The Holy Grail of Baby's Sleep
Hannah Shuckburgh gets to the end of the road before she finds the light that is a baby sleeping ...
Illustration by Miranda Sofroniou
There was a precise moment I resolved to sleep train my son: it was the 12th of May, 2011, 4.23am.
Adair was to be christened the next day, his gown and bonnet were laid out on a chest of drawers, my new dress hung on a padded hanger; everything had been planned and was ready: the cake iced, the drinks chilled, the flowers picked. And Adair, my five-month old baby, was supposed to be fast asleep in the brand new cot his grandparents had bought for him. But he wasn’t sleeping. Because Adair never slept. Never for longer than an hour or two at a time.
At 4.23am, as usual, Adair was crying. He would stop for a blissful few moments (as I picked him up, breastfed him, gave him a dummy) and then he would start crying again. All night. Every night. Day after day, week after week.
As the cockerel crowed, Adair was wedged – as he always tended to be, by morning – between my husband and me, as I rocked him, every few minutes popping a dummy, a boob, anything, in his mouth. Hoping for just a moment’s quiet. Just a tiny, tiny, TINY bit of sleep. Between sobs (mine and baby’s), I gripped my husband’s arm and said those words so many sleep-deprived parents have said: “I JUST CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” For every parent who chooses to sleep train their child there will be a breaking point just like this.
It was my friend Charlotte who introduced me to Vanessa Ramirez, the woman who would teach my son to sleep. Char and I were drinking our third cappuccino in a row in a shopping centre café, rocking and swivelling our prams rhythmically by the side of the table, trying to get our babies to sleep. She had heard from one of her NCT friends about this beautiful, slightly magical Columbian woman who came to your house and, within a few nights, made your child sleep through the night. I listened and was curious but knew it wasn’t the kind of thing I’d do. I mean, I don’t hire staff. Sleep trainers are for oligarchs and princesses, I said: people who employ dog-groomers and florists. And isn’t sleep training basically controlled crying, and isn’t that terribly cruel? I never left my baby to cry, I couldn’t bear it. No, it was certainly not for me.
A week later, I bumped into Char in the street. I was doing my regular frantic buggy pushing, trying to get Adair to nap. Char looked different. Elated. She grasped my hands in hers. “Vanessa is a goddess,” she said. Her baby, Woody, was, as if by magic, going to bed, quietly, at 7pm and there was not a peep from him until the following morning. So the day we got back from Wiltshire, I called Vanessa. We talked for 20 minutes as she quizzed me on our sleeping problems, and she said that as she had a cancellation she could be with us the following day.
My husband was baffled. “Who is coming to stay? A sleep trainer? A what?” The following evening, at 6.30, the doorbell rang. There she was. Smiley, a gentle accent, she wore yoga trousers, her hair tied back. She silently, without comment, watched me do Adair’s bedtime routine – his bath, his story, his last feed. I put him into his cot in his bedroom. Adair lay quietly and Vanessa and I went downstairs. My husband tried to make small talk and, as Vanessa refused all offers of food or drink, we awkwardly ate our spaghetti as she made notes on her computer. It was surreal. What on earth were we doing? I thought, as I loaded the dishwasher. At 10, we went to bed, leaving Vanessa on the sofa in our sitting room. We selected nightwear that would avoid any midnight embarrassments – my husband secured the top button of his pyjamas. We lay in bed whispering about how absurd this was, this stranger downstairs. What if she robbed us, emptied the house? Would we be insured? And then suddenly, interrupting that thought, there was a familiar sound. A whimpering noise that I knew so well. I heard Vanessa’s footsteps outside our bedroom door. I opened it and she silently held out a hand as if to say: wait.
We stood there in the half-light of the landing, me barely breathing, her looking down at her iPhone stopwatch. After a spell, she raised her head and, nodding, took my arm and led me into Adair’s room. We patted and shushed Adair and never left until he was calm. Then a strict timetable of entrances and exits from his room, logged on a stopwatch. In short, a complete overhaul of our attitude to sleep. It was to be all or nothing: her technique only works in you commit 100%. I can’t tell you exactly how she taught me to soothe him (she charges for that information) but, my God, it worked. We were in the room four more times that night, and each time the method was the same. He went back to sleep without fuss.
The following morning she issued us with a strict sleep plan, a rigorous scheduling of naps and bedtimes. There was to be no falling asleep in the pram. Naps were to be moved further apart each month, aiming to drop from three to two, and eventually to one nap. As I looked at Vanessa’s long list of instructions, I felt anxious. Adair always slept in the pram on the way back from the park. I had only once tried to put him down in the day in his cot and he’d screamed. How would I keep him awake, and then to sleep on cue? It felt daunting, impossible. How could I adapt?
Within a day, things started to change. Sticking to the instructions began to feel easier. For a week or so, Adair continued to wake several times a night, but now I didn’t take him into our bed. I learned to tiptoe in to his bedroom, soothe him and tiptoe out and back into bed. And – like a miracle, like actual magic – Adair began to stop crying in the night. And he started to sleep through. And soon after that, he learnt how to nap in his cot, too. Our lives were transformed.
A new beginning
I can’t say that I have had no interrupted nights since then. For one thing, I’ve had another baby and am breastfeeding him every few hours and doing every bad habit Vanessa advises against (he has a dummy, he sleeps in my bed, he naps in the pram). But Vanessa’s wisdom will help me sort him out, too, when the time’s right. She taught me some invaluable things: that sleep doesn’t have to be a battleground; that we all have the power to teach our children to sleep and, crucially, that there’s always light at the end of the sleepless tunnel. Her methods aren’t groundbreaking, it’s not rocket science but, for our family, it’s definitely been a kind of miracle.
Vanessa’s services start at £220. Contact 07889 722208 lulla-time.com
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