To Sleep, Perchance to Scream


At three in the afternoon when my daughter was about four weeks old, I hit a wall. With my fist, though not very hard, because I was trying to be as quiet as possible. Another day that week, I went into the bathroom, all the lights turned off, and screamed into a towel. Again, I didn’t want to make very much noise, because my four-week-old daughter was “sleeping.”

There are lots of tiny and useless nuggets of wisdom parents-to-be are given. My favorite is: “Sleep when your baby sleeps.” But in the early days, she was never clearly sleeping, and any moment of silence from her corridor meant that we would panic, absolutely sure that she had SIDsed out on us. It was unclear what exactly she was doing for those twenty hours a day when she was supposedly asleep. She was noisy. So noisy. At night, she lay in her bassinet beside our bed, squawking and snorting like a young dinosaur. So I never slept. After ten or maybe fewer minutes of “rest” of my own, I’d sit up and peek over at her. If her eyes were closed when I looked, her preternatural senses alerted her that I was near and they’d fly open to make contact with mine. I’d try to feed her, change her diaper, reswaddle her. But by then she was fully awake. I’d walk her little burritoed body around, pacing, watching my husband not sleep, or sometimes, he’d do the walking while I sat there, miserable and terrified.

That’s another great bit of advice: Parents should “take turns” or “do shifts.” But every situation we encountered seemed like an emergency. She’d be crying in the bassinet next to us; she’d just lay there, wide awake, watching us; she’d need a diaper change. We’d get out the supplies, lay her on a tarp on the bed, get a thousand wipes, clean her up, put on a new diaper, swaddle her, then pick her up, only to hear the undeniable sounds of her having another bowel movement. I, the mother, who is expected to be gifted with a sense of what my baby needed, had no idea: Was she hungry? Tired? Too wet? Sick? Too dry? I was stuck in a constant and mindless cycle of trying literally anything to get her to sleep.

The last piece of wisdom that people — inevitably parents themselves — give is: “Well, say goodbye to sleeping ever again.” This is handed out with what I am tempted to call glee, a sort of “welcome to the club, it’s miserable here but so worth it!” cheering on. But when Zelda was five weeks old, I decided to reject that bit of advice. I needed to sleep, and so did she. It wasn’t out of selfishness so much as a need to actually enjoy the waking moments I had with her, which I was absolutely incapable of with zero hours of sleep per night.

Like everything else in parenting, I came to it rather willfully unprepared, but I at least knew that “sleeping” was an issue — that it was a thing which you had to have an opinion on. I formed one, and its name is sleep training.

Sleep training means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for most, it means that at some point, you begin to allow your baby to “cry it out” after putting her to bed. You leave the room — for ten minutes or an hour or even twelve — and you don’t come back, no matter what sounds you hear from within the room. Within a few nights, the sleep trainers advise — after a lot of hassle and tears on both sides of the door — your baby gets the message, and simply stops waking up. Then, magically, you have a twelve-hour-a-night sleeper. This camp argues that your baby needs to be taught how to sleep for long periods of time, and that it’s your job to guide them in that direction, often with some crying involved. They counsel that after two or three months, a baby doesn’t need to eat at night — she is simply waking out of habit, a habit which you must, at some point, break. Those opposed to sleep training argue that a baby should not be left to cry alone in her room for any period of time, because her crying signals that she needs you or wants you. Your instinctual response to a crying baby, is, of course, to go to her. But, I asked myself, at what point am I helping more than hurting? Doesn’t the baby want to sleep longer?

I chose my pediatrician, Tribeca Pediatrics, because they were the closest one to us; because Zelda was born a bit early in the middle of a blizzard; and because she needed to go to the doctor for weighing more often than a full-term newborn. But it turned out that my choice was fortuitous, because this practice, headed up by a French doctor named Michel Cohen, advocates for sleep training of babies at eight weeks old — far younger than the six months at which most experts say you should begin. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it when the eight-week mark came along because “sleep training” in the cry-it-out sense sounded incredibly harsh to me. But it was comforting knowing in the back of my mind that — when every day seemed to be forty-eight hours long with a baby who was either sleeping all the time or not at all (I couldn’t tell) — there was an escape hatch at the two-month anniversary, if we needed it.

But in the meantime, my researching nose kicked in and I started reading. I read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. It didn’t have a ton of sleeping advice, other than to let me know that most French babies are sleeping through the night by three months. The book also described vaguely something called “the pause,” where, if your baby begins making noise at night, you don’t immediately rush to her, you wait a few minutes, to see if she will “resettle” herself and go back to sleep. This seemed laughable to me, so I read on. Dr. Cohen’s book advised pretty much the same thing: Don’t rush over to your baby at the first sign of activity! See if she’s really awake! Be calm and patient. My baby appeared to be “really awake” about ninety-five percent of the time.

Then I discovered the Baby Whisperer, and her name is Tracy Hogg. Well, that was her name — she’s dead sadly, and will never receive the amazing email I penned to her one day in absolute and genuine thankfulness. Tracy Hogg’s book, published in 2001, when distilled to its essentials, amounted to this: Get your baby on a schedule. Now, Tracy didn’t call it a “schedule” because adhering to a clock isn’t really possible at first with a baby, so she called it a “routine.” The gist was this: Most moms feed their babies to sleep, and this is a no-no. A baby should eat when she wakes up, rather than when she goes to sleep, and she should eat roughly every three hours. Then, she “plays” or is active, and then she should sleep until the next time you want to feed her. The cycle lasts about three hours at first: Wake at 7 AM, eat, play until 8:30 or so, sleep until ten, wake and begin again. Tracy counselled that you should wake your baby — “never wake a sleeping baby” goes out the window — during the daytime hours, from 7 AM to 7 PM, but not the nighttime ones.

Tracy had a lot of advice about how best to get your baby to sleep: Waiting until they’re actually sleepy was the best tip. Seems so… logical… but yes, waiting until the baby is drowsy to try to put her to bed was an early and successful tip. Then swaddle her, darken the room, turn on some white noise. Don’t rock the baby to sleep. Just wait until she is very drowsy, and then put her in her crib. If she doesn’t sleep, stand by and calm her — don’t pick her up, but pat her on the tummy, let her know you’re there, and then leave (she didn’t advocate allowing her to cry, not with a baby who is five weeks old). If you do this routine day in, day out, Tracy argued, the baby would begin to go to sleep more easily, on her own, and would magically begin to sleep for longer periods of time at night. The key thing that got me on board was that, at the very least, feeding the baby every three hours would mean that I would know one thing when she cried or seemed fussy: She wasn’t hungry, she just ate an hour ago!

I wish I could say that it was easy. It wasn’t. I dutifully wrote down when she ate about every three hours, got her to sleep on about the right pattern sometimes — often after a little walking around or singing or talking to her — only to have to wake her an hour later. It was exhausting, but within about two weeks, the little bugger started waking up when it was time to eat, and to my incredulity, she did start to sleep longer at night: first four hours, then five, then magically six. Our doctor also recommended at the six-week visit that we move Zelda from our room into her own, which was tough, but we did it. She suggested that maybe our sounds (we didn’t go to bed at 7PM like her, after all) and smells were prematurely waking her. It had an immediate and positive effect, in addition to the scheduling.

By the time Zelda was eight weeks old, we went to her doctor’s appointment, expecting to hear the sleep training rigamarole: Just let her cry at night when she wakes. And we did hear it: They emailed us the video about sleep training and explained that the baby didn’t need to eat at night anymore. I explained that Zelda was now only waking once at night, and I thought that it was actually because she was hungry. The doctor said that was fine, wait until ten weeks if we wanted to, see if she sleeps through the night on her own. But, the doctor added, “You should stop walking her to sleep; stop waiting around for her.” Just do her bedtime routine — feed, bath, feed, read Dr. Seuss’s sleep book, lights out — then leave. Let her cry herself to sleep if needed.

So we did. She cried for fifteen minutes once. Most nights she was asleep before the book was finished. By the time she was nine weeks old, Zelda was only waking once a night, and going to sleep with almost no crying at all. A few days later, we had to drive to Pittsburgh for Passover. Travelling with a newborn, especially one whom you are trying to sleep train, is a nightmare even in concept, so we considered not going. We decided to give it a shot anyway, and had our family set up a travel crib in the bedroom next to ours (a key to our sleep training was that the baby couldn’t sleep in our room).

When we arrived and put her to bed in her little travel crib, she cried a bit, but not much. I stayed with her a few extra minutes. I woke at 2AM fully expecting to hear her crying, awake, but there was nothing. Silence. I went back to sleep. She didn’t wake up until 7AM. I assumed it was a fluke, but she did it the next night, and the next. Our sleep training was complete, without a night of screaming to show for it.

Since then, Zelda has woken at night about four times, all when she was getting her first two teeth. Every time it happens, I do the same thing. I “pause” to see if she is really awake, or if she is just crying randomly in her sleep. If she is truly awake, I go into her room, pick her up, cuddle her, calm her down. I read The Sleep Book (which I have memorized and don’t need the actual book for anymore) to her, and wait until she is drowsy again. I don’t feed her. I put her back to bed. And she sleeps. We vigilantly watch and listen to her on the monitor out of habit, but her sleep is calm and peaceful.

Zelda now sleeps about twelve hours a night, and another two hours during the day for naps. Sometimes, she cries her little head off for a few minutes before going to sleep, but she is reliable, and loves to sleep. And when she wakes up, whether from a nap or a night of cruising through dreamtown, she is always happy and well-rested. She is truly the happiest baby I’ve ever met.

“How does your baby sleep?” is an inevitable question you get from other parents. Sometimes, I lie about it a bit. To say that she sleeps so well sounds like a brag. It’s true, I know, that we are very lucky that Zelda took to it easily and quickly. She didn’t have colic or sleep troubles — she was like most babies, who are able to figure out, with help, how to sleep on her own at an early age. But it would be dishonest to say that I take no credit for it whatever. I did a lot of work, too, for a few long months. And of course, a lot of the credit goes to the Baby Whisperer. It would be easy for me say now that I wouldn’t have let her scream for hours on end for several nights in a row — I’m so happy and grateful that I never had to — if she had been a tougher customer in the sleep department. But I know that I would have. Because teaching Zelda to sleep is the best thing I’ve done for her yet.

Her parents sleep pretty well too.

THE PARENT RAP is an endearing new column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.

Laura June is a writer and a very cool mom. She is also the author of “Gone Girl.”

Photo by Katy Pearce