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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Some babies sleep well, some don’t – beware those selling easy fixes

Posed by model Mother cuddling sleeping baby son on sofa
‘The insomnia is almost more maddening, the irritating singsong of ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ echoing in your ears.’ Photograph: LWA/Dann Tardif/Getty Images

I’m not going to tell you whether or not my baby is sleeping. If I say he is and your baby is not, then you will hate me. And if I say that he isn’t, I will immediately be bombarded with unsolicited advice, usually for a fee. The shysters are already circling.

Besides, nothing lasts for ever. When the baby was very small and I wondered if he might become “a good sleeper”, other parents delighted in telling me about the four-month sleep regression. Then I found a scientific article claiming it was a myth and decided that if I refused to believe in it, then it would not come for me. I’ll let you know how that goes, I could say, but I won’t. I’m very tired, but most of all I’m tired of talking and thinking about baby sleep.

I keep reading that in the western world we are obsessed with getting our babies to sleep through the night, when in fact this is neither natural nor, from a safety perspective, desirable (as poet Louise Glück has it: “Human beings must be taught to love/ silence and darkness”). Thankfully for them, no one has attempted to say this to my face, or to the faces of any of the other new mothers I know, several of whom have not had more than two consecutive hours of sleep for months now. For it is not desirable nor safe to have parents losing their minds from sleep deprivation either.

The cliche that lack of sleep is used as a means of torture is regularly trotted out, but the reality of what it can do to your brain is often skirted over, perhaps because it is simply too eerie, too gothic, too downright creepy to fully contemplate. “I became prey to daydreams and hallucinations, remembering conversations that had not occurred, glimpsing strange creatures through windows and in corners, a continual buzz of activity in my head both infernal and remote, as if a television had been left on in a next-door room,” says the writer Rachel Cusk.

I think of Sylvia Plath’s words “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”, and remember how I prowled the house in the early weeks in my own Victorian nightgown, looking like Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, and probably as much of a fire hazard. Forget operating heavy machinery, I could barely put one foot in front of the other and wept from exhaustion. The desire for sleep became something visceral and monstrous.

Yet, in the small hours I would sit in the glow of the screen, trying to find the answer to “baby won’t sleep”, reading and reading until trying to sleep became pointless, because soon he would be awake again. The insomnia is almost more maddening, the irritating singsong of “sleep when the baby sleeps” echoing in your ears.

At some point, you become aware that there are different camps when it comes to sleep: the co-sleepers, the sleep trainers. I judge none of them because I have seen first-hand the effects of long-term sleep deprivation on a person: my autistic brother never slept. How my mother stayed sane, I cannot comprehend. Even now, many years later, she has developed a kind of stamina for baby care and an ability to cat nap that leaves me in awe. Recently I woke after sleeping a sleep of the dead to peer through the living room door at her snoozing on the sofa, my son sleeping peacefully next to her in his bassinet, and felt powerfully and tearfully grateful.

And although the thought of a baby being left alone to cry in the dark makes me feel very sad – one baby book suggested keeping a clean set of sheets next to the crib during sleep training, as the baby would in all likelihood cry until he or she vomited – I understand that sometimes you have to try to save yourself in order to continue being able to parent.

Factionalism helps no one, nor is it new. Previous generations had books by Richard Ferber, Gina Ford and a whole host of others, all saying they would be able to help their babies sleep. Our generation has Instagram sleep consultants with no qualifications to contend with. Trends wax and wane, from cry it out to the shush-pat method. We are told not to feed babies to sleep, to put them down “drowsy but awake”, to live our lives according to regimented nap times. The infant sleep industry in the US alone is apparently worth more than $325m. A £1,000 crib called the Snoo, which swaddles and rocks your baby to sleep in a way that I can’t help but feel is a little dystopian, is the must-have Instagram item (several mothers, friends or friends of friends have said that it does, however, work). We’ve come a long way from the apocryphal leaving the pram at the bottom of the garden.

As parents, we engage in strange rituals and superstitions about baby sleep. At one stage I was convinced the reason my baby slept was because the mattress of his Ark pram bassinet was made from 100% pure wool. He slept so well in his pram that we would place its bassinet inside the Snuzpod – the bedside crib that allows you to “co-sleep” safely. Or maybe it was Ewan the Sheep, a pulsating sleep aid with millions of acolytes, or the Mahler I played him in the womb. My mother, meanwhile, used to drive me round north London at 2am in her nightgown. And then there’s the rocking and the singing and the white noise, the pink noise, the brown noise (who knew so many types of noise existed?).

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure what any of it means. Of course there are things you can do, but much of how a baby sleeps seems to be simply internal, inherent. Some do, some don’t. But that isn’t something you can sell. Or not yet, anyway.

What’s working The boy loves the music of the 1950s, specifically All I Have to do is Dream by the Everly Brothers, so if you’ve seen me pounding the pavements as the dulcet tones pipe from the pram, wherein I have placed my phone, that is why. I fantasise about a pram with inbuilt speakers.

What’s not Speaking of the Victorians, it has occurred to me that a lot of the folk songs I’ve been singing to him are incredibly morbid, from “my grave will warmer, sweeter be” (Danny Boy) to “She died of a fever and no one could save her” (Molly Malone). Am I traumatising the poor lad already?

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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