Why are new parents obsessed with sleep? It’s the same reason teenage boys are obsessed with sex—because they’re not getting any.
Around the globe, sleep deprivation is considered a highly effective form of state torture. The Stasi used it, paired with harsh interrogation, to coerce East German citizens to denounce their neighbors as enemies of the state. I’ve felt like a Stasi victim on many mornings after nursing a baby on and off all night—so desperate for sleep I would do anything, anything, for another hour.
Back in my naïve days as a free-spirited 20-something, I worked with a woman who had an adorable toddler. One day she mentioned she hadn’t slept through the night in three years. She’s lying, I thought, or at least grossly exaggerating. If she wasn’t, then her seemingly placid child must be abnormal in some way— special-needs, or, at least, hyper. The truth was so inconceivable I refused to consider it. I forgot the incident for five years until I was living it nightly myself: an infant who wakes every two hours for months at a time, innocently driving her parents to the brink of insanity.
“Let’s sleep till we sleep,” my husband and I used to whisper in bed when we didn’t have to work the next morning.
Overtired, we comforted each other with that catchphrase, our private version of “sweet dreams.” Little did we know that there would be no more sleeping till we sleep, ever, once the babies arrived. “Better sleep in now…” older parents would say with a knowing chuckle when I was pregnant, but their comments rolled off my swollen belly like water off a duck’s back. My mate and I were confident that we loved sleep so much; we’d naturally produce babies who were superlative sleepers. We didn’t.
There’s no evolutionary advantage when a baby makes her mother crazed with sleep deprivation.
While our ancestors may have snuggled together family-style in caves, reaping the benefits of communal living, modern Western society has moved far from that origin.
We spend our nights isolated in separate houses, and by day we lead fast-paced, high-tech lives packed with work, school, activities, shopping and to-do lists. We don’t sleep in tee-pees or yurts or close-knit villages surrounded by loving extended families. A Kung Bushwoman, who cuddled and nursed her baby all night could turn over the infant to one of many sisters, aunts, and grandparents sitting around the fire each morning. Then she could crawl back in her hut and snooze before leisurely gathering food in the Kalahari with the other mothers, her baby slung on one hip.
Attachment parenting, as theorized by Dr. William Sears, advocates that parents “share sleep” with their offspring in a family bed until the children desire to sleep alone. In said bed, Baby can nurse on-demand at Mama’s all-night milk diner, promoting optimal health and bonding for all. I lived in Sears-land for six months with each of my two babies and can testify that the infants were not sharing sleep with me.
They were thriving, but I was a wreck, suffering mental and physical deterioration, fantasizing about a quiet weekend in the psych unit. Perhaps my lifelong tendency toward depression and anxiety had made me especially vulnerable to the ravages of sleep deprivation. Dr. Sears often cites traditional cultures as evidence for his co-sleeping theories, and for many modern American families, the arrangement works smoothly. For others, it is not sustainable.
In desperation, I turned to Sears’ nemesis, Dr. Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. Known in certain circles as The Sleep Nazi, Ferber proposes a system of “controlled crying” to teach babies to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. It took me weeks to work up to trying his techniques— I was terrified of traumatizing my six-month-old, of breaking our secure love bond.
I consulted with everyone— my mother, my therapist, my pediatrician. I wept on the phone with the wise lactation nurses who’d helped me during the early weeks postpartum. They had 30 years’ experience with breastfed infants and confirmed what I intuitively knew—that unless I changed our current pattern, my baby could continue night-waking for another year or two. I knew I would not survive. Then one friend, whose baby was now a well-adjusted 12-year-old, told me that “Ferberizing” had worked for her in only two nights. Another friend in Philadelphia confirmed that her urban pals passed around Ferber’s bestseller, How to Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, at playdates.
As a last-resort, I read Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Sleep Solution and tried some of her tips. They were useless.
It was Ferber-time. I paced downstairs with a glass of wine trying to watch TV while Tim checked on our crying daughter every five, then ten, then fifteen minutes. Within a half-hour, she was asleep. After two more nights of 5-10-15, she woke only once, sometimes twice, during her eleven hours of sleep. I continued to nurse her, connected as ever, slowly returning to the land of the living.
With hindsight, Tim and I viewed sleep training as one of our best parenting decisions, a huge shift in family well-being. Of course the crying was heart-wrenching, and we were supposed to re-implement it after our regular sleep routine was disrupted by teething, sickness, or vacation (we didn’t). And Ferber admits his method doesn’t work with every baby—it was far less effective with our strong-willed, hot-tempered second child, who still night-wakes at 20 months, often joining us in bed.
There’s no one science that can help us muddle through the pain of sleepless nights with small children. All parents must learn for themselves what their families need regarding sleep. I’m here to admit I let my babies cry. So far, they are healthy, secure young children— and I didn’t check myself into the psych ward.