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Sleep No More: The toughest thing about parenting a newborn? Catching some ZZZs.



Recently, my husband and I lugged our 3-month-old baby and her mountains of gear to a nearby café. We ran into an acquaintance there who had been watching as we got out of the car and unloaded our cargo. "You guys looked so glum," she said.

Of course we looked glum. Joni had been screaming since she woke up — before the crack of dawn. I hadn't slept through the night since the middle of my third trimester. Our backs perpetually ached from the hours we spent walking, swaying, bouncing and rocking her each day. At 12 weeks, our precious daughter rarely smiled, and when she did, it was almost imperceptible, flickering across her face like a mirage.

I unloaded my complaints onto the woman who had commented on our glumness. And then I added what I always do when people asked me about life as a new mom: "But it's great."

Why did I keep saying this? What, exactly, was so great about the first three months of parenthood? I love Joni fiercely, but surviving those early weeks was the hardest thing I'd ever done, mainly because of the sleep deprivation.

Prolonged sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the mind, affecting your ability to focus, obliterating your short-term memory — even causing hallucinations. It's been used at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to coerce prisoners to speak. It's torture.

It's at least a cruel joke that after performing the superhuman feat of childbirth, you don't really get to sleep. For months. (Or, as a grandmotherly type at the grocery store smugly informed me, "For the next 18 years.")

I had been warned, of course. Seasoned parents love to tell pregnant ladies to prepare for the sleeplessness. But there's no way to prepare for losing your mind with exhaustion.

In the beginning, we were up all night. My husband, Daniel, and I passed Joni back and forth every two hours. She only slept when we were touching her. No matter how deeply asleep she appeared to be, she'd immediately startle — her arms shooting out like a zombie's, her eyes bursting open — the instant we put her down.

Then, for several weeks, she could only fall asleep while sucking on our fingers. She'd suck for what felt like hours. When she finally seemed conked, we'd slowly pry our fingers from the black-hole vacuum of her mouth. And then she'd spring awake.

"I can't keep doing the finger thing," Daniel told me, exasperated, one morning. "I've stopped thinking of her as a human baby and started thinking of her as a gerbil sucking on a water dispenser."

We tried co-sleeping, but Daniel kept waking up in a panic, mistaking the cat that sleeps at our feet for a smothered baby.

One night, I walked into the nursery to find Joni, who'd been screaming for hours, sleeping soundly in the crib — on her tummy. These days, doctors and parenting books advocate putting babies to sleep on their backs with a near religious fervor.

Daniel sat on the floor with his laptop, a maniacal look in his eyes as he googled sudden infant death syndrome, calculating the odds that she would die if left this way. We'll just do it this one night, we decided.

As our level of exhaustion rose, our panic about following the rules eased up. We just didn't have the energy to worry.

Still, the next few times we tried putting Joni on her tummy to sleep, she screamed and squirmed. So much for breaking the rules.

Gradually, things got better. We mastered the swaddle and — hallelujah! — started getting the occasional four- or five-hour chunk of sleep. We learned that if we bounced with her on an exercise ball for an hour, we could watch her transition from "active sleep" (body twitchy, eyes rolled back but eerily open) to "quiet sleep" (body limp, eyes closed). Then we could put her down without waking her.

Still, even while she sleeps, I'm often awake, listening for her sounds. I'm an obsessive person. But I've never been obsessed with anything the way I am with Joni's sleep. I think about it all day long. I strategize. If I can just swaddle her tightly enough, feed her at precisely the right time, bounce her long enough or sing the perfect song, she'll fall and stay asleep.

But this baby sleep business feels more like sorcery than strategy.

The other night, we tried something radical: We put her down, like all the books recommend, drowsy but awake. Her eyes were open when Daniel left the room.

"We'll see," he said, sitting down beside me, his body poised to reengage the battle plan when we heard her cry.

But she didn't cry. She didn't make a peep. Our baby slept straight through until morning.

Joni still wakes up occasionally in the middle of the night, and it's rare she snoozes past 5 a.m. But we're all getting a little more sleep, and Daniel and I don't look so glum.

We're starting to discover the joy of parenting: At the precise moment we think we can't take it anymore, Joni surprises us. She's growing up already, and we're finally conscious enough to appreciate it.

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