My daughter Leah was an extremely agitated infant who slept very poorly. Our pediatrician assured us that the problem was not a medical one, but we never fully understood what had her so upset and out of sorts.
By the time she was three months old, my entire life was focused on helping her get some good sleep. I hired two sleep consultants, read every book on sleep available, but found no answers or magic cures. What I knew I could not do was leave her alone to “cry it out.” Instinctively I knew she was struggling with something that she needed my help with, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave her alone.
So… I spent hours a day sitting in a rocking chair in a darkened room with her in my arms. Blackout shades and a sound machine made our bedroom a sleeping haven (at least it seemed that way to me!), but she could not succumb easily to sleep and could not stay asleep for more than ten minutes without my arms around her. I had found that sucking appeased her quite well, and I had allowed her to grow accustomed to nursing or taking a bottle, and eventually sucking on a pacifier to stay asleep. The problem was that she couldn’t stay asleep unless something was in her mouth to suck on. I had to stay with her and keep the pacifier in her mouth or it would fall out and she’d wake and cry until I put it back in.
I knew the pacifier—and the need to suck in order to fall asleep and stay asleep—was a habit I had allowed her to develop, and that the only way she was ever going to be able to sleep deeply and independently, was if I helped her give up the pacifier. I tried some different methods I had read about—gentle ways to help a baby “ease off” the nipple so as not to require it for sleep, but the methods never seemed to work.
Around this time I learned about lovingly listening to babies cry by reading Althea Solter’s book, The Aware Baby. It reminded me that, years before, I had been introduced to Patty Wipfler’s approach to helping children with their feelings, and so I looked her up. I found that not only was Patty still working with parents and children, but she was starting a Building Emotional Understanding class for parents the very next week, and only a mile from my home! The class was where I learned about “Staylistening,” and got the support I needed to be able to listen to my daughter’s deep feelings.
I realized right away that I needed to help my daughter with the feelings that were being held in place by the pacifier. One night when we were doing our bedtime routine (bath, bottle, pacifier and rocking in the rocking chair), I told her after she finished her bottle that I wasn’t going to give her the pacifier anymore, but that I would stay right with her while she had her feelings. Holding her little body in my arms that night while she thrashed and cried, arching her back, turning all red, sweating profusely, and screaming in what sounded like agony, was the hardest thing I’d done as a parent. It was even harder than giving birth! Tears streamed down my face while I held her in my arms, offering her eye contact, and telling her gently but with conviction that she was safe, and that I wouldn’t leave until she felt peaceful. That night I listened for an excruciating hour and a half. When she was done crying, her body relaxed and she slept more deeply than she ever had.
The next night, and for three more nights after that, I listened lovingly to my daughter cry for forty-five minutes before she could sleep. It was still quite hard for me and I needed to cry afterward in order to recover from the experience. But her sleep was improving—she could now stay asleep for a two-hour stretch (at night) without me holding her, and without sucking on anything! It felt like a miracle. And knowing that I had found a way to help my daughter made me feel much, much better about myself as a parent. For the first time I felt the sweet confidence that my love and attention could indeed make a huge difference for my child.
After that, my daughter would still cry in my arms before falling asleep, but her cries were much shorter and far less intense. Her dad started taking turns putting her to bed. He agreed to listen to her in the way I had learned: offering eye contact and speaking to her gently. We noticed that when he put her down she would cry intensely again for long stretches—sometimes for a half an hour or more. This was interesting since she didn’t cry as much with me anymore. We realized that there were feelings she could get at with her dad that she was unable to reach with me because my body had become a sort of “comfort” that soothed her away from her feelings. During these times of listening, my daughter and her father began to develop a deep bond that they both enjoy to this day—deeper than what I’ve seen many children get to have with their fathers.
Sleep continued to be an area of challenge for us as a family, but taking away my daughter’s pacifier and listening to her cry those first times was a dramatic turning point in our steps toward improved sleep. We still had a long road to go, and many hours of listening to do, but her sleep continued to improve as we listened through her upsets. In addition to improved sleep, through the listening, my daughter became more relaxed and content as a baby. With our help she was able to “offload” a pile of fear that had had her in its grips in those early months.
Today she is almost three-and-a-half. She is a bold, confident, adventurous, loving child who is delightfully and delightedly herself. She also—gratefully—sleeps a deep twelve hours almost every night!
Join Certified Instructor Angela Jernigan in one of her classes or local groups in the East Bay.