Meet Sally Cullen – whose child used to wake up 15 times a night!

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It’s a standard running joke when you’re a parent to a small child: you’re permanently knackered, you can even buy a slogan T-shirt that says ‘Exhausted’ on it. And yet, severe, prolonged sleep deprivation isn’t a joke, it’s a serious business especially if you’re nodding off behind the wheel with your toddler in the back of the car like I did, more than once.

Ellie’s never been the greatest sleeper but at 2 years 4 months she was still waking up to 15 times a night. That meant my husband and I were rarely getting more than an hour’s sleep at a time and we were never getting any of the deep, restorative sleep that is critical to health and well being. People often asked what we had tried to get her to sleep but it was more a question of what hadn’t we tried? We read book after book and blog after blog about child sleep psychology, we tried putting Ellie to bed later, then earlier, we used black-out blinds and white noise, we read children’s books that purported to use NLP to get your child to nod off, we tried special pillow sprays, we tried projecting night lights, meditative CDs, we tried various sleep training methods including something called ‘gradual retreat’ and most nights we resorted to co-sleeping but invariably we would end up like the capital letter H, with Ivan and I balanced perilously on the edges of the bed and Ellie horizontally between us, which meant the only person who was actually getting any sleep this way was our tiny sleep terrorist.

We battled through like this for well over a year after we’d both returned to work and Ellie was ‘supposed’ to be sleeping through the night. Like lots of people who live in a city away from our families we were on our own so we tried to deal with it ourselves, sometimes taking it in turns to do the night shift if the other one had a particularly demanding day the next day.

I was running my own demanding business as an interiors stylist but we were on our knees, surviving each day, terminally irritable, struggling to keep up with the day-to-day demands of being a parent, a co-worker, and a spouse. Then Ivan broke his arm, really badly in an awkward place which meant I had to do all the driving. We’d been to a family party and we were diving home and I knew I was too tired to get behind the wheel but we were miles from home and I was the only driver so I just got on with it but as it got darker it was harder and harder to keep my eyes open and I nodded off. I woke a nanosecond later but in that moment I knew I had endangered the lives of the people I love the most and we had to get help with Ellie’s sleep.

My biggest fear regarding any form of sleep training was Crying it Out, or CIO as it’s known among parenting forums. Hugely controversial, there are various forms of CIO the severest of which is (after ensuring your child is safe, fed and well) putting them to bed and refusing to go back in to their room no matter how long or hard they cry. Many people I know have tried this or a variation of this technique and had successful results; many others have not but for Ivan and me it was something we definitely preferred not to engage with if at all possible. If I’m really honest I also empathised with Ellie’s desire to sleep with us or on us: what could be more natural than wanting to sleep with our loved ones, it makes you feel protected, safe and warm. There were many nights I returned from Elli’s room wired with adrenaline form another sleep battle and the only thing that could soothe me was snuggling into Ivan’s warm, sleeping body. So how on earth could a sleep consultant break that connection without resorting to crying, how would Ellie cope, how would we cope?

Enter Natasha Cross, baby sleep consultant and founder of Baby Sleep Matters. Natasha is part psychologist, part baby whisperer, part firm matron figure who tells you what you need to hear. She is also a mum of two which immediately set my mind as rest as so many baby ‘experts’ aren’t mothers themselves which has always baffled me. After a long phone consultation Ivan and I were offered a choice of plans; we chose the gentlest that promised no crying and within 1 week Ellie had gone from 15 wake ups per night to 2 and from an hour spent in her room getting her to go to sleep to 5 minutes. The following week we implemented the second stage of the plan which was harder and there were tears; mainly mine but after a few more chats with Natasha we persevered and now three weeks have passed since we started this process and Ellie has gone from sleeping for just 10 hours per night to 12, which is what a child of her age really needs for brain development. We no longer have any wake-ups and no problems at all getting her to sleep in the evening. We have claimed back at least 2 hours of our evening every night and despite having a lot of missed sleep to catch up on we are finally making progress. I just wished we’d done it sooner and I would urge anyone who is in the same position as we were to please get help, it does exist and it doesn’t necessarily mean crying it out!

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