Dirty Laundry: When children won’t sleep, parents get desperate

Aisha Sultan

Ginger Allington was getting up around the clock to nurse her baby back to sleep.

Neither she nor her husband had slept much for months, and Allington says she remembers thinking: “We need to get him to sleep longer or I’m going to die.”

Her husband, Adam, described that period of time as the “widow maker.”

For those who doubt the desperation that parents feel when they suffer from acute or chronic sleep loss, consider that sleep deprivation is allegedly among the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on detainees at Abu Ghraib.

Getting your child to fall asleep and stay asleep can be one of the most painful challenges of parenthood. I recall those hazy years when I was nursing a baby, then pregnant with the next and nursing again. For a 5-year stretch, an uninterrupted night of sleep seemed like an out-of-reach dream.

When Allington, 31, hit the sleep wall, her son was about 6 months old. She is a doctoral student in biology at St. Louis University and took a scientific approach to the situation: She read five books in three days on getting your baby to sleep.

“It was the worst idea ever,” she said. “I went from distraught to more distraught.”

Each book advocated a different approach and claimed the alternative was absolutely the wrong thing to do. They decided to seek professional help. They went to St. Luke’s Hospital n St. Louis, Mo., to meet with the “Sleep Lady,” Nancy Birkenmeier, a legend among sleepless parents. She creates a detailed plan for families to help their child sleep better. Her plans seem like a kinder, more compassionate approach to the strict Ferber method, which advocates teaching babies to self-soothe by crying for a set amount of time before being comforted by parents. For some, letting a baby cry unattended is too difficult to bear.

Birkenmeier understands this.

“This can be really painful if (parents) go into it halfway. You need to have a plan because (the baby) will outlast you any night of the week.”

In her plan, she has one parent, who typically does not handle night wakings, take charge of the routine. The other parent, typically the mother, leaves the house two hours before bedtime. The father comes in for “timed visits” each time the child gets up. The interval between visits gradually stretches, over a period of days, from every five minutes to 10 or 15 minutes. Birkenmeier says she doesn’t believe in letting a child cry for long stretches of time without parental contact.

She sees parents of babies as young as 5 months old up to 12 years old.

The most common mistakes she sees parents making is trying too many different approaches to sleep training based on advice from friends and family without having a set plan in place. And, too often, parents blame themselves for their child’s sleep troubles.

“Life happens,” she says, sympathetically. “No one sits downs and says we need to have a sleep problem. It always happens accidentally.”

And baby sleep habits, like other hot-button parenting issues such as nursing versus bottle feeding, bring out the wrath and judgment from others.

We want our choices validated, especially the difficult ones. We want to be affirmed that we’ve done the right thing. I remember feeling desperate and envious of friends with babies who slept through the night. I tried to let my eldest baby cry for a short while and fall back asleep on her own. It felt like I was fighting my parental instincts and going against my biological imperative to help my crying child.

I’m sure I made every classic sleep mistake with her ending up in our bed most nights. And, as exhausted as I was, I felt just as guilty for creating the problem.

“Mothers beat themselves up,” Birkenmeier said. But there may be situations such as ear infections, thunderstorms, holidays, vacations or visiting in-laws that mean you end up with few options other than co-sleeping. It’s fixable and can get better, she says.

Allington said they tried the plan Birkenmeier created for them, and it helped in the short term. But then, their son was either teething or sick and seemed completely traumatized by it. He screamed relentlessly, and Birkenmeier agreed they needed to take a break from it.

“So, basically, we flunked out of sleep training,” Allington said.

Now, their 9-month-old son gets up once or twice a night, nurses and falls back asleep, and Allington has made peace with this. It’s better than where they were before.

“This is something I can deal with. … We’ve reached a stage we can live with it,” she said.

She has also accepted a controversial truth when it comes to babies and sleep: A child’s emotional and biological makeup will influence how much and how well he or she sleeps.

“Maybe we’re not technically perfect,” she said. “But I’ve written myself a pass. … I was stressing myself so much more by berating myself with all the things we were probably doing wrong.”

The angst surrounding kids’ sleep may well explain the meteoric success of the satiric children’s bedtime book written for parents: “Go the F*** To Sleep.”

The reaction of so many parents has been: Amen.

Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at asultan@post-dispatch.com