The Sleep Lady: my tormentor. By Tamara Faith Berger for

“I don’t like forlorn, hysterical babies any more than you do,” the Sleep Lady says, just a few pages into her popular book, Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep and Wake up Happy. “I certainly couldn’t have let my own babies wail in the dark,” she continues in a suspiciously friendly voice. “But there is no such thing as a tear-free childhood.”When my baby was six months old and still nursing six times a night, I read the book on the recommendation of an acquaintance. He exclaimed passionately about how the book had helped him night-wean his ten-month-old daughter: “She was killing us until we tried this. We were up half the night. Read it. I swear, it really works!”

I was up half the night, too, but I wasn’t convinced I had a problem. Night waking, I thought, was normal, and easy to manage if I slept with my baby and nursed him on demand. But by the time I’d finished the introduction of Good Night, Sleep Tight, I was incredibly anxious, convinced my baby wasn’t getting enough sleep because he was always waking to nurse. “Uninterrupted sleep,” the Sleep Lady says, is what a baby needs to “produce growth hormones, build the immune system, and work on memory storage, organization and retention – the foundations for learning.”

All of a sudden, I felt as if everything I was doing at night was wrong. Not only did the Sleep Lady lodge her pseudo-scientific sleep facts into my vulnerable new-mother brain, she also somehow tapped into my childhood anxiety around falling asleep. I remember miserably staring at the clock, one, two and three hours after being put to bed, stressing out that I wasn’t going to get enough sleep. So, I was extremely tempted by the Sleep Lady’s confident answer to all infant sleep problems: self-soothing.

“Babies find all kinds of safe things to suck, twirl, rub,” to help them fall asleep, she says. “Corners of blankets, legs of stuffed animals, even their own hair or ears.” Besides the fact that my baby didn’t have hair to twirl yet, I understood that the Sleep Lady’s strategy for the elimination of night nursing was created for a baby’s self-confidence and security around sleep – something I had surely lacked as a child.

We’ll follow the Sleep Lady’s program of night weaning and everything will be great! I thought. We’re all going to sleep through the night and wake up refreshed. Plus, my baby will no longer be losing brain cells!

The Sleep Lady, a.k.a. Kim West, is a pert, blonde social worker and mother of two. The back of the book says her program is “a godsend for tired parents everywhere” and can “[spare] years of sleep deprivation.” With the gentle-yet-domineering smile she wore in her jacket photo, she reminded me of an inspirational speaker, one who truly wanted to help my husband, my baby and me to sleep more. She exuded calm authority. Soon I started to hear the Sleep Lady’s voice in my ear even when I didn’t have the book in front of me.

“One of my hardest tasks,” she warned, “is convincing mothers that most healthy six-to-eight-month-old babies on a normal growth curve don’t need to eat at night. Even a smart, thoughtful mother who knows this in her head may still have a fear in her gut of letting her child go hungry.”

She was right. I did have that fear. And I appreciated how she understood that and conceded, in her suggestions for getting rid of night-time nursing, that I may have some tears for a couple of nights. Keep calming him, she told me. Sit by his crib, and say sh-sh-sh to make him feel better. Rub his back if you want to, just don’t take him out of the crib. “It will only take a few nights for him to stop waking for the breast,” the Sleep Lady said.

Tears for a couple of nights? In theory, that seemed manageable. Besides, I had the Sleep Lady to help me through it. “When the baby wakes up at night and doesn’t need to nurse,” she said firmly. “Don’t nurse. It’s really that simple.”

The Sleep Lady recommends three techniques to reduce night feeding. First is a “dream feed.” You rouse the baby just enough to nurse right before you go to sleep yourself and then don’t feed him again until six in the morning. The second is to feed him when he wakes up at night, as long as it’s at least two hours after he falls asleep. But you’re only allowed to nurse him once. The third technique, called “go-for-the-stretch,” involves counting back from the baby’s usual wake-up time, using as your number of hours the longest amount of time your baby has ever slept. So if he wakes at one a.m., and he once slept six hours in a row, you don’t nurse him again until seven in the morning. (If you’re finding this confusing, you’re not alone.)

The dream feed didn’t work for me, as my baby always woke up after I finished nursing and attempted to lay him back down in his crib. The other two time-based systems had me trying to sleep while watching the clock. I anticipated a wail every time he woke up after the one permitted feed, and this dread made me an insomniac. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to consistently practice any of the Sleep Lady’s lengthen-the-time-between-feeding techniques. I felt curiously guilty: toward my baby for sometimes denying him nursing in the interest of the program, and toward the Sleep Lady, whom I’d let down. Her disapproving voice echoed in my head.

“When our babies are newborns, they need us to help them get to sleep, they need us to make that magic, but then it’s time to pass them the wand, to let them make their own magic,” she writes, adding, patronizingly: “Go ahead and do it now. Good night, and sleep tight.” I didn’t recall the midwife handing me a magic wand after my baby made his messy appearance. I resolved to toss the book and go back to the way things were before.

But it wasn’t that easy. I felt fine about my decision to bring my baby into the spare bed with me to sleep the remainder of the night once he woke up. And yet, I could still hear the Sleep Lady’s faux-gentle voice reprimanding me. “He’s using the breast as a sleep crutch,” she scolded, night after night as I nursed my son back to sleep.