Like most new parents, within a few weeks of having my first baby, I was completely and utterly desperate for sleep. Sleep deprivation is a strange thing – I can see why they use it as a method of torture. You start to feel like you are living in a half world, where nothing really makes sense and your brain just won’t work properly anymore. You become clumsy, and you can’t make the simplest of decisions. You ache for the chance of a decent night’s sleep. When someone you know tells you that their baby slept through the night at a few weeks old, you feel like you might want to punch them. Anyway, some of the people in the online baby group I belonged to were talking about a book that they reckoned might help. It was called the Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford. Apparently if you followed the rules in the book exactly, you could get your baby to stop screaming to be fed all the time, and make it take regular naps, which meant that you could get a decent amount of sleep yourself. No longer would you be woken up in the night by a baby demanding to be fed. Some of the people in my baby group were scathing about the methods described in the book. They reckoned it was cruel. But, tantilised by the prospect of sleep, I swept any concerns to one side.
Having purchased the book, I set about making it work. The book told me that you had to wake your baby up at a set time even if you and/or the baby were actually asleep. When my partner caught me doing this, he raised an eyebrow but sensibly kept his mouth shut. Then you had to feed your baby for a specific amount of time, have a little play with it, wrap it up in a specific way and then make it go to sleep by the specified hour. If you needed to pop out to the shops with your baby, you mustn’t let it fall asleep in the process. The problem was, though, that my baby was having none of it. He wouldn’t fall asleep at the correct times in his cot, but he was more than happy to crash out in his car seat. He didn’t want to feed at the times the book told me and he was perfectly capable of letting me know about it if he didn’t get his own way. The idea of controlled crying was making my heart break inside, and if anything I was getting less sleep rather than more. When my partner caught me studying the book as my baby screamed, having not been out of the house for five days, he threw it out of the window and he told me that he would burn it if he ever caught me looking at it again. That Friday, I met the girls from my antenatal group at the pub for lunch, we lined our sleeping babies up in their car seats along the wall, and we had a chat and a laugh together. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
The idea that there could be a system that would get a child to do exactly what you wanted it to do, at exactly the moment when you wanted, with no potential downsides, might seem appealing. This would be especially so if the child was refusing to do what you said and you really wanted the child to do that thing. One of the problems is, though, that there is only one way to create a system that will make a child obedient at all times. And that is to wrap yourself and the child up so tightly in a set of rigid structures, that you barely have room to breathe. If the child refuses to comply, you must have a method to achieve the compliance you desire. You must put your own need for control of your child ahead of your instinctive reactions about what feels right. You must make the child fit into your vision of what matters, and not react to the child’s immediate needs. In the end, my baby figured out for himself how to sleep through the night in his own good time and I wasn’t permanently scarred by a few months without much sleep. I relaxed into the idea of being a mum, and grabbed forty winks whenever my baby took a nap. As a friend once wisely pointed out to me: he won’t still be waking up in the night when he’s fourteen. And she was right; he’s not. These days it’s all I can do to get him out of bed.