My Sleep School Experience: My Biggest Regret – Guest Post by Elise Lacey
My name is Elise Lacey, I live in Victoria, and I am mum to a beautiful almost two-year-old boy.
My son, who we’ll call ‘B’ for privacy, was 8 months old at the time.
He was waking only once at night for a feed and was a daytime catnapper, but he couldn’t fall asleep by himself – I was breastfeeding him to sleep. Recommended government websites had me thinking “self-settling” was a must for my mental health and something B needed to learn to do.
Upon mentioning this at B’s health check appointment, the maternal and child health nurse recommended we go to Queen Elizabeth Centre (QEC) in Melbourne, as I had “created a rod for my own back” and “not enough sleep and waking at night is detrimental to his development”.
Not knowing anything about children’s biological developmental norms, and not wanting him to fall behind, I took the plunge and contacted QEC. When explaining our situation, the QEC consultant stated that it was best we come in for the day stay program. Due to health concerns, my husband was unable to attend, so B and I attended Queen Elizabeth Centre together in September 2017.
Upon arrival, we were led down a corridor to a separate wing of the facility. We were checked in by a nurse who asked why I was attending, and what our goals were. I said that he was a good sleeper, but couldn’t fall asleep alone. A checklist was given to us of the developmental milestones B could achieve, but no health checks, questions regarding family history, reflux/colic checks or mental health checks were performed.
We proceeded to the communal lounge where we met other parents and children.
I remember looking around the room full of babies, all around the same age as my son, bar one - a 3 month old girl. We shared stories of what our children do to fall asleep, with most being “feed to sleep”. Each family was allocated and introduced to a sleep nurse. Ours observed B and gave me a run down of settling techniques and how to perform them when it was nap time.
After some short play, we were told it was time to start the first day nap (despite B only waking up for the day an hour earlier) and to proceed to the bedroom. I was told to change his nappy, put him in summer bed clothes and his sleeping bag, feed him - but do not let him get drowsy. I sat in the feeding chair in the small bedroom with the curtain closed listening to Pachelbel's lullaby over the speakers, not wanting to put him down.
I knew he was going to cry, and it made me feel sick.
The nurse, standing at the door for the entire feed, continued to watch B to ensure he wasn’t drifting off. After what felt like the shortest feed of his little life, I was told to place him in the assigned cot, say goodnight and walk out of the room. At first B didn’t respond to being left alone, then around 10 minutes later he started crying.
Within 5 minutes of crying he escalated to screaming.
I felt numb and I wanted to pick him up and hold him, but I was told by the nurse who stood at his door that I needed to listen to his cries and identify when they were “really bad”. However, I could only go to him twice in a 1.5 hour period and as it had only been 15 minutes, we had a long way to go.
So I waited, listening to my baby, trying to differentiate between types of cries I’d never heard before while my stomach churned and my mind raced. I sat in the hall being coached by the nurse guarding the door “not to give in”. After another 20 excruciating minutes I was cleared to go in, but before walking through the door I was told by the nurse that I was not to make eye contact, nor pick him up.
To just lay him back down, talk to him gently, tell him I was just outside the door and then leave again. I went into him to find him covered in sweat and vomit. He had emptied his bowels. I was told to clean him and strip the bed, “reassure” him he was ok and leave again. I felt horrible, telling him that I loved him and was just behind the door but being unable to actually console him.
I couldn’t bear to listen this time, so I sat in the lounge while the nurse used "responsive settling techniques" and “comforted” him ie; sat next to the cot for 5 minutes patting and shushing him until he’d calmed just enough for her to leave the room again. I continued to check on him, with no change in his cries. Looking around the corridor at the other rooms, the other parents looked how I felt.
Aside from the mum of the 3 month old little girl, who was distraught and being consoled by staff.
While they were consoling each other, I felt alone and imagined this was how these babies, MY baby, felt.
Thirty minutes passed, and after re-entering i immediately noticed he’d vomited again.
He was breathing heavily, saturated in sweat and I’d run out of clean spare clothes. The nurse told me we could “Give B a break, he’s worked hard, so let’s have some lunch and a play before starting again in an hour”.
When returning to the communal lounge, we had a follow up review. The nurse said my 8 month old baby has a sleep crutch, “like an adult that can’t sleep without a pillow” and “him vomiting is his way of knowing he’ll get a response from you”. I’ll never forget those words. I felt guilty and sick thinking of leaving him in that room again, so I explained to the nurse that I couldn’t do this, and to show me another way that meant he wouldn’t cry. She told me there was no way to make him settle to sleep without me that wouldn’t result in crying. With that I discharged us early and agreed to try their methods at home where B would be more comfortable.
Once I got to the car I completely broke down. My instincts and heart were telling me that this was wrong but my head told me: “They’ve been here for 20+ years, they know what they’re doing”.
B slept the entire car ride home, while I tried to shake off what I’d experienced.
By day 3 of trying the same methods at home, B was miserable, he had lost his voice completely, refused to feed for his usual length of time, would scream hysterically the second we entered his room and would vomit and open his bowels almost instantly after laying him down in the cot.
I felt like I had broken my little boy. My husband, after watching us crumble, said he felt horrible doing this to B and he couldn’t stand watching this happen to either of us anymore.
A follow up phone consultation with the nurses at QEC was scheduled for the next day, and when speaking to them they said “Vomiting and pooing on cue are behavioural issues that he will need to overcome”, and that they were unable to help because we weren’t willing to participate fully in their settling techniques. They washed their hands clean of us because we didn’t fit their ideal model of sleep training.
I was traumatised, and left heartbroken for our son who was no doubt traumatised too.
He wasn’t his normal happy self for weeks after our experience.
He was hesitant to fall asleep feeding, or to be put down, and developed a fear of his bedroom.
It wasn’t until 6 months later that he began to trust me to leave him in any room of the house.
At no point was there any discussion about what was developmentally and biologically normal for my son. There were no health checks for him to ensure there were no underlying concerns.
There were no post natal health checks for me to ensure my mental health was ok.
We took a look at the bigger picture after that day. We did our research and discovered that he was a completely normal baby, feeding to sleep, waking at night for milk and to be reassured his parents were close by, doing exactly as he should have. He is the reason that I, among so many others, fight hard every day for children’s rights and their well-being.
I’m happy to say that he will be 2 years old next week, and is a happy, well adjusted, independent, secure, affectionate and loving little boy. Who loves nothing more than his mum and dad cuddling him to sleep in bed each night, which we’ve done every day since that horrible day.
This is our experience, and my biggest regret.