Sleep School – What Happens?


February 3, 2015 by Dadinator

In our last exciting episode I wrote about sleep schools, what they are and what kinds of things they do. I touched on the stigma surrounding them and tried to be helpful. The response was great and I thank those of you who commented. This post is more personal. It looks at why we ended up there(again) and  tells the story of our stay. I will try to give an idea of a typical day, and a typical night, at the O’Connell Family Centre, and I will try to be honest, frank and up-front about how hard it was at times. Be warned, it’s another long-un….

Background – Why we went.

Our kids suck at sleep. Both of them do. I mentioned previously that this was our second visit to the O’Connell. The first time was almost exactly 2 years ago when our boy was 14 months old and he just wouldn’t settle down. Getting him to go to sleep took literally hours, and he wouldn’t go down for daytime naps at all.

This time the issues were a little different. Our little girl, now 16 months old, was never settling to sleep for anything other than a breast-feed or a long spell of rocking. Most of the time it was a breast-feed. She’d feed, sleep, I’d transfer her into the cot. She’d wake up and be pulled into bed with us and fed back to sleep. Then she’d wake again. And again. And again. And again…. If she was loosened from her mother’s grip she would wake. If she was asleep in her mother’s grip she kicked. It was hell. The worst night we had she was up every 45 minutes. We tried settling her on her own, we tried putting her down awake, we tried all kinds of things ourselves but nothing was working, and we were going insane.

The Lad, well, he was violently objecting to naps, and still taking a long time to settle. But he was improving. We just needed some help to get him to a place where we could kiss him goodnight and leave him to nod off on his own. Our master plan was to reclaim some kind of time together. When all you have as time to yourself is about an hour and a half between settling your kids and the first wake up, it makes having any kind of adult relationship difficult, and the strain was showing on both of us.

The First Day

We arrived a little later than we would have liked. We then discovered that we’d forgotten to bring the forms we’d filled in that morning, and even forgotten to bring in the antibiotics our daughter had been given a few days earlier (she’d been bitten by an insect or spider, the antibiotics were to treat that). We explained that we were tired, so were forgetting things and we weren’t joking. We were bleary-eyed, slumping wrecks after a 2 hour drive down from Guildford to Melbourne. And we weren’t getting enough sleep.

Among that shamozzle we unpacked, sat down for our first chats with the nurses and settled in. The staff want to know about you, what’s typical at home, what you want to achieve and what you want to do. You get asked a million little questions, set goals and agree on some boundaries around what you are willing to do. The staff at the O’Connell are good listeners, and they also respect that you are the parent, and it’s for you to decide what you are willing to do while you’re there.

On the first night they leave you to settle your child your own way, while they observe. They saw the pageantry of my little settling rituals with The Lad. Leaving the room on a pretext (getting him milk, needing to go to the toilet etc etc..) and hoping that if I stretched out my absence long enough he’d just fall asleep. It worked sometimes at home, but more often than not it didn’t. I ended up climbing into his bed and giving him a cuddle till he nodded off. Meanwhile, The Lass was rocked, fed and cuddled to sleep, eventually, and the two of us, battered and exhausted by our night-time ordeal, went over ideas for what to change over the coming nights.

We were basically asked “How the ***** do you manage to do that every night?” by the staff. Our honest answer: We’re not managing at all….

A Typical Day

Daytime is kept reasonably open for parents and children to do what they want. You’re free to head off to do/see things and you can also receive visitors during the day. We were up at 6:30 most mornings, and found out that The Lad had arisen before us. But the lovely overnight nurse seemed to enjoy his company so much that she never bothered to wake us, but played with him herself. It was great. We slept in. Till 6:30…. Oh wait….

Sandpits, an essential  part of sleep school...

Sandpits, an essential part of sleep school…

The kids had access to a playroom and an outdoor play space that included a devastating variety of toys and equipment. They enjoyed the toys, although they always wanted the ones that had just been put away… Meals were not at set times and they weren’t brought round to us.


The meal room!

The meal room!

There was a communal dining room with a stocked fridge for us to use. Dinner was microwaveable, lunch was sandwiches and breakfast was toast or cereal. It worked well.

The playroom. I can't remember if she's trying to get out or trying to keep me out....

The playroom. I can’t remember if she’s trying to get out or trying to keep me out….

I mentioned visitors and outings before. My in-laws paid us a visit a couple of times while we were there, and my father-in-law even took my wife and son out for lunch. I had to stay because (get this) our daughter was sleeping soundly, and she napped for ages that day. I did take the chance to do an IKEA run to replace my son’s broken “Spooka” night light. The light was fine, but the cable connecting it to the powerpoint had snapped. I may have loitered a bit, strolling through Victoria Gardens. Enjoying a coffee… I may have also gone slightly berserk at the lolly station at the end of my stroll through the timber veneer maze that is IKEA itself…

Amongst this was settling children for naps. Naps could be really easy or really hard. One of the things that they did teach us was that if settling for a nap doesn’t work, get the child up and try again later. If they didn’t get down in 15-20 minutes they weren’t ready to go down right now for whatever reason, and that was no cause for alarm because you could just try again. It helped a lot.

At home we’d try for longer to settle the little ones, try and try and try. The one of us would trudge defeated into the lounge room, glare at the other one and grumble “They’re still not asleep”. The Lass was napping at least once a day (some days twice) at the O’Connell, and she’s kept it up at home. The Lad, however, at the age of 3 has all but dropped his day sleeps. What we now do for him is “quiet time”, he lays in bed (for up to an hour) and if he nods off he nods off. If he doesn’t go to sleep, at least he’s had some time being still and quiet to calm down and rest up a bit. It’s working well.

A typical night

But you’re not there for daytime stuff really are you? You’re there for assistance in settling your child to sleep at night-time. The nurses at the centre run in 3 shifts across 24 hours. There’s a day shift from about 8am, an evening shift that helps with the night-time settle and an overnight shift who takes over at some point after we were in bed and is there to help with re-settling as required.

Nights varied. Some of them were ridiculously easy. We had one night where both children were asleep by 6:30. We sat on a couch together, looked at each other and asked “What do we do now?”. We read books and talked. It was the longest private conversation we had enjoyed for months….. Both kids were asleep, and we were free to spend some time together curled up on a couch. It was great. Other nights were not so great.

Let’s start with The Lad, who The Mamanator took care of for his night-sleeps during our stay. We tried a couple of approaches with him, firstly we tried sitting in the room with him, but away from his bed. If he moved or made noise, we would leave. This didn’t work so well, so we tried another approach. THe Mamanator would say goodnight and sit by the open bedroom door so he could see her legs. He’d know she was there, but wouldn’t be interacting with her at all. This gentle approach which offered reassurance without physical touch or presence in the room, worked for him. At home he’s been able to settle on his own most nights with the reassurance that we aren’t far away.

The Lass was a different story. She was my responsibility, because I don’t have boobs to fall back on. She’s young. Change is hard for her. And it was hard for us too.

After her bath she’d get a night-time feed, and then her mother would hand her over to me. I’d sing her a song, cuddle her and rock her and then place her in the cot, still awake. That’s when the tears started. There were lots of tears, I don’t want to downplay that and I don’t want to sugar coat it. She didn’t like this new regime, and she let me know it.

I didn’t leave her alone for extended periods of time. I was there, talking to her, making noise. I had a little mantra  going one night “You’re in a safe place, and daddy’s right next to you” over and over and over again. I checked out of the room occasionally simply because I needed a break, but it was never for more than a few minutes to get some water before going back in and singing “Twinkle Twinkle” for the seven dozenth time. It was hard work. And some nights I had tears welling in my eyes too as I tried to convince my strong-willed 16 month old that she was okay where she was, and that I was right here with her the whole time.

On the third night something clicked as I was in there with her. She wasn’t crying out of fear or despair. She was crying with pure 100% rage. She was absolutely furious with us. The point was made perfectly clear when she clocked me right in the head with her teddy bear flung over the side of the cot (it took all my self-control not to laugh at that one). Similarly she would throw/push out any hands or fingers that went into her cot to try to pat/stroke her or tried to tap on the mattress (the rhythm is supposed to help). She was annoyed and she was frustrated, and there was very little we could do to calm that anger. I must also say I got off lightly, she actually bit her mother on one occasion. But she would settle. She would accept that we were there. I don’t know if she gave up or accepted her lot in the cot or what, but she would settle.

Well, most of the time… Some nights it just didn’t work. The staff didn’t push us, they told us that if we wanted to pull the pin on any attempt at settling we could, and that was fine. And on a couple of occasions they just said “alright, that’s enough, give her a rock and see how you go”. And if that didn’t work, we went to the breastfeed, and that was fine too. The effort wasn’t wasted, we hadn’t failed. If nothing else we had delayed the breastfeed, which would help in the long run.

I suppose that’s what was important. Consistency and persistence are important, but so is listening to your child. If an approach just isn’t working (this time), you have to be able to pull the plug and move on without feeling like a failure. For us that was at about the 1/2 hour mark. For other parents, and other children, it might be different.


This was another part of the adventure for us. Getting the kids down was one thing, keeping them down was another. The Lad was generally alright, he stirred once or twice, some reassurance from the door was usually enough for him to nod back off to sleep. With the exception of the first night, when he took over an hour to nod back off. Strange new place, it was understandable.

The Lass was another story. We’d try to settle her in the cot, as much as possible. When that didn’t work I’d try to walk and rock her to stave off that breastfeed. One night I watched the clock, I was pacing the room with a 12 kilo 16 month old for an hour and a half to see if I could settle her. THis was after spending 1/2 an hour trying to calm her in the cot. I couldn’t do it that night, and she was breastfed back to sleep. The next time she woke I only lasted 20 minutes, but I think that was understandable. And that’s something that happened a bit, she was still fed back to sleep most of the time, But not all of the time. And she was fed back after a delay. It was a step in the right direction. The next time she woke It was rough. But not rougher than home, and here we didn’t have to cook breakfast in the morning.

And it did get better, and has gotten better since. You aren’t going to turn it around in a night.


The week was, in some ways, like a little break from home life and from all the extra responsibilities of housework, feeding ourselves and all that mundane stuff. It was a bit of a chance to rest, refresh and reset our lives and our routines with the kids.

In other ways it was a merciless grind as we worked with our kids to change habits that had become entrenched. There was a lot of self-doubt that we both confronted, a lot of fear of failure. I tried to maintain an upbeat outlook on how the week was going, The Mamanator showed more concern that we weren’t getting anywhere and that it would all just settle back into the old pattern as soon as we were home. But we supported each other, stood by one another and tried to share the burden as much as we could.

The big question I can hear all you parents reading this asking, even as I type, is “Did it work?”. The short answer is yes. Our girl no longer shares our bed, and she can settle without a breastfeed. She naps, not according to a rigid schedule, but she has actually let us know if she is tired verbally a couple of times. Our little boy can be left in his room with a “goodnight” and go to sleep on his own. He will also stay in his room for “quiet time” each day, and even still have a daytime sleep from time to time. But it’s not perfect. Last night The Lass still woke up 3 times, and she’s been getting us all up at about 5:00 each morning. Maybe that’s as good as it’ll get for us and for our kids.

In the longer term, we aim to have the kids start sharing a room at some point in the near future, so we shall see what extra fun and games that will bring.

Sleep issues aren’t problems that can be fixed quickly and easily. They are issues that have to be worked through and re-worked through constantly. Our stay at the O’Connell wasn’t about repairing something that was broken, it was more about educating us in ways to help our children feel comfortable enough to sleep while asking a little less of us. Without breastfeeds and bed sharing, without constant arm rubs. Not because there was anything wrong with that, but because it was taking such a toll on us parents that our parenting was suffering as sleep deprivation sent us slowly bonkers. Our kids deserve parents who are switched on, alert and responsive. Not addled zombies who can barely summon the energy to string a sentence together. We’re getting there….

She makes it look so easy....

She makes it look so easy….

And so does he....

And so does he….

A final thought:

For all those of you who have children who are just “good sleepers”, I hate you. I hate you so much.

P.S. I don’t actually hate you, and sincerely am very happy for you.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that provides some more insight. What (if any) are your experiences? 


6 thoughts on “Sleep School – What Happens?

  1. Thank you for the brilliant insight Seamus!

  2. Deborah says:

    Thanks for sharing. I don’t have kids but my niece was a shocker and didn’t sleep through the night until she was two.

    I’m always bewildered when I see people sharing pics on FB / Twitter of their kids falling asleep in weird positions on the floor or couch having just got the point they’re exhausted beyond belief. I kinda envy that. My body often feels that way though my head rarely does.

    It sounds like you’re doing a great job and I love that the staff at the School were quite zen about ‘trying what works’.

    Good luck.

  3. I have a horrid sleeper too. It’s miserable!

  4. Toni says:

    My daughter was a ridiculously bad sleeper when she was younger. She would only sleep during the day for 20-40 mins max at a time and always on me. I so envied the mums in mothers group whose kids had 3 hour naps each time. Somehow, over a long period of time, I’ve managed to get her to have her day sleep in her cot in her room and she now has one 2hr sleep a day at 18 months old. We also managed to get her to settle by herself at night thanks to a bed time routine and a night light we’ve named Charlie. She gets excited to go see Charlie each night, he helped so much. Shes still horrible when sick though and for the last week has spent at least part of not all night in our bed.

  5. Jennifer Abel says:

    Sory I am one of those you hate lol, my kids all loved their sleep and still do , mind you they are all adults now! visiting from # Aussieparenting

  6. Amanda says:

    I had 1 residential stay at tresillian sleep school with my eldest daughter and 3 stays with my 2nd (& last) baby in her 1st year on this earth. Totally agree with your comments. It’s not an instant fix. But it’s just the support from nurses and other parents that need help too & the break for normal home life routine to focus solely on why you are there.

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