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Healthy Living

The help desk: A case of a baby that won't settle


Q. I'm the mother of a 14-month-old baby girl and I'm exhausted. The problem is that I've never managed to find a reliable way to settle her down at night. Getting her to sleep has become a monster task that seems to stretch out over the whole evening. By the time she's finally asleep, I have little energy left to catch up with my husband.

My baby doesn't seem to suffer from lack of sleep – but I do. I'm working four days a week and feel like I've got another huge job to do when I get home. All my friends swear by Gina Ford and 'controlled crying' and seem to think I'm crazy not to do it. But when I've tried to do this it just breaks my heart. It feels so wrong to hear my daughter screaming and not go to her. I'm just not strong enough. Am I being a wimp?

A. Right, I should start by nailing my colours to the mast, because the issue of sleep training is the Israel-Palestine conflict of parenting and hardly anyone is neutral. I'm not in the controlled-crying camp. It went against all my instincts and I always thought its most enthusiastic advocates tended to be the ones who liked to exert excessive control over their children in other ways, too.

Still, there seems little doubt that it works. And when you consider how rich are the rewards – child-free evenings in exchange for listening to some screaming for a night or two – it shows just how much it must cost you to be a witness to (a cause of, in fact) that distress.

I think what's adding to the stress for you is that, such is the grip of the sleep-training cult – I mean camp; sorry, it slipped out – that you're being made to feel that in not embracing a sleep regime, you have only yourself to blame for your blighted evenings.

But there are plenty of good arguments against it: that it's natural for your baby to crave contact with you; that the stress of it can alter babies' brain chemistry and ultimately make it difficult for them to learn to self-soothe; and also that if you follow it to the letter, you'll have to stick to rigid bedtime and nap-time routines for ever more, and that means goodbye spontaneity.

So, solutions. Start with some advice from a more old-fashioned expert. I found Penelope Leach to be wonderfully sensible – my mother-in-law gave me a copy of Your Baby and Child when I had my first baby. She's child-centred, but advocates a kind of wimps' version of sleep training that takes a bit longer.

Second, share the burden. Things improved for me in the evenings when my daughter's childminder gradually coaxed her to tolerate solo daytime naps. Enlist your husband, your parents or childminder to take over bedtimes when they can and let them do it in whatever way works for them. It's all less fraught when it's not you doing it, anyway.

And finally, stop beating yourself up. This phase won't last for ever and it doesn't mean you're a failure – you just won't be giving dinner parties for a while.

Your problem shared

Have a dilemma? email your predicament, no matter how big or small, to Louisa at thehelpdesk@independent.co.uk