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Sleep-training my infant

Packed with handy tips, DIY techniques and case studies, parenting expert Kerry Bajaj outlines the perfect sleep strategy for your child

Kerry Bajaj likens the perfect sleeping atmosphere for a child to a spa—calming and soporific, as opposed to bright, noisy and overstimulating. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Kerry Bajaj likens the perfect sleeping atmosphere for a child to a spa—calming and soporific, as opposed to bright, noisy and overstimulating. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

It’s a warm February morning, unusual for this time of the year in Mumbai, and my nearly six-month-old daughter Kalika is screaming her lungs out. I have been trying to sleep-train her for the past few days, inspired by Kerry Bajaj’s book Sleep, Baby, Sleep. Bajaj quotes from trials, case studies and experts to make the point that adequate sleep is vital for babies—and to prevent permanent brain damage in their hapless parents. I added the last bit, but it might be true. Being an overzealous parent (read tiger dad), I feel my daughter can do with better sleep even though she hasn’t been half a handful as many infants I have heard tales of. The book has motivated me to take an American-style, parent-led approach, instead of the despot-baby situation we Indians are quite familiar with. “She must be hungry" is a well-wisher’s standard response to a howling baby, regardless of the root cause.

Bajaj walks in at the exact moment of Kalika’s meltdown and then observes her settle down as she is given her late-morning feed. She presents a plan: “We just need to change a few things with the sleep schedule and environment. By Friday, she will be sleeping differently," Bajaj says. Today is Monday, but she sounds confident.

When Bajaj moved from New York to Mumbai three years ago with her husband and two baby girls, demonetization had just hit India, and things were overwhelming for the family. Yet, as she writes in her book, she promptly visited a Fabindia store to purchase thick blackout curtains for her house. According to her, space and environment are crucial for sleep, and half the battle won. Bajaj likens the sleeping atmosphere to a spa—calming and soporific as opposed to bright, noisy and overstimulating. Her sleep heroes are pitch darkness and white noise, which you may know better as the sound of radio static when an antenna is broken.

“A newborn baby is not afraid of the dark," she writes. “Your baby has emerged from a dark womb where she felt perfectly secure. Check your own fears about it being too dark, lonely or scary for your child at night. Don’t transmit these fears to your baby." On her recommendation, I buy a white-noise speaker from Amazon for 1,100. The device also emits other soothing sounds such as that of the ocean, a summer’s night, rain, etc. But where’s the clicking sound of a phone’s on-screen keypad? I can’t sleep without frivolous phone-usage every night!

Sleep spa

Bajaj’s sleep strategy is all about getting rid of the usual suspects for putting a baby to sleep—nursing, rocking, patting and bouncing. Instead, she suggests introducing healthier and more sustainable methods like a dark room, a calming bath, essential oils and white noise. “When you use the white noise machine consistently for naps and bedtime, it becomes a strong sleep cue. My daughters reach for their bunnies and start yawning the moment I turn (it) on," she says in the book. What about the controversial “cry-it-out" method that the West approves of and Indians denounce, where babies are left to soothe themselves to sleep instead of their caregivers pacifying them? “People try it with an overtired baby and it’s a disaster. But when the baby is not overtired and the parent has a plan, the baby can learn how to sleep really well," she says.

Bajaj uses the term “sleep pressure" that one can build and diffuse at appropriate times to ensure that the baby doesn’t get overtired or cranky from staying up too long. Babies are easily stimulated by light, sounds and people, and will fight sleep as a result. Kalika, for instance, has a knack of blowing her top right after a prolonged period of exuberance. Ironically, the more tired she is, the harder it is to put her to sleep. My partner and I persevere with the sleep routine Bajaj has recommended. Kalika needs three daytime naps of 90 minutes each, two-and-a-half hours apart from each other. Her day begins at 7.30am and ends at 8.30pm. Initially, she would sleep for 3-4 hours in the afternoon, giving us much required downtime to regenerate new brain cells. There’s much less of that now. But if this new method leads to a happier and more contented baby, so be it.

Space constraints

I always imagined my child sleeping in their own cot in their own room—a symbol of mutual independence for the parents and the baby. But we can’t afford a larger apartment. Our current sleeping arrangement has Kalika and me on the bed, with my wife on a floor mattress. But we don’t sleep “limbs entwined", as Bajaj calls it. Instead, we assert our autonomy with a partition of pillows. Before their second child, Bajaj lived in a one-bedroom apartment in New York. “It was just you, your partner and the baby figuring it out. In my peer group, many of us had to go back to office in three months. So, we had to be more proactive about sorting sleep hygiene early on. I would Google for suggestions, some of which included shifting the crib into the walk-in closet," Bajaj says. “But we didn’t have any extra space."

Back then, she worked as a nutritionist with Frank Lipman in the field of functional medicine. “People came to us with major health issues. My role was to make sure that they didn’t leave feeling overwhelmed by the significant dietary changes we recommended. Now, I am tackling sleep, but it’s a natural progression," she says. According to Bajaj, the change in career occurred after moving to Mumbai. When people learnt that her kids slept from 7pm-7am, they were intrigued, and she got a lot of queries. She then decided to study the field.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep is interspersed with scores of case studies of Indian parents who came to Bajaj for sleep-training, 80 clients to be precise. Half of them were families on the brink of divorce, or with children in dramatic, dysfunctional sleeping situations. But the parts of the book that work for me are those sections that paraphrase handy tips, DIY techniques and opinions from other experts. Bajaj has clearly read many books on the subject, and she sprinkles evidence through the read.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep: By Kerry Bajaj, 249 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299.
Sleep, Baby, Sleep: By Kerry Bajaj, 249 pages, 299.

It is harder to find data and scientific backing though. For example, American economist Emily Oster’s book Cribsheet speaks to my scientific mind with its emphasis on “data-driven parenting". Oster presents exhaustive and cutting-edge studies to back each of her opinions and arguments related to raising newborns. She is an economist and wears it on her sleeve.

In India though, we don’t use data to back our parenting. Instead, we have joint families, grandparents, superstitions and nannies. Many of Bajaj’s clients had to first convince their shocked parents before introducing any disruptive sleep-training techniques. In one case, the grandparents threatened to leave the house, unable to watch their grandchild cry. My wife and I learnt everything, which we are still trying to unlearn, from our first jhapa, i.e. a specialized but unregulated and uncertified infant nanny whose salary is typically anything between 25,000-60,000 per month in Mumbai. Jhapas are exalted in Indian upper middle-class society—if you don’t have a jhapa, you are doing it wrong and you will suffer.

It’s also not surprising that with such overabundance of support, fathers get sidelined or pushed into a corner as there are so many people to change the diaper and clothes, and feed, burp and bathe the baby. But not me, I take pride in being a hands-on dad. I must admit, however, that I am asked to zip it when I disturb my wife at 3am, quoting the latest scientific research on swaddling.

Kalika, meanwhile, is accommodating of her parents’ demands. Maybe she’s an inherently well-adjusted, stress-free baby with none of her parents’ quirks. Or maybe the sleep techniques are working. It’s too early to say, and anyhow, parenting is a marathon and not a sprint. It is an unending journey and a methodology. According to a recent BBC article, the word for “raising children" in some European languages such as Polish and German is being replaced by “parenting" and “parental action". It is both, a nuance and a zeitgeist.

Nikhil Hemrajani is a Mumbai-based journalist and media consultant.

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