Baby No Sleeping

We've tried everything to get this baby to sleep

Photo: Marilyn Nieves
Photo: Marilyn Nieves

Below is a list of some of the things well-intentioned people told me to do to help my son sleep, number thirteen being my favorite:

  1. “You have to get your son to nap, because if he goes to bed overtired, he’ll be too tired to sleep.”
  2. “Try cutting out his naps so he sleeps longer during the night.”
  3. “Just let him cry.”
  4. “Never let him cry it out, it’s cruel.”
  5. “Co-sleep.”
  6. “Co-Sleeping is dangerous. I wouldn’t co-sleep if I were you.”
  7. “Rub his back.”
  8. “Don’t rub his back, because then you’ll always have to rub his back.”
  9. “Try rocking him.”
  10. “Don’t let him get used to being rocked to sleep.”
  11. “Nurse him.”
  12. “Stop nursing him every time he cries in the middle of the night.”
  13. “Drink a Guinness and then nurse him. He’ll sleep longer.”

Here is a list of just some of the things we tried:

  1. Letting him cry at intervals of five minutes, extending the time in between the crying intervals, i.e. Ferberizing. During the second five-minute interval of the first night of Ferberizing, my son, Dusty, cried so hard, he threw up. My husband nicknamed the method “Ferber-Shmerber” and couldn’t be convinced to try again.
  2. We tried co-sleeping, even though I barely slept afraid my enormous nursing boobs might suffocate him in the middle of the night.
  3. We went back to letting him cry it out after watching an episode of Super Nanny. After an hour of hysterics, he still wasn’t asleep. We tried again a few nights later, and after refusing to answer his cries, we finally folded. He had a temperature and proceeded to get sicker as the night progressed. You can’t imagine the guilt we felt that night lying in bed with a baby who had a 102-degree fever.
  4. We bought a white noise machine, a fan for his room, and a CD player with cryptic yoga-like meditation music. Might as well have tossed two hundred dollars out the window.
  5. We tried rubbing his back.
  6. Rocking him.
  7. Nursing him.
  8. Not nursing him in the middle of the night, which only led to long hours of sitting in a chair begging him to sleep.
  9. Strolling him up and down the hallways of our apartment building.
  10. We went back to co-sleeping in a queen sized bed (which quickly resulted in me getting a black eye from a middle-of-the-night baby kick to the face).
  11. We tried co-sleeping in a new king-sized bed, which he fell out of within a month’s time (apparently the bed is so big we lost track of him). Again, might as well have tossed a thousand dollars out the window, especially since the new mattress hurts my husband’s back so much he now sleeps on the floor.
  12. We tried late night taxi rides around the neighborhood.
  13. Drinking one Guinness before I nursed him at night, figuring if they give it to Irish women with newborns in the hospitals in Ireland, it can’t hurt Dusty! And it didn’t hurt him, it just made him gassy, so gassy he was up all night.

Getting babies to sleep is big business. On a recent trip through the parenting section of my local Barnes & Noble in New York City, I counted roughly thirty books that promised to teach parents how to get their baby to sleep through the night. A quick search on later that day led me to hundreds of parenting guides; nearly each one had a chapter on how to regulate the sleeping habits of your baby. I’ve also noticed that month after month, most of the parenting magazines highlight sleep issues on their covers. It’s a wonderful marketing tool, and I’m proof of it. I’ve bought these magazines many a time hoping to read a new theory from a new expert that will help my baby drift into dreamland and stay there for at least an eight-hour stretch.

Even walking around my son’s room, I’m reminded of all the products that promise you and your baby a good night’s sleep ― foam wedges that supposedly reduce colic, stuffed animals that mimic the sounds of the womb, soothing vibration gadgets that go under a baby’s mattress. We all know that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Most parents I know will do anything to make it stop.

But in all of my searches, and informal surveys of other parents, I never found a mom or dad who simply gave up the sleep battle and decided, for better or for worse, to stop trying to get their baby to sleep through the night or take long regular naps. After attempting what seemed like every technique out there, and every product ever invented to help a baby sleep, I eventually gave up that battle. When my son turned eighteen months, I officially declared that I lost and he had won. Strange enough, I’m happier for it. Not necessarily more rested, mind you, just happier.

Before my son, Dusty, was born, I had read enough to know that during the newborn stage my husband and I wouldn’t get much sleep at night, especially if I was nursing. What surprised me, however, was that my son wasn’t really a napper. I walked around those first few months amazed at other babies asleep in their strollers. There were moms in my new parent’s group who admitted to me, in a hushed voice, that they were a little bored, since their baby slept all day. I, on the other hand, was exhausted. My son never went down for regular naps, no matter how hard I tried. He would sometimes take what we dubbed “the sneak-attack nap,” a twenty minute power pass-out that would somehow revive him for another seven or eight hours.

My midwife and my pediatrician told me it would get better once my son turned six weeks old. But they were wrong. With interrupted nights and infrequent naps, it was getting worse. And at six weeks postpartum, the new baby adrenaline begins to wear off: friends and family aren’t coming around as much to ooh and ahh over your little miracle, gifts stop arriving in the mail, and the idea of entrusting someone else to help you take care of your precious bundle begins to sound like a good idea. Then add sleep deprivation to the mix. I could feel an unraveling of sorts coming on. A pediatric doctor and friend of mine recommended over email that I read On Becoming Baby Wise: The Classic Sleep Reference Guide Used by Over 1,000,000 Parents Worldwide by Gary Ezzo and Robert Buckman. With a title like that, how could I not?

Ezzo and Buckman suggest that for the physical and emotional well being of both parents and children, families need to have schedules and routines. They teach the reader how to create a cycle of feeding, playtime, and naptime. To be honest, they could have been recommending that I stand on my head and sing twinkle-twinkle little star to Dusty; just the idea that it was possible to have a routine with a newborn that doesn’t sleep well was a massive relief to me at the time. I tried their theory out, writing down when my son nursed, when he played, and when he slept. Still, I couldn’t get Dusty to sleep a full seven to eight hours at nine weeks old, which is what the book promised. But I was determined to keep trying.

Soon, Dusty was six months old and still not sleeping through the night. I began reading the big guns, the more popular and well-known parenting guides that deal with sleep issues, mostly written by doctors: Dr. Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems; Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care; Dr. Nathanson’s The Portable Pediatrician; Dr. Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block.

I systematically went through these texts and tried out their suggestions. The problem I kept facing with all of these techniques was that they would work for a week or so, but then, inevitably, something unexpected would come up and throw the whole schedule out the window: a growth spurt, a new tooth, a trip, a cold, or even, because we live in New York City, traffic.

The theories weren’t working. There was a lot of crying. I cried. Dusty cried. And still, he didn’t sleep much. At one point, my husband and I were so desperate for some shut-eye that we would let Dusty sleep at night in his electric swing in our room, the click-click of the motor lulling all of us into lala land for at least a five hour stretch. For comfort, we even kept extra packets of batteries on our nightstand just in case the swing lost power in the middle of the night.

By the time Dusty was ten months old, he was still waking up three times a night ― to nurse, to play, to laugh, to do anything but sleep. We just didn’t understand why Dusty wasn’t more tired, when we were utterly tapped-out, exhausted, and blurry-eyed. I kept asking my husband if we could pay someone to do this for us, teach Dusty how to sleep through the night, adding, “Don’t we live in New York City, were people can literally buy anything?” I looked into the cost of hiring a night nurse. Where was the Baby Whisperer when you needed her?

People told me it would get better after he turned a year old. Again, not so. After a year, when he woke up, he would jump around his crib and insist on reading his “bookas.” After a year, he could call out to us by name. Try telling a mother-in-law in town for a visit to ignore her first grandchild’s screams in the middle of the night for, “Gammy, Gammy, Gaammmy!” By eighteen months he was saying, “Baby no sleeping, baby no sleeping!” And I had already weaned him by then, so I no longer had the option of nursing him back to sleep. Basically, it was a disaster. I was at my wit’s end.

Parents I knew became divided into two camps, those with good sleepers and those with bad sleepers. I began resenting those parents with good sleepers. My friends whose children slept through the night and were good nappers just didn’t get it when it came to my exhaustion; parenting a child who sleeps on average of fifteen hours a day means that you only have to take care of them for nine waking hours. It’s a whole different ball game when you have fifteen waking hours to parent your child. The parents I knew with good sleepers were ready to try for a second child, whereas my husband and I were too tired to even think of getting our groove on, let alone bring another “non-sleeping baby” into the picture. The whole thing was making me feel pretty depressed.

I still had one approach that I hadn’t tried, a Plan B or sort’s ― to just simply stop trying, and let the nights and days unfold as they may. For obvious marketing reasons none of the books I read suggested this approach when their techniques failed. So, after one particularly sleepless night when Dusty was eighteen months old, because of an argument with my husband about letting Dusty “just cry for heaven’s sake,” I decided not to go down fighting, but to surrender gracefully. I declared, “Dusty could sleep when he wanted, that was that.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Until, of course, the unexpected happened. Now, don’t get your hopes up, Dusty didn’t magically start sleeping. In fact, after the first week of the “Not-Trying Anything Plan,” Dusty’s sleep patterns hadn’t changed at all. But my attitude had. My stress level dropped immediately. Since I was no longer setting him, or me, up for failure, deciding to join Dusty rather than change him was fun. I regained, immediately, my sense of humor (which happens to be the first thing that goes when one is overtired). A more easy-going vibe surfaced in our home. I started to laugh with my husband when Dusty woke up at three a.m., instead of groaning, about the absurdity of it all: the work that goes into parenting which we weren’t prepared, and the love we get back in return. And, unexpectedly, I began to appreciate them both more a little bit more; my husband for all the nights he was up with me over the last year, and my son, for his unique way of interfacing with the world.

I still incorporated the same nighttime ritual into our bedtime routine; dinner, tubby-time, and milk before bed with the lights dimmed low, but if it didn’t happen during the same hour each evening, I wasn’t going to get worked up about it. And like it had been since the day of his birth, some nights Dusty would go right to sleep, and some nights, perhaps once every couple of weeks, we would get lucky and he would sleep through the night. Other nights, when Dusty woke up calling for us, we would bring him to bed, comfort him with a bottle; the smell of baby lotion and warm milk a lovely addition to our bed. And there were nights, when all else had failed, that we would simply toss the covers off and throw a late-night dance party for three, until Dusty just couldn’t stand any longer.

There were some practical matters to consider, so we got creative with our time, because as my husband says, “The ship was sinking fast.” I put my baby sitter’s phone number on speed-dial, and made a commitment to hire more help. If your child doesn’t nap, twelve hours of chasing around a toddler can run you into the ground. Now, we have a sitter a couple of times a week, just so we can sleep in. Or, if Dusty is up late, I’ll take him out for a long evening walk, so my husband can get to bed early, and then he’ll take Dusty out to breakfast in the morning, so I can catch a few more winks before work. If Dusty does happen to crash out in the middle of the day, and we are all home, my husband and I try hard to head right for bed, knowing a few precious hours of sleeping will be better for our overall well-being than anything else we can do.

Through this whole process I’ve also learned what my husband and I can tolerate as parents. We will never be “Napping Nazis,” a term I’ve heard tossed around playgrounds from Chicago to New York. Some of my closest friends are “Napping Nazis.” “Napping Nazis” are fabulous moms who stick to schedules, by the minute, and pride themselves on creating good sleepers, usually by applying some form of the “crying-it-out” method. And you know, they do, they have amazing sleepers. We don’t have a strict schedule with our son, and we failed at the “crying-it-out” technique, many times. In essence, we use a hodge-podge of practical techniques applied one night at a time. And, what I’m learning is that this is the technique used by many of the parents I know.

I’ve met them in the park, on the subways, in music classes; those parents who also decided to leave the unrealistic twelve hours a night, and three hour nap rule, to the experts. We talk about how the sleep guides make us feel inadequate; that their theories imply it’s the parent’s fault for not creating good sleep habits, because children are “supposed” to learn to sleep through the night. But then how does one explain Dusty, and half of his little friends? I agree, that we can teach our children good habits, and that some children who are on the fence with sleeping can be swayed with routines to join the rest of us in dreamland, but for others, and there are more out there than the books acknowledge, require very little sleep, and still can remain sunny enough throughout the day to amaze us all. Blaming moms and dads for a child’s sleep behavior only makes us feel guilty ― that it is because of our deficiencies as parents that our children are inefficient sleepers.

I decided I would give up on the sleep issue, because I was tired of it being an issue. It was one of the kindest things I’ve done for myself in a long time. So often, it is our unrealistic expectations of others that cause our disappointment in life; it was unrealistic of me to expect Dusty to sleep like the books say he is “supposed” to sleep. Learning to let go of the rules, and submit to the fact that every child is unique, was a powerful lesson for this new mother to learn in her first couple of years on the job.

There are many positive things to be said for having “a non-sleeping baby.” There is always a stack of books Dusty is combing through in his crib, whether it’s at midnight or six in the morning. My husband and I have had some wonderful dinners with Dusty in our West Village neighborhood, since we aren’t beholden to any particular bedtime. Recently, while Dusty and I were enjoying an impromptu drumming circle in Union Square, sometime past ten o’clock, we met another non-sleeping toddler who appeared behind a Rastafarian man beating his bongo drums. Dusty and the little boy had a wonderful time dancing to the delight of the crowd, and I got to have a lovely conversation with the little boy’s mother. We even exchanged numbers for a future play date.

Dusty and I have also watched some beautiful sunrises together, strolling down the Hudson River Park, watching the sun come up over that wide swath of river that separates our town from New Jersey. We’ve watched the commuters embarking from the Staten Island ferry. We’ve opened the children’s playgrounds. I get to drink my coffee and sit in the sandbox with Dusty, just the two of us, without a care in the world. At seven in the morning, there isn’t a line for the swings. It’s a peaceful time, a time when I’m totally focused on my son.

When I meet new mothers in the park, or on the subway, or on line at the grocery store and they ask me about Dusty and his sleeping habits ― a topic all new parents discuss at length ― I tell them I’ve tried it all, and nothing worked. And I tell them, if they ever have a child that still isn’t sleeping well by the time it’s almost two, give up. Put the parenting books back on the shelves, follow your instincts, sleep when the baby sleeps, and get up and walk along the river at sunrise ― or dress him up in his finest and take him out on a Saturday night ― he may just be the best date you’ve ever had.