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Losing Control

Louise Hartley

All week I look forward to my new-mumsí group. Every Wednesday we stagger into each otherís houses, toting babies and tragi-comic tales of life as a new mum. But, much as I love my mumsí group, I always dread the conversation touching on the topic of sleep. In fact, everyone I meet as some point asks the dreaded question: `Is he sleeping through the night yet?í

Is he ever has become my standard response. Because my darling, angelic, baby boy is a sleep-terrorist in disguise. Every three, sometimes two, on good nights four hours he needs my breast and, as he continues to wake, a full nightís undisturbed sleep becomes a blissful, far-off memory of a different, younger me. Week-by-week another of the mums tells us that things are getting easier now that their babies are sleeping through the night, while I bite my lip, cuddle my baby and wonder what it is that we are doing wrong.

`Surely he should be sleeping longer by now,í worries my mother as I mumble my way, half-asleep, through another phone call. `Oh, I donít know how you cope,í console the other mums.

And, to the health nurse, I confess: I lie. `Oh, heís only waking up once a night now,í I tell her when asked.

`Well thatís okay, if itís just once,í she replies. Oh, if only she knew the truth. But I canít tell her. Iím so ashamed. Itís like being back in school again and being the only one who forgot to do the homework. You see, itís all my own fault; I didnít do as I was told and now Iím paying for it.

You see, at the first meeting of our new-mumsí group we were sat down by the nurse to watch an innocuously named video, Itís Time to Sleep. `Oh, how nice,í I thought, as pictures of blissfully snoozing babies were accompanied by a softly-spoken, matronly nurse who told us that soon our babies would be sleeping if we followed her program. But, minutes later I recoiled and clutched my three-month-old baby closer to me. The happily slumbering babes were now screaming and squealing, sobbing their hearts out in their bassinets. And the now-not-so-sweet nurse was leaning over and patting them. `Whatís she patting them for?í I was aghast, `canít she see they need a cuddle? Canít she pick them up?í But, the video assured us that this was the only way our babies would ever learn to sleep `independentlyí. And our health nurse concurred that this `controlled comfortingí would work for all babies and advised us that `at some point you will be desperate for them to sleep and then you will do it.í

Well, nobody, not even the cat, is left to cry in our house. So I didnít do the homework, yes, the controlled crying (sorry comforting) was in all seriousness set as our homework for the week. And so my son fails to sleep through the night. He is dependent on my breast to sooth himself back to sleep when he wakes. He hasnít learnt to soothe himself to sleep.

And itís not just nighttime: weíre a daytime disaster too. Samuel naps an hour here, two hours there and, horror of horrors, he often sleeps in his sling (the nurse singled me out as a warning to all the other mumsí in the group for that oneójust as I was blithely telling them how much he loved sleeping snuggled in his little pouch). Two hours up, two hours down is how we were instructed. Well, maybe I need to buy Sam a stopwatch, because although his napping has finally become vaguely regular, he has never conformed to such a strict schedule.

If I am so tired and so desperate, why didnít I just comply with the nurse? Well, in over the past year I have discovered a sense that I never knew I had: my instinct. My instinct tells me not to let my baby cry. On those rare occasions when I have heard him scream (stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, where I canít free him from his car seat), I feel like a knife is jabbing into my stomach and slowly twisting around. I feel physical pain. I get hot. I sweat. And every fibre of my being tells me that this is not right and that I must comfort my baby.

`How long am I supposed to let him cry for?í asked one mum a few weeks after watching the controlled-comforting video. `Sometimes heíll cry for an hour until heís hoarse and he still doesnít sleep.í

I am sure she, like me, feels great distress when her baby cries and has to force herself not to respond. If the feeling is so strong, why do we try to ignore it? Why do we suppress our instinct and rely so heavily on others for advice? Why do we consult manuals and instruction books, instead of paying attention to our inner wisdom?

It wasnít until I became pregnant that I discovered my ability to trust my own body. From the first moment I realised my aching breasts signified a child growing inside me, my mind opened up to my bodyís signals. I comfortably rejected all ante-natal testing, certain that my baby was healthy. My family urged me to have an ultrasound scan, `so you know that thereís nothing wrong with the babyí; as if I needed a doctorís confirmation before I could bond with my growing child. I chose to birth my baby at home, confident in my ability to bring him safely into the world. To birth my baby alone (watched and quietly encouraged by my midwives), to let my body take over and do its job so perfectly convinced me that my body knows how to provide for and nurture my child.

The opposite of my experience is the complete lack of confidence engendered by the conventional hospital births that my friends experienced: `I needed the epiduralí. `I wasnít able to pushí and `I wasnít progressingí are typical negative tales. How, then, are these women, out in the world with their newborn babies, expected to trust the bodies that `failedí them when they needed most to be strong.

At our mumsí group this lack of confidence applies to that most fundamental art of breast-feeding. My friends simply do not trust their own bodiesí ability to nourish their babies. Some started with the top-up feeds of formula in the evening, `just to make sure theyíve had enoughí and now we have the introduction of solids at three, four or five months, despite the six-month recommendation. Everyone is aiming for the magic eight-kilos, at which the nurse told us that our babies are physically capable of sleeping for ten hours.

But, now here comes the rub: our babies are now five months old and teething is setting in. I canít help feeling smug as one by one the mumsí stagger into our meetings complaining that their baby was up all night again. Yes, babies may be `physically capableí of sleeping, but there are myriad emotional and developmental barriers for them to overcome before they will allow us the luxury of sleeping soundly all night long. And if weíre really honest, itís about us. Itís us parents who want to sleep all night. Just as we drive our cars, instead of walking up those steep Melbourne hills, we would rather take the path of least resistance. In our society there is always an easy way out. We aim to avoid pain.

However, in birthing Sam I tackled the pain head-on. I surrendered to it, then I let it guide me, and worked with it to bring my son into the world. In our society, this is one of the least-talked-about aspects of child birth: the suffering and subsequent triumph. It is a rite of passage. It is the most important one that we women have and we are giving it up without realizing that we need the inner strength it imparts to us. We can take the easy way out, we can apply the quick fix solution to anything nowadays. We donít have to suffer and we are looked at askance if we imply there might be any benefit in it.

The peer pressure is intense: friends, mothers, aunties press us to conform and to fit our babies into our lives, training them to create the minimum of disruption for us. Not only our we told to `be firmí and ignore our own instincts, we are told to ignore our babiesí attempts to communicate with us in the only way they know how: with their cries.

Though sometimes it is so hard and I am so desperately tired I remember that I do know how to be strong and I keep listening to Sam and the voice inside me. And, my boy and I are coping in our own unique way. I did consult experts for a while, but in truth, only those who backed up my own instincts: Dr Sears; James McKenna; Elizabeth Pantley; and a lovely lady on the ABA helpline whose calm reassurance that my babyís night feeding is perfectly normal made me resolve to enjoy his utter dependence upon me while I can. I discovered the beauty of sleeping side by side with Sam, of carrying him in a sling, and a baby-hammock that I hired in desperation one day has eased him gently into a daytime napping routine. In the end, I find that the difficult days fade faster in my memory than the good ones. Sam and I walk up a lot of hills together. The path of least resistance is not for us.

Louise Hartley has a PhD in Astrophysics, (ďno qualifications of any relevance to birth or parentingĒ) and is mum to six-month-old Samuel, and stepmum to Rhys (8) and Caitlin (6).

This article was first published in Birth Matters Vol 9.2 June 2005, pp18-19†† email: