LONDON – When my friend Hannah had a baby, someone gave her “Go the F—k to Sleep,” the bedtime story written by an exasperated New York dad whose toddler was driving him nuts at night.
It’s a picture book for grownups, full of swearing and darkly comic thoughts about children. And so Hannah duly read the book to her newborn for weeks before realizing the gift was intended for her.
“They really should make that plainer for sleep-deprived new parents,” she sighed. Which is why the recent announcement — that the hit book is to become a major Hollywood film — is such a surprise. It’s a great book, but surely it only has one joke, and one that only tired parents will find funny — if they’re awake enough to get it.
It turns out that the joke is enough to support not just a movie but an entire industry, because tired parents are everywhere now, and they’ve never been more anxious … or gullible. There are electronic mobiles that play lullabies above the crib. White-noise CDs that soothe your child to sleep with the soft brrr of the back of a fridge, to remind them of the mother’s heartbeat. DVDs like “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” wherein Californian pediatric guru Dr. Karp suggests that crying babies have an off switch if you wrap them into swaddling robes at the right angle. We have become neurotic wondering if we should leave our babies to cry it out in their cots or clutch them to our bosom at all times.
We have come such a long way from the simple lullaby. Look at that word lullaby — so beautiful; onomatopoeic, even. There is an Indian lullaby about the Moon Uncle, who lives far away, eating delicious sweetmeats and offering some in a bowl to the baby.
There is an Iraqi lullaby that is so sad it is also sung at funerals, with lyrics suggesting the mother’s desires for “your enemies to be sick and far in the barren desert.”
Unfortunately, my 19-month-old daughter doesn’t get many such lullabies from me, as by bedtime I am often ready to lie down and be sick in a barren desert myself. Bedtime in our house, on a bad day, is less about singing and more about me hiding in the next room wondering how cruel it is to just shut my eyes and wait for the wailing to stop.
Yet it seems to me that things used to be simple, in my parents’ day, and my generation has made them complicated. Is all the information on psychological damage actually causing the damage? How is this huge industry making us feel?
I asked baby sleep expert Andrea Grace if she thought new parents were getting too hung up on all this. She said not: “Having a baby who doesn’t sleep can have a massive impact on a parent’s health, happiness and relationship.” Having said that, “where people tend to go wrong is by ‘overhelping’ their baby to fall asleep at the start of the night by feeding or rocking.
“Then when the baby naturally wakes in the night at the end of a sleep cycle, they don’t know how to put themselves back to sleep. So they need to be rocked again.”
Before I became a parent, I heard about these strict schedules, like the one laid out by Gina Ford in her controversial best-seller “The Contented Little Baby Book.” Stunned by what I saw as control-freakery and barbarism I resolved to put my baby to my breast when she was hungry, and there she would fall into deep slumber. How proud I would be to stroll around London with my sling, looking like a Flintstone. And I wasn’t even sure about cots at all. I mean, you don’t see other mammals leaving their young to sleep alone in a different room, do you? I would tend to her tears in my own bed. I would sing her to sleep. She would not cry.
Then I gave birth to an actual human being, and found that I needed help. Urgently. Dummies, cots, mobiles. Grandparents to rock her. My daughter’s father left when she was a few months old, and it was a challenge not to get stressed. My milk dried up and so formula (known as satanic nectar on the Internet) saved the day. In homage to the hippy parent I thought I was going to be, I gave her a goat’s-milk based one. But that was it. All my romantic ideas were otherwise out the window. Controlled crying was in.
Yet there is always guilt. By the late-night glow of the laptop, I read reports saying it was damaging to the child’s psyche to be left to cry themselves to sleep. Online forums said triumphant things like: “Would you leave your husband to cry himself to sleep? No? Then I rest my case!” and I would think: “Oh god, they’re right.” Then, after finally getting some decent sleep, having given in to controlled crying regardless and got her to sleep through the night in two nights flat, I would think: “Hang on — of course my husband wouldn’t cry himself to sleep — a 40-year-old man with full access to the English language uses tears for something significantly different from tiredness.” (He also probably wouldn’t stand up in his bed and thrash about to demonstrate how tired he was, or puke all down himself like babies do — well, not without a kebab being involved, at least.) And I haven’t even got a husband — it’s just me crying myself to sleep because I’m so effing tired. In short, I realized that controlled crying looked like the worst thing in the world when I was sleep deprived myself, and a perfectly reasonable compromise when baby and I had both spent a nice night in our beds. Snoring.
Still, the academic jury remains out. As psychologist Suky Macpherson told me: “This theme is massively controversial, with no clear answers. You’ll find most psychologists divided on the topic, depending on whether they come from a psychoanalytic framework or a more behaviorist one.
All my residual guilt about finally evaporated recently, when my daughter invented a game where she would lie her teddies on my bed, say: “ni-night” and then leave the room. For three seconds. Then come back in and repeat the process, before bellowing: “ni-night!” and leaving again.
She thought it was hysterical. I couldn’t help reflecting that she didn’t seem horribly scarred by our bedtime routine. Instead she found it funny.
And then there’s the child’s need to be asleep, too. On the British TV series which ended this week called “Bedtime Live,” Professor Tanya Byron advised families: “Children’s brains release growth hormones when they sleep, so it’s vital they get enough sleep for their age group to give them the best start.”
Academics in Barcelona discovered that 6- and 7-year-olds who sleep eight or nine hours perform worse at school than those who sleep 10 to 11 hours.
Meanwhile, American research has linked the childhood obesity epidemic not just to diet and exercise but also to lack of sleep.
Perhaps “Go the F—k to Sleep” is not just a funny picture book — it has touched a real nerve. We’ve read all the research and we don’t want strict routines, but we don’t want to be a deranged pushover either. What’s the compromise?
Well, I know what the compromise is in my family. My parents have been staying a lot recently, and my 80-year-old father comes into his own at bedtime. A slower, steady presence, he sits beside my baby in the half light, rubbing her back and laying her down in her cot again, gently singing her the two songs that he knows by heart, “Jerusalem” and “Waltzing Matilda.” It can easily take him 45 minutes to get her to sleep when, left to my own harsher devices, I might have it done in 15. His is the gentler way.
How I wish sometimes we lived like my parents used to, my mother taking a few years off work to raise her babies in a farming village in Yorkshire, north England. She breastfed for longer than I managed to, didn’t need pain relief with her natural labor. I ask her how she got me to sleep at night.
“Well,” she admits, “you were a terrible sleeper. Just the worst. Until I went to the chemist and he gave me Phenergan, a sedative antihistamine that knocked you out.” My face falls. “It was legal in the 1970s,” she continues. “Over the counter in Boots! We were all using that. But even that wasn’t enough, so the doctor prescribed you Vallergan, and then we all got some peace.” This is entirely new information. My parents drugged me to sleep!
“I did start to worry that I had turned my baby into an actual drug addict,” continues my mother, “so I took you off it eventually.” I imagine the baby me, stuck in a cot and going cold turkey like Renton in “Trainspotting.” If my mother hadn’t gone on to have such a long and illustrious career in child protection, I’d be tempted to make some enquiries. So I ask her what happened when she took me off the drugs. She looks into the middle distance.
“Your dad used to go upstairs and read you stories in the half light,” she replies. “And sing to you. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Jerusalem,’ I think, for hours and hours, until you finally drifted off to sleep.”