Sleep School: What Really Goes On At Tresillian

Sleep training is one of those emotive parenting topics (and what parenting topics are not emotive?). Should we attempt to get our babies into some sort of sleeping schedule, or leave them to sort themselves out? In the early days of parenting, I firmly came down on the sleep-training-is-cruel side. I left my online mothers group after being supportive came to involve mothers swapping tips on how to stay strong when leaving their six week olds to cry for up to twenty minutes. None of that for us, I thought. We co-slept till BabyG was old enough to go in his cot, which we kept next to the bed, and he was a dream sleeper. I don't know what other women go on about, with the lack of sleep, I thought; this is too easy.

Then the dreaded four month sleep regression hit, pretty much down to the day. BabyG went from waking up maybe twice a night, to waking up every hour - one horror night every forty five minutes - and being bloody impossible to get back to sleep. Naps went all out to hell, too - and so did DH and I. We became bickering, clueless zombies - and I was hit with the full slug of post natal depression and PTSD. Post natal depression can have a delayed onset, but I didn't know this until my excellent GP picked it up and arranged counselling, and strategies to deal with BabyG, and suggested we might all benefit from a trip to Tresillian. Sleep school? Not for us. Sleep training is not for babies who wear amber necklaces and cloth nappies and never get put down.

But the tears and screaming and threats of divorce became too much. So, when BabyG was seven months old, we went to sleep school. I was still afraid of what went on there, but something had to give. As it turned out, I was wrong about a lot of what goes on - and so are a lot of people, to judge from the comment recently heard in a uni tutorial about Tresillian being a horrible place where babies are left in cages to cry (really). So, here's my impressions of what goes on in sleep school. We went to the Tresillian at Canterbury Hospital; I imagine the others are much the same. Incidentally, it's not just a sleep school; they can help with a range of adjustment to parenting issues. I envy those to whom parenting comes easily; it sure as hell didn't for me.

BabyG at Tresilian, failing to be traumatised by the experience

The unit is on the Canterbury hospital campus, but completely separate to it. We checked in about 9am on our first day. It's a five day program, and arrival is staggered; so when you're on day 1, other parents are on days 2, 3, 4 or 5. There's accommodation for about ten families at once. You get your own room with queen bed and ensuite; each bedroom has an antechamber with separate access with cot and changing facilities, so staff can attend to your baby without coming into your room. Then there's a dining room, TV room, indoor and outdoor play areas (we were living in a flat at the time so we all loved this). First day is intake interviews, talking with staff about the problems you're having with parenting, and chatting with the other parents. I'm not a particularly loquacious person, but even I found it really valuable talking with other parents who were going through the same things, like feeling like a failure when it's 3am and you've been trying for ninety minutes to get your kid to sleep and having passing thoughts that you'd like to go back in time to the night of conception and use a condom. Tresillian does take kids up till age two at Canterbury - and up till 3 at other centres - but when we were there most of the babies were between 6 and 12 months old.

Anyway, after the staff (lovely nurses!) work out where everyone is up to, they give you a daily routine to aim for; either a four hourly routine for younger babies; or like G, being put on what is known as the toddler routine (he was only just gone seven months when we went, but like many post dates babies he's always been a big, well developed kid). The toddler routine had the aim of getting the kid to sleep through the night or near to it - seemed an impossible dream at that stage. Also, we got a much better idea of how much he should be eating. BabyG can be a greedy little pig when it comes to food; they put him on the portion size "we normally give to the big ten month old boys" and he wolfed it down. The babies' food is freshly prepared at the centre everyday, good baby friendly food with lots of fruit and veggies. They also have all formulas. The adults' food...it's hospital meals on trays. Sorry about that. The centre is quite close to Campsie and Belmore, so you can go for a walk (or drive) to get food there (you can head off for a walk whenever your kid is awake, which we did a lot as I like exploring new places).

The first night, you leave your baby with the nurses and head off for a full night's sleep. In theory. I'm not going to lie; walking away from him, leaving him in the care of others and not having him in the room with me for the first time since he was born, was damn tough and I cried a bit. But damn I did appreciate the rest. We had recently started comp feeding at this stage, so the nurses gave him a bottle at 10pm; if you're breastfeeding you can go in to do the dream feed.

Day two, you start learning to settle your baby yourself. And yes, this did involve a little bit of letting him cry, which again was extremely tough as it was not something we had ever done before. I explained to the nurses that we favoured gentle parenting methods and weren't in favour of leaving him to cry, so they kept his "crying times" down to a minimum.  I hated the thought of him crying and thinking we'd abandoned him, so I would say softly, "Mama's here, darling, it's time to sleep now". It took some work, over the few days we were there. We also worked on my baby wrapping, which I never got good at (DH was much better...in fact on our first date he told me he wanted to write a book on traditional methods of baby wrapping, and I pretty much stripped naked then and there. Luckily G grew out of wrapping not long after.

Also on the second day, you see a social worker. This was the only part of the program I didn't get on board with; I was already seeing a counsellor at the time, and that was quite enough thank you. But I imagine it's very useful for a lot of parents.

Over the next few days, you find your feet with the settling and feeding, and get to relax and just focus on your kid. It's nice to not have to worry about housework or anything; whilst G was sleeping, I got a lot of time to read, which I hadn't really done since he was born. Also, one evening during your stay, you can leave your baby with the nurses and head out for a date night; we headed to Burwood for a Sichuan feast. The nurses also didn't mind, in the evening, us letting them know if we were heading out to get an ice cream nearby. I was lucky that we lived nearby and due to DH's work, he was able to spend most of the stay with us; it would be trickier if you had to visit alone because your partner had to stay behind and work, as happened to a friend of mine who had to travel down from Newcastle.

By day five, home time, we were all feeling a lot better but apprehensive that we'd be able to make things work. But although there were some hiccups, we all got the hang of it and when we moved to Newcastle a few weeks later, G went into his own room and slept from 6pm to 6am with a dreamfeed around 10pm. We dropped the dreamfeed around age one (I think...). He's now two and a bit, and still an excellent sleeper. We  give him his dummy, say good night and I love you and almost every night, he climbs into bed and goes straight to sleep. And I say a little prayer of thanks to Tresillian and the awesome people who work there.

Look, it's not for everyone. Yes, it does involve some crying. But not too much; you don't have to harden yourself and ignore your natural instincts to be with your baby. And I can't calculate how many tears Tresillian has saved us in the past two years - mine and his. If you want to feed your baby through the night into toddlerhood, that's your choice and none of my damn business. But I know it was definitely the right decision for us, and if you've come here by Google and are considering whether it's right for you, I hope this has been helpful.

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