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When you just can't take the crying any more

Extreme sleeplessness can lead to violent thoughts towards your baby. But being brave enough to speak up is the first step to getting things right.

Words: Karen Jayes

Jacqui Flint's son, Cameron, was sleeping through the night at four months - from 7pm to 6am. But when he hit seven months, the hell started. 'He started teething and was waking at night because of the pain. We didn't understand what was happening, and the only thing that put him back to sleep was if we patted him on the back,' says Jacqui. Little did she know it at the time, but Jacqui was introducing what she, now the owner of Baby Love (a sleep and routine guidance company with a nationwide spread of consultants) terms a 'sleep prop'. The patting on the back also had to be done by Irene, Cameron's nanny, each time she put him down for a day nap, and soon Cameron started waking up more often. 'Babies have several light sleeping cycles,' says Jacqui. Cameron was waking up in every light cycle, wanting the reassurance of her hand on his back. 'He was waking up seven times a night,' she says. 'And he did it for 10 weeks!'

'I remember lying in bed listening to him cry and thinking "I'm going to bash his head in, at least it will then be quiet and I can sleep". I didn't feel guilty for thinking this. And I remember going to him and shouting "I'm going to shake you until your head falls off". I never did it, but the thought was there.' When Belinda Payne-Tholet gave birth to twins Sebastian and Isabella, she knew she would have her hands full, but she thought nature would take its course and the sleepless nights would pass. She was wrong. 'It got to the point when they were waking up so much, I didn't even want to go to sleep. I wanted somebody to come and get them and take them back to the hospital. When they cried, I would just sit on the stairs and cry too.'

Belinda struggled with the twins for seven months, by which time she was waking up more than 12 times a night. But when she tried to talk to other mothers, it was difficult to articulate what she was actually going through. 'It's the constant comparing between mothers that is so bad,' she says. 'You just think that you're doing the worst job.' Then there's the assumption that being a new mom just goes along with extreme lack of sleep. 'It's a running joke, but many parents do believe that this is what parenting is all about. But then the crying becomes more, not less. And you reach a point of desperation.' 'There's this myth of motherhood that we all have to just handle it,' says Jacqui. 'But we need to be careful of that; it's hard enough as it is.' It's when Belinda and her husband broke the silence that things started to improve. Through their midwife they got in touch with Jacqui and Baby Love - and the first thing they found there was acknowledgement. 'It's not your fault,' Jacqui assured Belinda. 'It's not their fault either. Everybody does the best they can with what they know.' Jacqui also reassured them that resenting their children was okay, that not being able to bond with them, given the situation, was normal. That having a screaming match with your partner for something arbitrary is understandable. But that, despite the running jokes, parenthood 'doesn't have to be that way'.

Postpartum depression (PPD) cites the desire to baby-bash as one of its symptoms. But violent thoughts can also be brought on solely by lack of sleep. Belinda had no symptoms of depression before her pregnancy. She knew she wasn't depressed - just utterly exhausted. But, as in PPD, sleepless mothers suffering with violent thoughts towards their babies often think it's normal to never sleep. They think they can't complain. Says Jacqui, 'I did suffer from PPD, but it was only diagnosed when Cameron was seven months (after I had done a sleep-training workshop). I believe my depression was worsened by the sleepless nights, but once Cameron was sleeping well and I was on medication, I felt I could cope with life so much better.'

The first thing Jacqui gets her sleepless parents to do is keep a diary of the day's and night's events: the time the baby woke up, the time baby ate, his nap time, how they got him to sleep, how long he slept for. Then she spots the weaknesses in the routine and adjusts their - and by extension, their baby's - behaviour. 'A baby of five months, if he's healthy and not hungry, should be sleeping through the night,' says Jacqui. 'It's not a rigid routine we put them on,' she says, 'It's not Gina Ford, or controlled crying - but there is an age-appropriate routine that we recommend parents stick to.' For example, newborns need to sleep most of the day - waking them up to be poked by grandparents is the first step in setting up a disruptive pattern. Pushing the baby to stay awake late so that you can have a lie-in or sleep through is also a no-no. 'You get a hyper-alert baby,' says Jacqui. Many mothers call this 'hyperactive' or 'energetic', when in fact it's more likely this baby is not sleeping enough. 'An age-appropriate daytime routine is critical to the success of the baby's night,' says Jacqui. 'Resting the baby during the day, having the correct amount of awake time for her age and feeding according to age and appetite is crucial.' Then there are a few more rules you need to stick to.

There are a few guiding principles Baby Love recommends, and it has a crying check list for when the going gets tough. 'If the baby is healthy and not hungry, and the parents understand what they are doing, you can leave her to cry,' says Jacqui. If you stick to the rules, Jacqui insists that within days you will notice a difference in your home. 'You need to give a baby what she needs, not what she wants.' (See sidebar.) 'If a baby is left to cry, she doesn't grow up with a feeling of abandonment or lack of trust,' says Jacqui.

Fleeing to the office or thrusting your baby into the trusted arms of your mother or nanny is not going to make your nights any better. They may reinforce your bad habits - or even introduce a few of their own. Paediatricians can also often not be the most helpful; they are there for when your child is sick, not for prescribing medicine for babies who aren't sleeping. Says Belinda, 'When we went on holiday I got a prescription, and when we stopped giving it to the twins you could see the withdrawal. It sounds horrible now, but when you're not sleeping, you try anything.' The most important thing to remember, says Jacqui, is that babies are by nature a disruption. But they are a disruption that needs the correct balance of structure and love. 'You can't plan a baby's routine as if you're in a boardroom. You have to adjust to her needs. And the perfect mother is a myth - there is no such thing.'

Improve your baby's sleep - and your own

  • Find quiet time. Before your baby goes to sleep, calm everything down. Take her away from stimulation. Have a routine, such as drawing the curtains, putting on some music, giving her a blanket or toy to hold. Those cues are much better than patting or rocking.

  • Don't sleep with her. Doing so enforces the attachment model of parenting, and is common with first-time parents. The opposite extreme is the detached model, while Baby Love falls in between the two.

  • Don't put your baby down when she is asleep. When she wakes up, she will get anxious because suddenly the environment is different. Babies must learn to put themselves to sleep.

  • Focus on full feeds. Wake the baby if she falls asleep and she is a long way off finishing her feed.

  • Dummy chain. Put her dummy on a chain, attach it to her Babygro and from four months run your baby's hand down the chain to the dummy and show her how to put the dummy in her mouth. This way she'll learn where to find the dummy and how to put it in her mouth.

  • Don't worry, there is help
    The results of sleep deprivation can be confused with post-natal depression, and vice versa. Chat to a health professional who is qualified to diagnose PND if you're not sure what you're suffering from. A good starting point is to contact the Post-Natal Depression Support Association (PNDSA) on (021) 797 4498.

    Websites: PNDSA -
    Baby Love -

    Credit: FAIRLADY/Karen Jayes
    Published: March 2009