British Columbia

If the baby can't sleep, no one sleeps

Trish Gipson noticed her memory was being affected by her sleepless tots. As part of the Wired and Tired radio series, two sleep expert shares what options exist for sleepless babes and their tired parents.

Sleep experts share what options exist for sleepless babes and their tired parents

Sleep expert Dana Obleman says it's never too early to teach a child good sleeping skills. (iStock)

Some new parents are so sleep deprived that they can no longer remember basic facts.

It happened to Trish Gipson, who lives in Vancouver with her two young children.

"I was reading an article about American politics, and it kept referring to president Obama and I was sitting there going, 'I can't for the life of me remember his first name!'"

Gipson had been sleeping poorly for 14 months, waking up in the middle of the night to care for her younger son.

"I was waking up two, three, or four more times a night to nurse him ... I didn't get the luxurious eight hours sleep that I used to get."

Trish Gipson — pictured here with her sons Aaron and Isaac — noticed her memory fading after 14 months of interrupted sleep caring for her younger son. (Trish Gipson)

Dana Obleman, who works as a sleep consultant for new parents, says it's a common problem. She says many babies don't sleep well — and their parents suffer.

"If a baby is not sleeping well, this is a family problem," she said.

Training baby to sleep

Obleman is an advocate of a controversial practice known as "sleep training", where babies cry themselves to sleep.

"There's no biological reason why they can't be sleeping a more consolidated night," she said.

"It just requires some planning and effort and strategy to change bad habits and create new ones."

For a start Obleman says parents should stop doing extra things to help their baby sleep and responding to every single crying spell.

Eventually, she says, babies will learn how to go to sleep on their own.

"If somebody is always going to help you and get you to sleep with a bunch of extra help, then that [becomes] your habit. And you know, we don't like to give up habits very easily."

Controversial practice

Tracy Cassels, a parenting consultant who recently completed her PhD at UBC in developmental psychology, disputes the sleep training method.

"The child wants to sleep — it's not like it's out there to get you, plotting and planning."

Crying is the key way babies communicate, Cassels said.

By not responding  parents risk missing important cues from their baby, she said.

"When we treat sleep as an issue ... a pathological problem ... we're ignoring that [poor] sleep is often a symptom of a problem."

For example, Cassels said, there could be a feeding problem.

Babies might be getting up frequently because they are hungry.

Desperate measures

While Cassels is firmly against the sleep training method and never uses it with her clients, she sympathizes with new parents.

"It's really hard ... they're utterly desperate, and most people don't have a lot of experience with children anymore. It used to be at age six, you'd have seen everything ... and you'd have a sense of confidence that most parents don't have today."

Gipson — who decided to sleep train her son — said it was desperation that finally forced her to let her son cry to sleep.

"I almost needed that desperation, because there's a lot of stuff written about sleep training — you're a bad mom if you do it and you're a bad mom if you don't do it."

For her, it was worth it as her son began to sleep longer stretches.

"I don't think I would have done it differently."

But for many tired parents and their sleepless babies, the way to relief is fraught with controversy.

Part of the Wired and Tired radio series on The Early Edition from Sept. 19 - 23, 2016

To hear the segment, click on the link If the baby can't sleep, no one sleeps