Baby whisperer's recipe for success

What a difference seven years can make. The last time I spoke to Central Coast "baby whisperer" Sheyne Rowley for a story, I was in my mid-20s and babies were puking, pooing, crying, needy little creatures - something to coo over for five minutes before handing back.

Fast-forward seven years and it turns out babies are puking, pooing, needy little creatures, but they are also captivating and wonderful and breathtaking.

Our little Isla arrived a bit over a year ago, and for the first few months we were blessed with a "sleeper". From six weeks old she slept for 10 hours a night. Straight.

We were beginning to think the perils of parenthood had been exaggerated. After all, life looks rosy after a good night's sleep.

But we were prematurely smug. Suddenly - at four months old - our little sleeper woke up. Regularly.

Friends who had survived on broken sleep for years couldn't smother their smirks. We were plunged into the fog of fatigue.

"Oh, she must be teething!" everyone cried.

I gorged myself on parenting books about getting babies to sleep. Much like diet books, they offer different methods, but the results are the same. And guaranteed.

After four months I was losing heart. I looked upon my pile of baby books with disdain. Then I borrowed a copy of Rowley's heavy-set Dream Baby Guide for one last shot before we booked in for sleep school.

Her theories just made sense to us. It was no surprise to discover our baby had a low sleep requirement. But Isla quickly responded to subtle changes to her daily routine and the way we communicated with her.

She started sleeping again.

I Googled Rowley, who often shares her advice on Channel Seven's Sunrise, and saw that she had recently had her own child, Dasha Sofia, born in April.

Until then her theories had come from working with sleep-deprived families in Australia and the UK. So I wanted to know how a baby whisperer fared with one of her own.

Turns out, her road to motherhood was a rocky one.

"I'm a 40-year-old first-time mum and, boy, oh boy, am I pleased that I had all those years' experience, because being a mumma is exhausting and scary sometimes, even for a baby whisperer," Rowley says from her Narara home.

She had a rough pregnancy, with complications putting her in hospital for six months.

"I had massive fibroids," she says. "I couldn't really walk from the eighth week, and I was absolutely bedridden.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to fare with a new baby while trying to recover from a complete loss of health and fitness.

"I put on a lot of weight lying on my back and being fed massive amounts of calories intravenously. So it was quite a journey to get here."

But Rowley loves motherhood. And she seems content that the advice given in Dream Baby Guide is the right advice.

"I'm pleased to say that, strategically, I would change nothing at all, which is a relief," she says of her book.

"However, the first six months goes so fast, and I get so many desperate cries for help by the time baby is four and five months old.

"I guess this is what's changed since having Dasha. I used to feel the same urgency to help resolve the sleep issues as soon as I possibly could for the parents, and of course if I feel baby is ready to sleep independently, I still do work hard to get bubbas sleeping as soon as I can for those parents.

"But my attitude is now, 'What's the rush to have them sleeping 12 hours?' It's such a brief moment in our lives, and I'm reluctant to get rid of my 'dream feed' because that's the end of our quiet sleepy night snuggles.

"The one thing I am so grateful for is that I know how fast this time goes and I know that she will be sleeping 12 hours sooner than I want.

"Perhaps if I could see no end in sight, things would be different, but I'm keeping a dream feed with my daughter because I'm not ready to say goodbye to this new baby phase that I'll never get back.

"I still firmly believe it is not appropriate to do any form of crying for sleep repair purposes under six months of age."

When it comes to solving sleep problems in babies, there seem to be two schools of thought.

Those who promote a "cry-it-out" or "controlled crying" approach, in which you put baby to bed awake and progressively increase the intervals between comforting the baby, without picking her up. And those who favour the "no tears" methods, often adhered to by those who follow attachment parenting, in which the parent offers comfort right away when the baby cries.

"In this country there are the Tizzie Hall Save Our Sleep-ers - which is a controlled crying method; then on the other side you have Pinky McKay, who promotes an attachment parenting approach," Rowley says.

"Tizzie works for some people. Pinky McKay works for others. Everyone in between comes to me."

Nurturing but practical, Rowley's approach to solving sleep problems come from trial and error.

Having studied early childhood development and obtained a diploma in social science, Rowley worked in daycare centres before heading to the UK to work with families with multiple births.

It was there she fully realised that what happened in a child's day influenced their night.

"You'll find anyone with a nursing background will find a symptom and put a Band-Aid on it," she says.

"But as a teacher, when we see a child who can't cut with scissors, we don't go, 'We're going to make you cut and cut and cut until you get good at it'.

"We work on their fine motor skills. We would start getting them to work with playdough and then play open/shut them games, then pick-up-sticks to work on those fine motor skills and their manual dexterity.

"And the next time you put scissors in their hands, their dexterity has strengthened and they have more co-ordination and you can go 'open', and they'll know how to do that because of the games, then 'close', then put a bit of paper in there so they can cut.

"That was how I addressed sleep when I started working in the home environment and the centre environment.

"I'd go, 'Wow, when I put them into the cot they really cry, why?' So firstly I'd just start playing with them in the cot.

"Other things I noticed, like the nutritional element, was just trial and error.

"I noticed if they weren't eating enough iron-rich protein they'd often wake between 11.30pm and 1.30am, so I'd play around with it and see results, then start applying it to other children.

"And really, that was 22,000 children later. You get it pretty right by the 22,000th.

"The first time? Maybe not. You muddle your way through it. I did too.

"I used to do all the stuff that everybody does in my books. I used to pat, rock, and do all of that. It's fairly normal for parents to instinctively go there.

"But ultimately it took me understanding that that resulted in them needing to be constantly patted and rocked, to realise I needed to look at creating ways for them to go to sleep independently."

She found interesting reading in the work of Dr Richard Ferber - a man who became the poster boy for controlled crying, often called "Ferberizing". But while she doesn't advocate controlled crying, Rowley reckons Ferber got a bad rap.

"He was the paediatric sleep disorder unit's head in Boston for 30 years," she says.

"This man was a wealth of knowledge, and he wrote a book called Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. He released it to the public and gave away all his scientific wisdom.

"But what happened after that was people, in their haze of exhaustion - and laziness, I have to say - went 'I want to fix my baby's sleep' and they bypassed all the information about the psychology and the physiology and understanding of sleep cycles, and went straight to his method, which was controlled crying.

"That part of his book - a book that's nearly 400 pages long - was four pages long. They used it in isolation of everything. To me, that is just crazy.

"For me, controlled crying is disabling. It leaves them helpless. But attachment parenting - where you completely solve the problems for them every time - also leaves them helpless.

"I'm not a believer in telling a child that feeling tired is dangerous when they're on their own, or that something new being slightly uncomfortable isn't safe."

Communication, independence, consistency and good nutrition are key to Rowley's approach.

We followed Rowley's routine aimed at low sleep requirement babies, which covered meal times, independent play times and suggested sleep times.

We developed a sleeping and waking routine, and learned to interpret her cries - was she just grizzling quietly while awaiting the arrival of the "sleep bus", or was she genuinely upset and needing reassurance?

Gradually, we became more confident as parents. Now Isla will still stir through the night, but unless she is uncomfortable or unwell, she will usually put herself back to sleep. The pages of our copy of Rowley's book dedicated to reasons for night wakings at certain times are well-worn and dog-eared. Rowley aims to avoid tears, but any change will evoke a response or a protest from a child.

"Change usually involves 'whys'," she says. "And those 'whys' are your baby saying, 'I don't understand!' So we have to create a predictable environment and consistently and calmly reassure them until they do."

Her book is "the size of a doorstop" because sleep repair can be complex.

"And damned if you do, damned if you don't - because if I didn't put all that information in I would be doing the wrong thing by the children, but put it in and the parents are just thinking, 'Oh my goodness, how on earth am I going get through all this? I'm exhausted!'

"I recommend people try to read it while they're pregnant," she laughs.

Rowley's methods worked for us, just like controlled crying or no-tears methods might have worked for others. But, like a good pair of jeans, sometimes you need to try a couple on before you find one that fits.

KEY ADVICE

■Use a holistic approach to sleep repair, understanding the psychology, biology and physiology of sleep. Know your child’s true sleep requirement and nutritional needs. Understand their coping and independence skills and their communication methods.

■Don’t let that doubting inner voice get the better of you. Your little one will not be a baby forever, they will learn to sleep. All babies wake and can get caught up in a cycle of needing help to get back to sleep. You have to teach them how.

■Don’t rush into anything. Learn by reading a holistic approach on sleep repair or have someone guide you through it. Babies are babies – they need our help to learn.

COMMON MISTAKES

■Inconsistency. Keep the settling, resettling and waking routine constant.

■Doing your own version of controlled crying without understanding the psychology, physiology and biology of sleep.

■A one-size-fits-all mentality. Babies are different.

■Incomplete preparation. Sleep repair must be viewed as an entire life picture. Whatever you do during the day affects the night.

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