to do while we were at the O’Connell? Shower every day. EVERY DAY. You know what else she was able to do because I was there, ask me questions, ask my opinion, use me as a sounding board and discuss plans and strategies with me. And I was able to do the same thing with her because we’re a team when it comes to raising our children. That benefits them, but it also benefits us.
We were talking to one of the nurses during our stay who said to us:
I’m so glad you’re here Dadinator (no she didn’t call me Dadinator, even though I asked her to (no I didn’t really ask her to…)) because the most commonly asked question by mums in this place is “So, can you tell all this to my husband? He won’t listen to me”
Sigh…. So being there helps. It helps remind mum/your significant other that you are both part of a team, it gives you time to reflect on your parenting together and it gives you time together that you might not get otherwise.
This is a big one. A really big one. If you’re not sleeping at home (like I wasn’t), you’re putting yourself at risk of all kinds of nasty nasty things. Stress makes you sick. Exhaustion makes you stressed. One of the nurses (the male one) was telling us dads about how he knew of fathers who were getting verbal warnings at work because their performance was suffering. He knew of dads who were probably suffering mental illness because of the strain on them. Men who weren’t seeking help themselves because they wanted to be strong for their kids and for their wives. It’s a horrible cycle, and one I have been stuck in myself.
I had a lucky escape recently. I was driving to work in the morning, missed a corner and wrote off a car. It was foggy and wet, but something I hadn’t considered till my wife brought it up last week was that I was also tired. My sleep was sporadic, interrupted and generally disturbed. It had been that way for months. I walked away from the crash, because I was lucky. If I was unlucky, who knows…
There’s another dimension to this too, these places have psychologists and counselors attached to them, professionals who can see you as part of your stay. Talking to a neutral person, a professional with experience in dealing with family mental health, can do you a world of good. It’s stressful being a dad. It’s stressful being a dad with no sleep, and it just piles up on you. It makes it harder to concentrate, harder to keep your temper and harder to see the positives in your own life. Talking about it doesn’t fix it, but debriefing helps you cope, and our stay last week reminded me just how much that’s the case.
You need to look after yourself dads. It’s no good trying to “tough it out” or having a blind faith that a situation is simply going to get better on its own. I’m sure your child will sleep through one day, but it’s no good if it has caused you damage in the meantime.
I can’t say this strongly enough: if your family needs to go to sleep school, go with them. You are part of that family and you are part of the solution. Try to find a way, take leave, give up a holiday, save up and take time off without pay if you have to, but do your utmost to go. If you’re not there too it is less likely to work, and more likely that things won’t improve.
So that’s it for now, my next post will be a bit more about what our stay was like and what kind of things you can expect from a Sleep School. Highlights include: The Dads’ night (with BBQ, of course), our daughter expressing her fury by hurling her teddy at me, weaning our son off the “everlasting arm rub” at bed time and me ducking out to IKEA on day 4 to replace or son’s night-light.
Have you experienced sleep school? Did it help? Any tips you want to share, please do so below, always interested in comparing notes.