Dec 21 2015

A Eulogy to Baby Whisperers

At 3am, no one can hear you cry. That’s exactly 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 crying clearly enough. More than once or twice during the night. But my cries of exhaustion, despair, frustration and loneliness? They were kept to the inside of my head.


For the first few weeks after my 2nd baby was born, I was just so grateful my longed-for baby had arrived safely that night feeds were almost a novelty. I felt womanly and invincible, filled with love for my baby and the world. I willingly slept on a mattress on the floor in his room so my beloved husband could sleep undisturbed in our king sized bed. I was so grateful to him for helping create this beautiful creature, it was the least I could do. And hey, since I was breast-feeding and he didn’t have breasts, what was the point of him getting up at midnight? Let alone 2, 3 and 5am.


But after more than a month of waking several times every night to feed and soothe my tiny baby back to sleep, I began to lose my sense of humour.


Most mornings I couldn’t recall what had happened the previous night. I was always certain it had been a train wreck of sorts but the details were hazy. Did he wake at 12:15am for a feed, 1:25am for the dummy, another feed at 2:10am and then dummy again at 3:20am? No 4:05am? Or was that the night before? What is my name? And I don’t recognize that person in the mirror?


Despair is the evil twin of sleep deprivation. Eventually, the despair makes way for a kind of acceptance where you become entrenched in your exhaustion. You give up. You surrender the fantasy of having a baby who will ever sleep through the night.


Its easier to just stick in the dummy, the bottle, 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 shattered to find a way out of your exhaustion.


I made this mistake before, with my son. We attempted some strategies half-heartedly a few times but I refused to persevere because I was worried it might damage him psychologically. So we surrendered to the massive disruption of sleeplessness. Looking back this was a false emotional saving. 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 would do it differently next time.


Typically, if your baby doesn’t sleep, every other baby in your social sphere will have begun sleeping through the night from two weeks of age. “People lie” a baby health care nurse once reassured me “some peoples definition of sleeping through the night is 11pm-4am. Don’t listen.”


I attended a mother’s group and it was here that 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 shed 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 Joe was seven months old. At that stage, he was waking up to six times a night for feeds or to have his dummy put back in. I was beside myself. Over the phone, Elizabeth was a fountain of empathy. Even her voice was soothing.


The next morning, she called. Tonight Ill be there at 5pm so I can meet Joe before we get started. That first night can be pretty intense so be prepared for that.


I liked Elizabeth immediately, a kind yet no-nonsense attitude. Straight away, she busied herself in Joe’s room as we sat nervously watching. She 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 Joe and answered all my questions.
Elizabeth believed that by teaching our baby to put himself to sleep, we were giving him 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.


Through the crying, Elizabeth would go in at various intervals and kindly whisper shhhh Joe time for sleep. Then shed re-tuck the sheets firmly and leave without picking him up unless absolutely necessary. Often she wouldn’t actually leave but simply hide in the darkness and observe, making sure Joe 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 he’d been put to bed, the first hurdle was cleared. Asleep! High five! But while Elizabeth was pleased, she warned us that Joe hadn’t really learnt anything, he 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 Joe was in the capable hands of a professional. As promised, the night was worse. Almost two hours of crying from 1:05am 2:50am. With complete faith in Elizabeth I was reasonably calm but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t cry and I didn’t interfere. Life-long gift. Life-long gift.


Finally, all was quiet. The next thing I remember was hearing Elizabeth letting herself out at 6am, followed 45 minutes later by Joe waking up for the day. When I picked him up, I half expected to see betrayal in his eyes, as if to say, so where the hell were you last night? But his face was as open and delighted to see me as ever. He appeared undamaged. Life-long gift.


And so it was with Joe. 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 he awoke briefly again at 4am and put himself back to sleep within a couple of minutes. Night three he slept through. For the first time in seven months, I didn’t leave my bed from 9:30pm to 6:30am. It felt like a miracle. Joe was definitely happier during the day. And me? I was doing wild victory laps around my house.


Many people have asked me what does the Sleep Whisperer do that you can’t? In theory, nothing. In practice, everything. Simply put, its impossible to be rational and unemotional when your baby is screaming. Is he 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 judgments 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. Shed 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.


A note about this post.


This was sent to me several years ago and I’d like to acknowledge the writer of this article, however I am unable to find the authors name. A few words have been changed and a couple of paragraphs left out, but the overall message is the same for many parents that I’ve helped. An article well worth sharing.


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