Baby whisperer: Crying out for sleep

With their baby waking up hourly, Jessie Hewitson and her husband were at their wits' end. Could a visit from a 'baby whisperer' get them an undisturbed night?

There were many side-effects of the sleep deprivation I was experiencing, but two stick out: rubbing face cleanser in my hair and shampoo in my face, and watching, stony-faced, a film that had everyone else in stitches.

Lack of sleep, as we all know, renders us humourless, teary and somewhat stupid. Had I had the luxury of eight hours – hell, even six hours – I would have been shedding tears of laughter rather than soapy pain.

The reason for my sleep starvation was textbook: I had a young baby. Ellis was a total delight by day; by night, however, he turned into an erratic human alarm clock with an aversion to well-rested parents. A combination of growth spurts, dummy-spitting and a fondness for midnight feasts meant that, at worst, we could be waking up every hour to get him back to sleep.

I lasted for nine months before I cracked – I was going back to work soon and had no idea how I'd function trapped in this fog of weariness. It felt lonely, too, not having the energy to see friends in the evening and I was squabbling with my husband more than ever.

So I did what I always do in times of crisis: I hit Google, which advised a sleep trainer; a baby-whisperer type who specialises in snore and order. Around the same time I noticed something different about a new mum I was friendly with: she was smiling and had colour in her cheeks. Turns out she had employed the services of a sleep trainer and had enjoyed 12 unbroken hours for the past two nights.

I felt a stab of pure and total hatred. The feeling passed as my well-rested friend handed over the trainer's telephone number.

And so I got in touch with Vanessa Ramirez, who agreed to help me. She ran me through the programme for our meeting: she would stay the night, find out where we were going wrong and formulate a sleep plan.

It all sounded so easy.

And how would she get him sleeping through? By using controlled crying, a gentler version of the closed-door tactics our parents swore by – and some parents often still do.

This worried me, not least because I swore before Ellis was born that I would never do it. Shades of grey had now crept in, however, as I saw the impact the interrupted sleep was having on him as well as me – our happy, pudgy baby would wake after a bad night grumpy and pale. Suddenly, not getting solid sleep during the night didn't seem in his best interests, either.

As our evening with Vanessa arrived, I felt conflicted – on the one hand massively excited about what lay ahead, but on the other, nervous about what it would take to get there. I was relieved to meet her: calm, warm and positive, she made me feel less guilty about what we were about to do; more encouraging still, she thought my dream of a full night's sleep eminently achievable.

Vanessa told us a bit about herself. Colombia-born, she has two daughters, aged 2 and 1, and worked for Lehman Brothers until the bank's collapse, one month after the birth of her first child. It was her daughter Lia who helped Vanessa discover her talent and inspired a career change. As Lia would sleep for no longer than two hours in a row, her mother set about learning how to help her settle down for the night. Soon she was snoring the night away and Vanessa began to help friends with their own insomniac infants. Such was her success rate that they suggested she make a career out of it.

Talking to her, it became apparent what our problem was. Basically, my solution to Ellis' nocturnal waking had been to hit the bottle. We had created a strong association between milk and sleep, as whenever he did awake at night we would feed him until he was snoring again. The milk, Vanessa explained, was a prop (dummies and rocking to sleep are, too), and Ellis didn't know how to sleep without it.

Vanessa explained that babies often do wake in the night – their usual sleep cycle is just 45 minutes long – but the good sleepers will be able to re-settle themselves rather than screaming for you to do it for them.

She also pointed out that the daytime naps were of vital importance to him sleeping well at night, too. We didn't have any routine and Vanessa suggested we should start keeping to the same nap times each day, ideally one morning nap of an hour-and-a-half and an afternoon nap lasting the same amount of time, too.

The crunch time was 11pm. Up until Vanessa's visit, Ellis woke at this time for a bottle – without it, theoretically, he could sleep from 7pm until 7am. This was when the controlled crying would come in: I was to leave him for 10 minutes once he woke, then shush-pat for 15 (rubbing him on the back, saying: "Shush") – unless he stopped crying for longer than 30 seconds, in which case I was to leave the room – and repeat, until he fell asleep.

Ellis woke shortly after 11pm and the crying began. It escalated over the next 10 minutes and by the time Vanessa and I stepped into his room he was horribly distressed, grabbing at me to pull him out of the cot and distraught when I laid him back down. I did as Vanessa suggested – patted his back, saying: "Shush" and "Sleepy time" – and tried to remain strong for Ellis, even though I felt shocked by the intensity of his upset.

It seemed contrary to my instincts to see my little boy in this state and not give him the milk to make it all better.

Fifteen horrible minutes later, Vanessa tapped me on the shoulder to leave the room.

During the next 10 minutes, while we waited in the living room hearing the howls coming from next door, Vanessa reassured me that his crying was normal in context. I wasn't sure and felt queasy with doubt. Was I was screwing up my son for the sake of a lie-in?

The rest of the hour it took to get Ellis asleep went by in a blur of shush-patting him in his room and waiting next door, all the while trying to suppress a rising panic. When he finally went to sleep, I stumbled back to bed feeling dazed while Vanessa stayed in the living room (she never sleeps while on a job). The silence now felt oppressive, laden with guilt. Vanessa would come and wake me to repeat the whole ghastly process when Ellis next woke – an utterly depressing thought.

Only it never happened. Amazingly, the next time Vanessa knocked on my door it was 6.10am. Ellis had slept through! A wave of total relief swept through me that we didn't have to go through the controlled crying again, quickly followed by a fear that Ellis might never forgive me for what I had put him through. I rushed up to his cot and picked him up, hugging him tight.

He was grumpy – as is his way for the first five minutes after waking – then flashed me a huge smile. We had got through it. At some point during the terrible tears, our son had learned how to sleep for himself and the next night he proved it – by sleeping from 7pm until 6.15am.

Undoubtedly we caused Ellis huge distress for an hour – but I like to believe that the end justified the means. I now believe there is nothing shallow about reclaiming your sleep and I'm not sure I could have done what it took to get there without Vanessa providing her encouragement. Sleep is vital to happiness and without it, it's hard to think quickly or positively. Three months later, we have our nights back and a routine for his daytime naps.

I now have more of a social life, can laugh again at funny films and even shower without half-blinding myself.



Vanessa Ramirez charges £120 for a complete consultation package (which includes a 12-hour sleepover, sleep plan and unlimited email and telephone consultation) and £80 for a refresher package. 07889 722 208; www.lulla-time.com

Vanessa's tips

* Avoid using props to get your baby to sleep – so no dummies, rocking, bouncing or feeding (breast or bottle) to sleep.



* Aim to put your child in the cot while sleepy but not asleep. That way they will learn to develop their own strategies to fall – and stay – asleep by themselves.



* Put into place a five-minute nap routine that signals to your baby that nap time is approaching – read a book, sing a song, close the curtains or say goodnight to the bedroom objects.



* Sleep is a 24-hour process: keep consistent nap times during the day, and try not to let your baby get over-tired. Ideally, your child should sleep in the same place during the day as he or she does at night.



* Write down your child's nap times, then if you have a good day, you can see what worked and repeat it. In this way you will find patterns more obvious, too.



* Don't rush in and get your child up when he or she first wakes. Leave them for ten minutes or so, as they might go back to sleep.



* Between the ages of seven and 14 months, most babies nap twice a day. As the baby approaches 12 months, one of those naps is likely to be shorter (usually the afternoon one). At 14 months most babies start making the transition from two naps to one (generally around midday).

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