I Break Horses


I sit on the rocking chair in Rosa’s bedroom while she sleeps in my arms, her head nestled next to my cheek. Her hair is fluffy and smells of the lovely baby shampoo we were given by her aunt and also of that sweet, universal baby smell. I am thinking about how content and joyful she is, and wondering how much of that is down to genes and how much is down to what we have done for her in her first 6 months on earth. We have given her everything every time she has wanted it: every time she has cried we have picked up and cuddled her; we have fed and rocked her to sleep and re-fed and re-rocked many many times each evening and night. We have held her in our arms for hours and hours and tried and failed to put her down and picked her up again. She is so, so loved and we are such a terribly soft touch and so very tired.

Babies play tricks on their parents, like sleeping for quite long stretches and making you feel quite smug until they are 4 months old then SUDDENLY waking every hour of the night. Or they settle quite well each night until they are 6 months old then SUDDENLY they need to be held for two hours every evening before you can put them down, and then can only be put down for an hour and then must sleep on you ALL NIGHT else they scream and cry and you will do anything, anything for just a bit of sleep. There are lots of tricks, but they all centre around the very dispiriting fact that lots of babies get worse at sleeping as they get older, not better.

Our baby is beautiful and bright and funny and lovely; people tell us this and it is true. But there are times – like when she FINALLY sleeps after an hour of exhausting, back-breaking jiggling and when you try and put her down she is suddenly WIDE awake and screaming and you have to go through the whole thing again; or at 3am when she keeps waking unless you keeping getting out of the warm bed and rocking her until she finally falls into a deeper sleep at 5am; or when she actually sleeps for a long stretch but you are so stressed and sad and frustrated and wound up and full of rage that you lie silently in the dark for four hours, awake, exhausted, occasionally googling things like “can people die of sleep deprivation”  – there are times when this cannot help you.

Wait it out

Attachment parenting – whose tenets I mostly agree with – argues that babies just need to be nurtured and cared for and in the end they will sleep by themselves and for longer stretches, but of course WHEN is anyone’s guess. They could be one, or maybe nearer two, and what about mothers and fathers and their sanity? This website casually breezes over hundreds and thousands of hours of parental night-time desolation by saying “This phase of nighttime parenting will pass soon”. Whenthefuckissoon? So much of motherhood requires self-abnegation, but it would be nice for a parent’s needs not to be totally erased in the equation. The fact that the baby is gorgeous is used as a reason for you just to have to put up with it, when the two things are not really linked – your baby may well be lovely but you are truly exhausted, and it seems like the second fact is seen as irrelevant just because the first is true.

Don’t wait it out

So it becomes clear that we must DO SOMETHING, but every option is so unappealing. In the “old days”, as I understand it, people would leave the baby at the bottom of the garden in the pram to cry, or they would shut the bedroom door and let them cry and in the end these babies would learn to sleep by themselves and not need mum or dad to put them back to sleep when they wake up. Nowadays “sleep training” is some people’s profession and there are thousands of words written on the internet for desperate parents to read. The blogs are full of terms like the baby “fussing” or “protesting” when you first attempt to teach them to sleep more independently and I wish they would just say it: screaming, crying, wailing, whimpering. Of course most parents find it heart wrenching to hear their baby cry; to “let” their baby cry and only respond in the kind of lukewarm way recommended by sleep trainers; to “leave” a baby to cry. It seems to go against every parental instinct when in every other scenario when they are tired or sad or ill or cranky we respond to them with a massive love-bomb.

I told a friend who had never heard of the term “sleep trainer” that you could pay someone to come to your house for the night partly to teach the baby to sleep and partly restrain you from diving in the room to pick up the baby up. “So they come to your house and break them?”, she said. The argument goes that some crying in the short-term is better for everyone in the long-term. And I will have to do lots of difficult things for my child that she may not like at the time but that will be better for her overall. But it is hard to know whether the night I say “I cannot go on like this”, and the third and fourth and fifth and sixth nights I say this is actually a turning point or just more of the same exhausting equivocating. I am the WORST person to deal with this: I am indecisive and my indecision is ratcheted up sleep deprivation; I am a massive wimp about my baby crying; and she also seems to have a particularly heartbreaking cry, but I’m sure ALL parents feel this!

With pre-verbal babies you cannot explain to them “hey, so you know we’ve been getting you to sleep via breastfeeding or rocking or jiggling – well that’s all over now and I’m going to put you in your cot and you’re going to be baffled and cry and cry and probably in the end you’ll go to sleep, then we’ll do that again every time you need to nap or sleep for a few more weeks until you’ve nailed it”. This is CRAZY but I can’t help but draw parallels with our dear old cat being put down when I was 18, when the very worst thing of it was her just lying there looking at me before the act, not knowing what was coming. I am not putting my baby down – things are not that desperate yet – but it feels like some similar act of betrayal, not being able to explain to her what is about to happen. It feels like I am breaking some code or bond of trust between us. BUT we cannot go on like this. Right?!

So that’s me, flailing around and failing to make a decision about my daughter’s sleep habits and fixating on unhelpful analogies like my childhood cat being put down. Hopefully when I write again in the new year, I will have more cheerful sleep news to report! And I hope everyone has a restful and happy break.



2 Responses to “I Break Horses”

  1. I love you George. This is amazing. You manage to capture how we have all felt at some point. This is the part of parenting I fear the human race shields from young women. If true honesty was shared young intelligent women would 100% decide not to go down years of sleep deprivation. Who would?! The human race alas would be no more.
    At 2 and 4 I forget how lucky I am to be able to sleep for 8 or 9 hours straight. Sometimes. If I went to bed at the same time the boys do (which sometimes happens) I can get 12 hours. Again, occasionally. I am not gloating. Just trying to give you hope. Wanting to be held for 3 hours straight turns into needing the toilet 8 times a night to having a nightmare about NOT WANTING TO GO TO ASDA AGAIN or deciding that 4am is just about right to wake the house up with a rendition of Postman Pat….

    That’s why all parents have one thing in common. No matter how perfect their little ones are, or sweet, or clever, we share the secret of the human race…. it’s appalling. Just don’t tell anyone!

  2. Oh Luce this comment is brilliant. Especially the bit about having a nightmare about going to Asda – a very valid fear I feel xxx

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