That’s precisely how it feels when you’re up in the middle of the night with a baby who doesn’t sleep. I could hear my baby screaming clearly enough. Several times every night.
But my own screams? My screams of exhaustion, despair, frustration and loneliness? They were confined to the inside of my head.
For the first few weeks after my daughter was born, I ran on a heady mix of hormones and adrenaline with a generous splash of gratitude that
my longed-for baby had arrived safely.
Night feeds were almost a novelty. I felt womanly and invincible, filled with love for my little girl and the world. I willingly slept on a crappy mattress on the floor of her room so my beloved husband could sleep undisturbed in our giant bed. I was so grateful to him for helping create this beautiful creature, it was the least I could do. I was a happy martyr. And hey, since I was breast-feeding and he didn’thave breasts, what was the point of him getting up at 2am? Let alone 3, 4 and 5am.
But after more than a month of waking several times every night to feed and soothe my tiny daughter back to sleep, I began to lose my sense of
humour. The novelty had long worn off, replaced by an overwhelmingfatigue that was insidiously crushing the life out of me.
Most mornings I couldn’t recall what had transpired the previous night. I was always certain it had been a train wreck of sorts but the details were hazy. Did she wake at 1:15am for a feed, 2:25am for the dummy, another feed at 3:10am and then dummy again at 3:40am? Or was it 1:50am for a feed, 3:20am for the dummy and a feed at again at 4:15 and dummy at 4:35? Or was that the night before? Or maybe last week? What’s my name again? And who is that person in the mirror?
Despair is the evil twin of sleep deprivation. Despair that your baby will ever sleep more than a few hours in a row. Despair that you’ll ever feel human. Despair that anyone will ever understand how pitifully exhausted you are.
Eventually, the despair makes way for a kind of acceptance where you become institutionalised in your fatigue. You give up. You surrender the fantasy of having a baby who will ever sleep through the night. That’s for other people. The mere thought of unbroken sleep feels as possible as winning lotto. And as much in your control.
It’s easier to just stick in the dummy or the bottle or the boob or bring your baby into your bed….whatever it takes to get them – and you – back to sleep quickly. After months of broken sleep, the quick fix will win over the hard yards of a proper solution every time. You’re just too exhausted to find a way out of your exhaustion.
I made this mistake before, with my son. We attempted controlled crying half-heartedly a few times but I refused to persevere because I was worried it might damage him psychologically. So we waved the white flag and surrendered to the massive disruption of sleeplessness. In hindsight, this was such a false emotional economy. He didn’t sleep properly until he was four and it caused huge stress in our relationship and my ability to be a happy mother. We swore we’d do it differently next time.
I should note at this point that the dads also do it tough although not nearly as tough as the mums who usually bear the brunt of night waking, especially if they’re breast-feeding. After a long night walking the floor with a crying baby, it’s funny how hearing your husband say “I’m tired” when he wakes at 7am makes you want to pick up a heavy object and harm him with it.
Every morning, the shattered mother needs an enormous helping of cheerleading and validation along the lines of “You are amazing! You are a hero! You are incredible! I don’t know how you do it!” etc. Frequently, even this is not enough to prevent the resentment from building.
I often felt that nothing short of a ticker tape parade should be held for me each morning to celebrate my heroism in getting through yet another night. Or possibly a commemorative stamp could be issued with a picture of me wearing a halo and a long-suffering grimace.
Invariably, if your baby doesn’t sleep, every other baby in your orbit will have begun sleeping through the night from two weeks of age. This will make you feel fantastic. “People lie” a baby health care nurse once reassured me when I asked in desperation why I had the only non-sleeping baby in Australia. “Some people’s definition of sleeping through the night is 11pm-4am. Don’t listen.”
Two of my closest friends had babies within a couple of months of me and despite the fact that one baby did indeed begin sleeping through the night at six weeks, we were each other’s solace. Each morning we’d exchange calls or texts detailing what we could remember of the night before.
After particularly bad nights, when one of us would be in the depths of despair, emergency gourmet food supplies would be left silently at the front door. Meal preparation is one of the first domestic casualties of sleep deprivation and new motherhood. This food was a godsend. So was the friendship.
It was from one of these friends I first heard about The Baby Whisperer. Her name was Elizabeth and she had magic powers to make babies sleep through the night. Or so it seemed. My friend had used her a few years ago with her first baby and she’d also worked miracles for other mums we knew. I’ve since learned there are women like Elizabeth working all over Australia and their phone numbers are passed urgently between desperate new mothers who haven’t slept in months, sometimes years.
My first conversation with Elizabeth was when Coco was four months old. At that stage, she was waking up to eight times a night for feeds and to have her dummy plugged back in. I was beside myself. The feeling of dread began every evening as the sun went down and the inevitability of yet another appalling night felt a little bit like labour, when the pain of a contraction was made worse by the knowledge that there were dozens more lining up behind it. I felt trapped, helpless, hopeless.
Over the phone, Elizabeth was a fountain of empathy. Even her voice was soothing. But she was adamant that she wouldn’t do a ‘sleep program’ as she called it, before a baby was six months old. Her belief was that younger babies couldn’t really learn to sleep through the night and it was not good for them emotionally. As disappointed as I was that my parole had been revoked for two more months, this made me trust Elizabeth even more. The last thing I wanted was to damage my daughter. I just wanted – desperately – to sleep.
Still, I may have lied about Coco’s age a wee bit so Elizabeth would book me in earlier. Which she did, at five and a half months. The day before she was due to arrive, she texted me. “Just checking you still want me to come for the sleep program tomorrow night.” I texted back so fast I nearly broke my thumbs.” YES! YES! YES!””
The next morning, she called. “Tonight I’ll be there at 6pm so I can meet Coco before we get started. That first night can be pretty intense so be prepared for that.”
“On the other nights, I’ll come at 10pm and each morning I’ll leave at 6am. Before I go, I’ll leave you a report detailing how she went. You can read it when you wake up. I usually crack it in three nights but I’ll pencil in a couple more just in case.”
That evening, after her bath, I dressed Coco in her PJs with a mix of apprehension and hope. It felt not unlike taking your baby for immunisations. You know it’s for their greater good but your heart is still heavy with guilt and fear for the pain your baby will have to endure.
I liked Elizabeth immediately. With three small boys of her own and a kind yet no-nonsense attitude, she arrived in tracksuit pants and ugg boots, dressed for the cold winter night ahead. Straight away, she busied herself in Coco’s room as we sat nervously watching. She modified the bedding, removed the mobile from the cot – “beds are for sleeping not entertainment” – and made sure the room temperature was correct. She was very sweet with Coco and answered my 84 angsty questions.
All sleep crutches were to be banished, including dummies, music, bottles, rocking or patting. And boobs.
The key to success, Elizabeth told us, was that we had to trust her and not crack under the pressure of our baby’s cries. Elizabeth believed that by teaching our baby to put herself to sleep, we were giving her a valuable life-long gift. This was certainly much more palatable to me than the idea I was doing it for my own selfish benefit. Life-long gift? Sold.
And then it was time. I kissed my innocently smiling daughter goodnight with the sense that I was sending her into battle. And after twenty minutes of screaming, the first report from the frontline was not good. “Your daughter has one of the more extreme dummy addictions I’ve seen.” Elizabeth announced gravely.
Super. Six months old and battling her first addiction. Does that make me her dealer? I first gave her a dummy at four weeks and encouraged her descent down the slippery slope from casual dummy user to hardcore addict. The instant comfort (hers) and the quiet peace (mine) provided by the dummy was sublime. The mere act of buying dummies would cheer me. In these sleepless months, they’d replaced shoes as the object of my retail therapy. But on this night, I struggled to recall the sound of quiet peace as Coco’s dummy-less cries began to split my head in two.
Through the crying, Elizabeth would go in at various intervals and kindly whisper “shhhh Coco, time for sleep”. Then she’d re-tuck the sheets firmly and leave without picking her up or giving her a bottle. Often she wouldn’t actually leave but simply hide in the darkness and observe, making sure Coco didn’t get into any serious difficulty.
We retreated to the lounge room with a bottle of wine and turned the TV up loud. Thirty-five minutes after she’d been put to bed, the first hurdle was cleared. Asleep! High five! But while Elizabeth was pleased, she warned us that Coco hadn’t really learnt anything, she was simply exhausted. The night wakes would be tougher, she cautioned.
At 10:30pm, we went to bed ourselves. We were nervous but relieved that Coco was in the capable hands of a professional. As promised, the night was worse. Almost two hours of screaming from 1:05am – 2:50am. With complete faith in Elizabeth I was reasonably calm but still tortured. I didn’t cry and I didn’t interfere. Life-long gift. Life-long gift.
At Elizabeth’s suggestion, I stayed in bed, switched on the TV and distracted myself with “True Hollywood Stories: the cast of American Pie.” As I watched Tara Reid’s sad journey from starlet to tragic, my husband made sleepy protests at the sound of the TV so I hit him on the head with a pillow.
Finally, all was quiet. The next thing I remember was hearing Elizabeth letting herself out at 6am, followed 45 minutes later by Coco waking up for the day. When I picked her up, I half expected to see betrayal in her eyes, as if to say, “so where the hell were you last night, bitch?”. But her face was as open and delighted to see me as ever. She appeared undamaged. Life-long gift.
Night two was better. I put her down myself at 6:30pm, prop-free, and after some low-level crying, she was asleep in less than 10 minutes. Could this be the beginning of a new life for us? One with sleep in it?
Elizabeth arrived at 10pm and we had a cup of tea together. She loved her work. The life-long gift stuff wasn’t a platitude, she resolutely believed that every baby deserved to learn how to put themself to sleep and every family deserved the knock-on benefits.
Every week, she would arrive on the doorstep of families in a state of utter emotional and physical chaos, brought on by a baby or child with sleep problems. She sometimes worked with DOCS families, where the children were at serious risk of harm. There were invariably other factors at play in those families but solving sleep issues was always a concrete step in improving the child’s welfare.
At the less extreme end, occupied by families like mine, she routinely encountered people driven witless by the destructive cocktail of exhaustion and frustration. Couples bickered. Older children were snapped at. The dog was proverbially kicked.
Within days of the baby being taught to sleep, the family was transformed. And the babies? What was remarkable, Elizabeth had discovered, was how much happier the babies were. “People often say to me ‘I thought I had a happy baby before but he’s a different baby now that he’s sleeping through the night.’ But to me it makes perfect sense. Adults and babies are the same. Everyone is happier after a decent sleep.”
And so it was with Coco. The second night was a vast improvement on the first. Forty minutes of crying at 2am but not nearly the intensity of the night before. What was most encouraging was that she awoke briefly again at 4am and put herself back to sleep within a couple of minutes. Night three she slept through. For the first time in six months, I didn’t leave my bed from 10pm to 6:30am. It felt like a miracle. Coco was definitely happier during the day. And me? I was doing wild victory laps around my house.
Confident that she’d nailed it, Elizabeth decided we were done but left me strict instructions. It was vital that Coco had her proper naps during the day so as not to become over-tired – a classic obstruction to sleep. And we must remember this: now that our baby had endured an undeniably tough few nights, it wasn’t fair to her if we undid everything she’d learned with ‘just one bottle’ or ‘just one cuddle’. Hold firm. Be strong.
And we were. I texted Elizabeth daily for the first week or two with many, many questions and she gave me strength, encouragement and advice. Don’t waver. Don’t be discouraged if she slips back a little and begins waking occasionally. Have faith that she’ll get herself back to sleep eventually. Stick to the rules. Listen and interpret. Comfort and leave.
So changed was our life by Elizabeth’s visit, I became utterly evangelical about the genius Sleep Whisperer. As word spread about my experience, friends of friends began to contact me for her number. They still do.
One of my friends had an 18-month-old son whom she’d adopted from China at four months. He was the happiest baby imaginable but he woke up to ten times each night. I told Elizabeth about him and how my friend felt too guilty to address her son’s sleep problem. She worried that any distress caused by letting him cry might stir up feelings of abandonment that might be lying dormant since the adoption.
Elizabeth had a different view. She felt the trauma of waking so often and being unable to self-settle was far worse for him than anything else. With gentle encouragement, my friend booked Elizabeth and days later she emailed me. “Thunk, thunk, thunk,” she wrote. “That is the sound of me hitting my head against a wall for not doing this sooner. It was astonishingly easy. She cracked him in two nights. He barely cried. Still, I could never have done it myself. Our lives are transformed.”
I felt the same way.
Many people have asked me “what does the Sleep Whisperer do that you can’t?” In theory, nothing. In practice, everything. Simply put, it’s impossible to be pragmatic and unemotional when your baby is screaming. Is she distressed to the point of psychological damage or are these just cries of frustration? Will he hate me forever if I don’t go and comfort him? Is this normal crying or the desperate sounds of a baby in trouble?
When Elizabeth came, I was able to hand these judgements over to her. She could read the nuances in my baby’s cries in a way I could not. With perspective and detachment. She knew the imperceptible changes in tone, volume and duration that signified what was normal and when to step in. She’d heard it a thousand times and she was calm. Caring and kind and calm. Three things to which I could no longer lay claim in the middle of every night.
For the first few weeks after Elizabeth came, every morning felt like a miracle. Like Christmas. But slowly, imperceptibly, the unimaginable happened: I began to take my sleep for granted. I went to bed without dread and with the expectation of a full night’s sleep. And I got it.
POSTSCRIPT: My daughter is now almost two and Elizabeth’s magic work stuck. The positive effects on our entire family were almost instantaneous and have continued. Life is good. Coco is happy. Things went a little off the rails a couple of months ago when we went overseas and got into some bad habits but once we returned home and recovered from jet lag, we did one night of controlled crying that only lasted about half an hour and then that seemed to lock a full night’s sleep back into place.
I must have referred dozens of women to Elizabeth after this story was first published and to this day, women still contact me in desperation, wanting her to help them. She only does a few suburbs in Sydney but there are other sleep whisperers offering the same service around Australia. A word-of-mouth is always the best recommendation so ask around if you’re looking, or try calling your local mothercraft or nannies agencies – the big ones often have sleep whisperers on their books.
POST POSTSCRIPT My children are now all sleepers. My daughter is 5 and I still refer Elizabeth on to everyone that needs some sleep