Monday, 31 May 2010


Are any of us getting enough? As if I'm not already obsessed by the matter, earlier this month journalists reported that you are 12% more likely to die prematurely if you regularly get less than six hours sleep a night (or more than nine hours, though sadly this is unlikely to ever worry me). Sleep turns out to be surprisingly like sex: inevitably ruined by the onset of children and at its most addictive when you're not getting quite enough. Well, it's official. Your children not only prematurely age you, they might actually kill you.

As if you can't guess, the Boo doesn't sleep. K emerges each morning as if he's spent the night in the trenches (presumably why he's taken to sleeping in Beijing these days*) and I exist in a semi-permanent coma. My mother sagely points out to me that in his nearly five months the Boo has been to a rock concert, a hen weekend, an upmarket stag weekend, a 40th birthday party and a wedding. And has concluded that nighttime is for partying and that sleep is for wimps.

So far this year I've had somewhere between no sleep and five broken hours a night. In desperation I considered a night nanny before realising that I'm already too guilt-ridden a mother to employ one. It's the old parenting spectrum: at one end are the parent-led routines beloved of Gina Ford and nannies everywhere, and at the other end are the baby-led theories (much in the news of late) beloved of Penelope Leach, Oliver James and hippies everywhere.

The 'parent-led' lot have made a fortune by writing instruction manuals for the clueless, with much talk about 'good habits' and 'routines', and 'sleep training your baby' as if it were a dog. Of course, they are responsible for instilling the myth that as a parent you should be able to maintain cool control over a 7am-7pm sleeping baby and solve all your problems (hence The Baby Whisperer Solves all your Problems). Hell, the Boo is not a problem, he's a baby...and the last thing I need is to be made to feel like a poor excuse for a mother because having a baby has disrupted normal life.

On the other hand, the 'baby-led' camp believes in giving yourself over to the needs of your child as much as you can: breastfeed them until they wean themselves, let them sleep in your bed until they voluntarily get into their own, carry them everywhere until they walk, don't leave them to cry in case they grow up to be emotionally stunted. But the Boo is just a baby, and really it's neither fair nor sensible to eschew all the tricky parenting decisions of when and how and leave it up to him instead. And I'm highly suspicious of any parenting theory that proves its unassailable logic by pointing to the fact that this is what cave men, or Amazonian tribal folk, or our impoverished ancestors have always done. (Believe that, and I'll gladly relieve you of your hoover, washing machine, TV and car for a week or two. Then we'll see how you cope.) No thank you - I won't be made to feel like an inadequate mother because I frequently run out of the energy and patience to meet my baby's every demand.

Isn't it time we were honest and admitted that we all parent according to our own tolerance level? We all have a breaking point at which we have to say Enough, and start trying less hard. Mine was at about 12 weeks of serious sleep deprivation when I reached the point of realising the Boo had actually 'sleep trained' me. When you've had Enough, then treat yourself to a read of Tom Hodgkinson's The Idle Parent. It is every bit as comforting as a chocolate bar, with the rare benefit of making you feel much better about yourself.

The Real Contented Little Baby Book isn't published, but every baby has read it. Let's take a sneaky peak at an extract:

7pm - the tiring parent will put you in your cot. Do not make it too easy for them: it is very important that they do not grow complacent in their parenting skills. Wait to observe their first yawn and then begin your protest.

7.30 - appear to give in and get yourself 30 or 40 minutes kip to recharge your batteries for the next stage

8.15 - scream inconsolably. Typically the parent is just sitting down to eat, but you must train them to serve your needs first. They will probably blame wind or colic and start endlessly patting your back. No matter - they will almost certainly get you out of your cot in the attempt to find a cure.

9pm - provided you've kept up the grumbling they'll believe that you must be hungry. It is very important to take this feed quietly as then you'll probably be allowed to have it in front of the TV.

9.30 - poo explosively (complete change of clothing preferable). The parent must not be allowed to rest for long or you'll miss out on your evening's entertainment.

10pm - the parent will repeat the 7pm procedure and put you back in your cot. It is very important that you protest at this time in the evening, or they might start having sex and the last thing you want is a sibling to usurp your place in their attentions. Wail with all the strength you can muster.

10.30 - you will probably be taken from your room for fear of waking elder siblings or neighbours. We call this 'pick up put down'. The parent must be made to learn that only by picking you up will you be quiet. You may have to do this 128 times on the first night, about 57 time on the second and probably only 23 times on the third. Be reassured by the knowledge that most poor parenting behaviour can be reversed in about three days. The key is being consistent: start as you mean to go on, and don't be afraid to show them who is younger and has the most energy.

11.30 - by now the parent will be tiring, and should soon give up and take you into their bed. They will believe that if they give you a large bottle of milk at this point you'll sleep, so make sure you take it all, otherwise you'll lack the energy for your 2am feed...

...Aaarghh. And so to bed.

*Note to self to avoid any enterprise involving husband + air travel. The man is a proven travel jinx (see On Destiny and To the Hermitage by Ambulance). This time, he was involved in a motorway car crash on day of arrival, and then overslept and missed his plane back.