Does anyone else remember fondly those half-stoned days spent with a newborn baby’s sleeping habits? Granted, I’m ten years on, but when I chanced upon an exhausted new mother on a plane this week, I had an image, so clear in my mind, of our little boy, sound asleep in the middle of our giant bed, surrounded by the non-allergenic latex pillows, covered in the organic cotton sheets, bought specially, the very early sunlight making its way through the sky windows of our townhouse and onto his red hair. And there are his father and me, standing in the middle of the room sipping industrial strength coffee, occasionally breaking into uncontrollable giggling but mostly gazing lovingly upon this creature that’s come into our lives, taken over our bed and turned us into zombies.
I’m probably painting a romanticised view of exhaustion, and I'd be sure to be howled down by tired parents everywhere if any of them still had enough energy to read a column. And had it gone on, as it does with some babies, the picture might be anything but romantic. Tiredness doesn’t begin to describe the feeling. I saw Al Pacino in Insomnia that year – the mid-morning mums and bubs session – and as Pacino’s sleep-addled character grew more insane in the endless Arctic day, the camera stretched and blurred the image and I identified more and more. I lost the plot early.
What to do with a child who won’t go to sleep, or doesn’t sleep long, or is generally unsettled is one of the many tricky issues parents have to negotiate. Working on a review of maternity services with Dr Cherrell Hirst in 2005, I learned that we’re often given mythology along with the advice about parenting issues, not just from family and friends but also from healthcare professionals. When it comes to sleep, there are two broad theories, based on tough or soft love. While both now lay claim to neuroscience in support of their case, there’s probably more belief in there than my local church.
Controlled crying, controlled calming, or now, CIO – crying it out, is some form or another of teaching a baby to self-settle. It may have been the brainchild of paediatrician Christopher Green, he of toddler taming fame, but Green himself has since recanted his taming approach following a near-death experience from a stroke. Toddlers don’t need taming at all, he now says – they just need you to spend time with them. Controlled crying has blossomed regardless, and variables like what age you start, how long you leave the baby, when you come back, and what you do when you come back, are described in detail in many books.
At the other end are the attachment parents, who would cluck and shake their heads about CIO, believing it will scar a child for life. They follow the theories of psychoanalyst John Bowlby, made popular by paediatrician and father of eight William Sears, who say babies must form a secure attachment and have their needs met which means responding to their crying. Attachment parents wouldn’t let a baby CIO. EVER.
Control approaches are more in vogue currently, possibly fed by the reality of the modern family, a cauldron of chaos on good days. You can’t sustain a job with a baby waking five times a night. You can’t sustain breakfast really. I remember at six months of age, our otherwise champion sleeper became wakeful at night, just after I’d agreed to finish a book. It turned life upside down, for months. Desperate, I went to see my GP. She looked at me kindly. “Do you want my advice as a doctor, or as a mother?” she said.
I looked at her, bleary-eyed, close to tears. “Either? Both?”
“Well, as a doctor, I’d tell you about all the things you can do, sleep clinics and so on. As a mother I’d tell you my two daughters are sleeping through the night now. The first slept through from a few months old and I was proud I managed so well.” She smiled. “The second has recently started sleeping through now too. She’s just turned eleven.” She paused. “They’re all different. Look after yourself because if you do that, the baby will be fine.” It was good advice.