“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.
What’s worse, the Sleep Lady had acquired an ally in this war: my husband. He’d never fully supported the night nursing situation once our baby was about eight months old. He said, “Let him cry; he’ll be fine.” My resolve to put the Sleep Lady behind me was tested by my husband’s enthusiasm for her method, and by the fact that my son’s night waking really was starting to seem like a problem. At eleven months old, he was still waking up at least three times a night. I found myself flipping through the book and, once again, answering the siren song of the Sleep Lady. Her preferred method of night weaning at this stage: cold turkey. Reassure him by his crib, she advised, and most importantly, be consistent.
That first night was hell. As I listened to my son wail for the breast for two straight hours, I scratched my arms. Hearing him and not going to him created a nightmarish buzz at the bottom of my throat that reverberated pain from my baby to me. My husband sat in the rocking chair by his crib and tried to soothe him. After the two hours of caterwauling, my son finally fell asleep. For about an hour. Then he woke up again, wailed for another hour, and so on, until I nursed him at five-thirty in the morning. This went on for five nights.
For the first time, I understood the Sleep Lady’s juxtaposition of the words “forlorn” and “hysterical.” My formerly happy baby was a mess. His night howling tormented me. My breasts were leaking milk. I couldn’t stop thinking, what am I doing wrong? In desperation, I searched the Sleep Lady’s book for answers. “There is Sleep deprivation is a method of torture, as the well-rested experts constantly remind us.no such thing as a tear-free childhood,” she repeatedly droned. By now, I hated her, but couldn’t get away; I began to feel like a masochist, caught in the cycle of abuse with a violent ex.
Sleep deprivation is a method of torture, as the well-rested experts constantly remind us. But for me, so was listening to my baby crying in the dark. When people say: he’s just crying because he’s tired and this is not going to wound him, I think what they mean is: he’s suffering, but he’s still going to love you in the morning. That breaks my heart. Some people think that babies are learning all the time and through crying they learn, for example, that nursing is not necessary at night. Maybe that’s true. But until my son can tell me what he needs, not answering his cry still feels wrong.
After five nights of listening to him wail, I cracked. It was four a.m. and I suddenly decided I didn’t care if our baby was hungry or not. “He wants to suck on my breast, not the leg of a stuffed animal!” I screamed at the Sleep Lady’s voice in my head. I snatched my son from his crib and nursed, committing the Sleep Lady system’s worst offence of all: “intermittent reinforcement.”
“He needs to learn how to self-soothe!” my husband hissed at me in the morning.
“You don’t even know what self-soothe is!” I hissed back. “You haven’t read the book.”
By this point, The Book had become my sworn enemy. Sleep training requires the shutting-off of the instinct to go to a crying baby, and in following the Sleep Lady, I’d shut off not just that instinct, but all of them. If I’d just listened to myself from the start, worked out a plan that felt right, I wonder if things would have been different. As it turned out, in the course of my war with the program, I nursed on demand for close to twelve months, often only getting four hours of sleep a night. Until my baby turned one, I was living through what the Sleep Lady would call a major “sleep crutch” quandary.
And throughout, I was relentlessly second-guessing myself. Was I nursing at night because it was truly an ingenious system? Or was nursing preventing my baby from reaching a new stage of development? Ultimately, for a mother and baby I think it’s unclear how such a system of rules creates change. In a symbiotic relationship, it’s almost impossible to tell who starts what, who needs what.
The Sleep Lady had a comeback, of course: “You have to remember that you are the coach, not the player,” she said. “You are giving love and support and comfort and reassurance – being that secure base. But you aren’t fixing, rescuing or doing it all for him.” With competing voices in my head, what kind of a “secure base” was I supposed to be? My bedroom was under occupation by a condescending blonde social worker.
Then the most amazing thing happened. A few weeks after my baby turned one, he slept ten hours – uninterrupted. The next night he did the same thing. The next night, too. Would he have done so sooner without all those months of my nursing him at night? Without all those miserable attempts at night weaning? Without the Sleep Lady’s voice in my head? It’s impossible to tell. But even now, when we’re all getting more sleep, night nursing a thing of the past, I still can’t quite drown out the Sleep Lady’s smug voice. He needs eleven hours at night, I know she’s saying. And he needs to be nap trained – that means naps in his crib! You have to break the nurse/sleep connection!
Okay Lady, I hear you. Now sh-sh-sh there, yourself.