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When counting sheep doesn’t work, here’s how to cope

How three mothers resorted to a sleep coach

Becky Gera, Becky Gingell and Eliza Paolella enjoy more relaxed times now that their kids’ sleeping patterns have improved. Photos: Jonathan Borg

Becky Gera, Becky Gingell and Eliza Paolella enjoy more relaxed times now that their kids’ sleeping patterns have improved. Photos: Jonathan Borg

The expression sleep like a baby couldn’t be further from the truth for these women; they didn’t get a full night’s rest for over a year. This is about the impact of disrupted nights on mothers… until they resorted to a sleep coach, whose personal experience with her own son pushed her to find a solution.

It was her own personal saga that led counsellor and play therapist Becky Gingell to become a sleep coach. For 14 long months, she and her husband never got a single full night of sleep. Their son, now four, used to wake them up regularly throughout the night, needing to be rocked, bounced, or fed.

Becky had reached her limits of exhaustion and made a decision that something had to change as it was affecting every aspect of her life. She delved into research before coming into contact with the concept of sleep coaching in the US, and that marked the turning point in her sleepless life.

“I first learnt how to coach my son and the change was impressive. With my strong background in counselling and play therapy, I saw it as a natural step to further my studies in this area and get qualified as a sleep coach. Back then, there were no sleep coaches in Malta,” Becky says.

Becky GingellBecky Gingell

Of course, when children are not good sleepers, this could impact their own health and well-being. But if we were to focus on the mothers for a moment, there are detrimental effects there too, which could develop into other issues as time goes by.

In Becky’s case, sleep deprivation affected every area of her life. “I was exhausted all day so my enthusiasm to go to work had diminished immensely. I felt my patience both at work and at home was almost non-existent at that time.

“Emotionally, I felt overwhelmed. Even my relationship with my husband was undergoing a lot of stress because we were both exhausted. Many of the clients I have worked with have expressed and shared these same sentiments. I have had so many mothers crying with me because they are unable to cope due to sheer exhaustion.”

A common feeling many mothers experience in such moments is that of guilt.

Emotionally, I felt overwhelmed. Even my relationship with my husband was undergoing a lot of stress because we were both exhausted

‘I should be happy… I have it all and yet I am so unhappy,’ is a common comment. No doubt that post-birth, hormones play a role in the emotional roller coaster that many mothers experience, but a lack of sleep has a large part to play, Becky maintains.So what actually happens to a mother who is up all night, night after night, and does this situation end up being a vicious circle, which just gets out of hand?

So what actually happens to a mother who is up all night, night after night, and does this situation end up being a vicious circle, which just gets out of hand?

Becky explains that a baby can pick up the general emotional state of his/her mother. So although in no way is a mother to blame for a baby’s inability to sleep, the more tired and impatient she feels, the more the baby can sense that irritability. This, in turn, results in the child being more anxious and upset and finding it more difficult to fall asleep.

But can’t a mother be unintentionally to blame for a child’s inability to sleep, or is this usually beyond her control? “In no way do I intend to make any mother feel guilty. I think we do enough of that, so I will use myself as an example,” Becky says.

“Every time my son woke up and cried, I either rocked, bounced, or fed him.

Therefore, in order to fall back to sleep, he needed to be bounced, fed, or rocked.

“I did this with all the love in the world as mothers do. However, without knowing it, I instilled habits that eventually were the cause of my son’s, my husband’s and my own lack of sleep. In no way am I suggesting that, as parents, we shouldn’t rock, cuddle, or feed our babies. I am all for physical contact, love, touch and care. It is more a matter of when, rather than if.”

Yes, ‘mistakes’ can be made in the early days and should be avoided. Some mothers shun a form of routine at night, and bad sleepers could possibly be the price they pay at the end of the day…

“Babies and toddlers thrive on routine, consistency and predictability,” says Becky. “Therefore, a routine is very important when helping a baby learn how to sleep. However, life is not one fixed timetable, therefore, as mothers, we also learn flexibility within the routine.”

Asked to mention the worst experience a client of hers has had to undergo and how this was tackled, Becky feels that no one mother has had it worse than the other.

“They – and sometimes fathers too – are all very tired from lack of sleep. At the initial stage, my aim is to understand the situation, the family culture and the personality of the parents and child, following which, I create an individualised sleep plan to target their needs and goals.”

The things is mothers may often put their needs aside and act like superhumans. Ideally, they would try to compensate for their own lack of sleep at other hours of the day to avoid running on empty and running into other health issues.

According to Becky’s ideal world, every mother would have enough support, both emotionally and physically, to avoid breaking point. But this is not necessarily reality!

Mothers have to deal with so many different facets of life. Besides having to take care of the children, the house and often go out to work, there is also the mental tiredness, where a woman tends to take on the thinking and planning role, which can also be exhausting.

“Obviously, this is a general statement as I come across many husbands who take on an active role within the family. But if this is not the case, together with lack of sleep, it has a negative impact on some women, both on a physical and on an emotional level.”

It’s not about distinguishing between mothers of good sleepers and those of children who don’t sleep to bring out and analyse any evident differences. Rather, the comparison she draws is when a mother on very little sleep becomes a mother who is getting a good night’s rest.

I have heard so many mothers tell me they never believed a good night would be possible again

“I have heard so many mothers tell me they never believed a good night would be possible again. Many of them told me they finally began to feel alive. The fact that they can now do simple things, such as watch a series with their husband, or take their dog for a walk once the baby falls asleep, is very precious to them. So many mothers share the same words after getting back their nights, saying their quality of life is so much better.”

Becky does not have the answer to how long a woman can last on consecutive interrupted nights before reaching breaking point, but she believes it depends on the woman’s personality, the support she has the following day and other factors.

“I do know mother’s who haven’t slept a full night for years now and are OK with it,” she adds.

Technically, bad nights could be balanced out between parents, possibly changing the scenario. But how many men actually play a part at night?

As a sleep coach, Becky always encourages both the mother and the father to attend the session, and 90 per cent of the time, they both do. She also gives the father a very important role in the coaching and helps both parents understand the importance of supporting one another throughout the process.

“Most often, the father has taken it on and done a fantastic job. So although many people would think that men don’t really get involved, I found that once they have guidelines to follow and are given specific responsibilities, they do really well.

In a way, I have also seen that, post-coaching, couples experience a different dimension to their relationship,” she concludes.

A wake-up call

What were the repercussions on everyday life of these mothers’ sleepless nights? Were they perplexed about why their kids just never got tired and irked by the fact that others’ slept like clockwork for a whole night?

At what point did they realise they needed help? Was the solution easy, or did it require lots more suffering? How would they describe their new life now? And what are their personal recommendations to mothers undergoing similar situations to keep their sanity?

Eliza Paolella

“My daughter Nina was a moderately good sleeper at a young age. She would wake up regularly for feeds and go back to sleep. Then, at six months, I decided to move her into her own room and that is where her sleep patterns changed.

I noticed she was waking up for comfort rather than needing a feed. My husband and I were taking turns to put her back to sleep, but it only made nights seem endless and stressful. We were so tired and exhausted, we sometimes gave in and got her into our bed. It was not what we intended to do, but it was the only way we could get some sleep.

Eliza PaolellaEliza Paolella

Back then, I absolutely dreaded night-time. Nina had never ever slept the entire night until she was sleep coached at 10 months. Throughout the day, I was tired, sometimes irritated, and I was ‘forced’ to go to sleep early as I knew I had to wake up at some point to attend to her. There were times I only woke up for 20 to 30 minutes, and sometimes for much, much longer, disrupting my entire night.

Day after day, I was waking up exhausted. Even though I wasn’t working at the time, I still needed to be ready to face the day with my daughter, who would be full of energy. I was planning to go back to work and knew that something had to be done.

A friend recommended Becky and spoke highly of her methods and how effective the results were. After researching sleep coaching, I decided to give it a go.

I am surrounded by friends who have kids who sleep the night [even from an early age] and others who won’t. I knew I would manage to get Nina to sleep the night with some help and guidance, and had to act before it only got more difficult as she grew older.

I knew it wasn’t going to be simple, or straightforward. I expected the first week to be tough. My husband and I were on the same page. We had to support each other to get through it. Luckily, it was so much easier than we expected. The first two nights were difficult, but it got easier day after day.

I kept telling myself that this was for her own good and for my own sanity. We put a lot of effort into this and we made sure to have her follow a regular routine for a long time, but it helped immensely.

Today, Nina follows a regular routine with regards to her naps and bedtime. She also copes well whenever any changes are made [especially in summer]. We both have more energy and are ready to face the day. Her character and behaviour is generally positive and happy due to her sound sleeping patterns.

I highly recommend to all parents who need help and support to try sleep coaching. Parents need to be committed and in a positive frame of mind to overcome the obstacles. Knowing there is someone to support you makes everything so much easier.”

Becky Gera

“My situation was different from most of what Becky faces with parents who approach her for help as my daughter was a good night sleeper, in that she tended to sleep well through the night, but it was quite a song and dance to get her to sleep and her naps were irregular and short.

Consequently, she often became irritable during the day because she was tired, when I knew she was really a very happy little girl. I knew that it was making her miserable and it was stressing me out too, so I wanted advice on how and when to get her to sleep so that it benefitted us both.

Becky GeraBecky Gera

I was taking the stress out on my husband, and I didn’t want to. Having a baby has been both the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me, but also the most stressful. If there was something I could try to alleviate some of that stress, I was all for it, so I contacted Becky.

I would see friends just put their kids down and leave the room, leaving them to sleep by themselves, and I wanted that. I had also heard of mothers getting lots done while their children napped, but it was an alien concept to me because Kate took 20-minute power naps at different times of the day, not two-hour sleeps like my friends’ babies.

The whining and the moaning when she was tired made days with her seem never-ending, which sounds awful! I wanted to have more structure and predictability for both of us, which I suspected would improve our days.

Sometimes, it would take so long to get her to sleep for the evening that I would accidentally fall asleep with her and then have to get up to clean the kitchen, prepare her bottles and bag, do the laundry and all the rest of the household chores, which was tough because I was still half asleep. It just wasn’t working and I was dreading bed and nap time.

Of course, nothing worthwhile comes without some hard work. It took commitment and strength to improve the situation, but Becky supported me every step of the way, and it was worth it.

Today, I feel like I know what Kate needs in terms of sleep more than I did before, and it’s given me a greater sense of control. Kate’s happier and so am I.

As mothers, we need to accept the support we are offered in order to minimise the stressors that come with the role and optimise our relationships with our children and the people we love. I see no point in procrastinating when there is something we can try.”

This feature first appeared in the September edition of Pink magazine.

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