The Context-Free Child

Tom Banham
·13-min read
Photo credit: Malte Mueller - Getty Images
Photo credit: Malte Mueller - Getty Images

My son was born in the dying months of the plague year that was 2020, when London went into its second lockdown and the end of the pandemic retreated back over the horizon. As our family grew by half and our world shrank to four rooms, it became painfully clear how much we were missing that proverbial village.

For the first nine weeks of his life, as Britain lurched from lockdown to tier four to cancelled Christmases to yet another lockdown, my son and I waged war on his changing table. Every time I undressed him he would gurgle charmingly, then I would attempt to put his clothes back on and he'd turn red and wail like a Japanese pig spirit trapped in a haunted theme park.

This was amusing at first, because everything a new baby does is amusing, but soon grew frustrating, then increasingly traumatic. I'd pull faces, jiggle toys, sing inane songs, choke back sobs as his face opened up into a giant pink mouth and his tiny body pulsed like he was being defibrillated, rather than dressed in a onesie with an elephant holding a balloon on the chest. As its trunk thrashed, I wondered why it had taken so little time for our relationship to sour.

Eventually my partner decided to intervene. She shushed him and put on his clothes and he gurgled charmingly and I discovered that if you dress a baby in a baby-specific way, rather than like a grown man would dress himself, then that baby won't thrash so violently you can see its soft spot rippling.

If I could offer two pieces of advice to would-be parents, they would be a) always choose onesies with zips, not buttons and b) don't have a child during a pandemic. Everything from meeting family to medical appointments happened either on the phone, or via screens, or with people peering into his pram from two metres away, as if we'd conceived a fighting cock rather than a fat-cheeked baby. By the time he was three months old he'd only been held by eight different people, and most of them were the people who'd delivered him.

We had no context for how to raise him, no other parents to copy from or check technique with. I learnt to look after a baby from books and the internet, which were fine at telling me what I should do but useless at correcting the mistakes I wasn't aware I was making. It was like learning to drive by guesswork – sure, the car's moving, but I was braking with my left foot and the hazards were on.

It only took around six weeks for me to realise that what I thought was exhaustion was actually depression. This, at least, I did have context for: having endured it on and off for more than half my life, I spotted its four horsemen – insomnia; anhedonia; anger; an urge to eat pasta for breakfast – more swiftly. It would have taken even less time if the symptoms of depression didn't map almost perfectly onto the symptoms of having a newborn.

From my current vantage point, six months in and still averaging less than four hours of sleep a night, it seems odd that the sleep deprivation that new parents endure is treated mostly as a greeting card punchline – "Congratulations new mum and dad! Prepare to experience the CIA's favourite enhanced interrogation technique!" – rather than the health hazard it actually is. As well as all those unpleasant but temporary issues you get from poor sleep – brain fog, irritability, weight gain – it also causes chronic problems, from dementia to heart disease. And while it wasn't the sole cause of my depression, it was the fuel that made it burn harder, engulfing my nascent relationship with my son.

There are few times in life when depression is welcome, but it's uniquely shitty when you've got a new baby. The disease creates a barrier between you and the world, like being draped in a heavy sheet that seems to grow weightier every day. Life outside your head feels muffled, but inside everything is too loud and too clear. You disconnect from the people around you until eventually it becomes easier to retreat, to sink down and let its heft envelop you.

Babies are tough, but love cushions the colic and the broken nights and the endless nappies. Depression strips love away. Without it you're left with a relationship's cold, jagged frame, the obligations of care without its reward. A baby learns to cry long before it learns to smile; without something to get you through those weeks, you're fucked.

It started, I think, in the delivery room. I expected a Hollywood moment, that when the doctor handed me my son a wave of love would crash over me and I would be changed forever. But it didn't. I held him and he looked weird and I felt nothing meaningful and I was sure something inside me must be broken.

As this feeling continued through those first days, then weeks, then months, it became a prism that refracted every interaction. It didn't help that he was colicky, bawling his way through the evenings until he eventually cried himself out and passed out, exhausted, only to rouse again for more of the same 90 minutes later. In the dead of night, as he huffed and puffed against my chest and my brain turned dark circles, he began to feel like a punishment.

You expect the sleep to be bad and it's worse than you imagined, but then you hope it gets better, and it didn't. Fortunately, solutions abounded. Capitalism takes newborn sleep far more seriously than society, and understandably so: a sleep-deprived parent is not necessarily a rational parent, which explains the glut of products and consultants – some backed by science, many more based on anecdote and opportunism – that promise magic fixes to desperate parents who'll buy any enchanted beans you're selling.

In the US, the infant sleep industry is worth more than $325m a year, much of it focused on getting babies to stay unconscious for longer. This won't be news to anyone who searches Google for stool colour charts and swaddling techniques and immediately finds their social media flooded with ads for vibrating beds, white noise machines and money-back-guaranteed sleep training books. As you scroll, dead-eyed, during one o'clock feeds, then three o'clock feeds, then five o'clock feeds, they become harder and harder to ignore.

Among the most science-backed, and the most prevalent in ads, is the Snoo, a smart crib to which almost every exhausted parent seems inexorably drawn, like grey-eyed, sallow-skinned moths to a flame. The combination of its four-figure price tag and a slew of celebrity endorsements (Beyoncé's a fan, Justin Timberlake and Scarlett Johansson are investors, and you'll find a Snoo in more than one royal nursery) imbues it with an almost mythical air. Buy Snoo and you too could have the dewy skinned, bright-eyed, Californian sun-drenched experience promised by YouTube's mummy vloggers, who pop up while you're frantically searching for 10-hour videos of white noise. Once we could actually meet other parents with babies again, and I told them that we had a Snoo, they stared at me like stray dogs at a butcher's window.

Snoo is the brainchild of baby sleep scientist Dr Harvey Karp, who in the US at least has become something like the millennial's Dr Spock, if Dr Spock hung out with Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Biel. He first found fame with the book The Happiest Baby on the Block, a bestselling parenting manual based on the theory of the 'fourth trimester', which posits that babies are born too early and, for the first three months, need an environment that emulates the womb, which is a louder, more violent place than most of us would imagine.

Karp is most famous for the "five S's", a technique that mimics the rumbly, noisy experience of being in utero through a combination of swaddling, holding babies on their side, shushing, swinging and sucking, to soothe them to a state of beatific calm. When it works, it's like a magic trick. Apparently Kutcher is so taken with it he seeks out crying infants on planes and in restaurants so he can five-S them to sleep, then hands them back to their now love-heart-eyed parents like some kind of baby-whispering superhero.

Karp is an avuncular figure, a bearded and trim 70-year-old who looks at least two decades younger. He's less Hollywood guru and more family doctor, which makes sense considering his four decades as a paediatrician, latterly to increasingly starry parents. He approaches infant sleep as a global health issue, pointing out sleep deprivation's role in everything from domestic tension to traffic accidents. Get babies sleeping better, he believes, and you create happier, healthier, more loving families.

Photo credit: Happiest Baby
Photo credit: Happiest Baby

The Snoo works by automating the five S's. First you swaddle the baby in a special sleepsack, then place it on a mattress that rocks back and forth while white noise plays from embedded speakers. It can't do 'side' – babies need to sleep their backs as it's shown to reduce their risks of Sids – nor 'suck', although a dummy will do the job there (Karp is firmly in the pro-pacifier camp).

Now, you can swaddle a baby with almost any piece of fabric and a rocking bassinet can be yours for less than a hundred pounds, and neither of those achieve any kind of sleep-hours step change. Where the Snoo earns its price tag – besides its design, which is very if-Apple-did-baby-beds – is its smart, responsive technology. When it detects crying, it accelerates through four increasingly jiggly and noisy levels, much like a human parent might go from some light rocking to a walk around the house, before bunging the kid in the car for a drive around the M25. At max intensity, it looks like your baby's in the midst of their own private earthquake, although the Snoo actually only moves through a matter of millimetres. Compared to being in the womb when the mother walks down a flight of stairs, it's barely noticeable.

An £1,145 crib is obviously not a solution for most parents, especially since babies outgrow the Snoo after six months. Karp told me that comparing it to other bassinets is a false equivalency; you're not buying an expensive cot, but rather a cheap night nurse. If you use it every night from the day you get home from hospital, it equates to just over £6 a day. I know of no parent who wouldn't happily pay that for an extra hour of sleep.

I arranged to trial one before my son arrived. We set it up in the living room, turned it on, and his mother and I laughed at the idea we'd be able to sleep through what, at its highest setting, sounded like an Aphex Twin b-side. Two months later, we were wondering if there was a way to make it louder.

For whatever reason, our baby just didn't seem to respond. In the first three months, I can count on two hands the number of times that the Snoo knocked him back out once he'd started to stir. Of course, the Snoo is not magical – it cannot solve problems like hunger or wetness, so you can't just plonk a child inside and forget them for 12 hours. But even when he needed nothing, was crying because he was confused or lonely or had farted himself awake, he was still immune to its rumbles. Every night he'd cry, and we'd lie in the dark as the machine cranked up through the gears, the white noise blasting harder, the mattress shaking more vigorously. Then the motor would cut out and we'd be left with his cries and a phone notification telling us that the Snoo was tapping out.

The days were as bad. Friends advised us to nap when he did, but he refused to stay down for long enough. Baby sleep cycles last around three-quarters of an hour, and like clockwork, his eyes would snap open at 38 minutes, then his mouth. His howls wrenched us back into consciousness five minutes after we'd fallen asleep, feeling even worse than when we lay down. We'd watch him jiggle on the baby monitor, faster and faster, and we'd pray that this would be the time that the Snoo worked. Then the movement would cease, the wails would continue, and one of us would have to peel ourselves out from under the covers and go and pick him up.

The worse he slept, the more I obsessed about his sleep. As I sat up at night rocking him I read endless blogs about how to fix restless babies, tried pre-bed routines that promised to get him unconscious quicker and keep him there longer, but none of it worked. I got more depressed and started to resent him, blaming his restlessness for how terrible I felt. I started to treat our time together as a puzzle that had to be solved, rather than an opportunity to bond. I dreaded looking after him, saw him as a chore, would break down in tears when he did normal illogical baby things like refuse food when he was hungry or stay awake even though he was tired. I pored over the sleep data the Snoo provided looking for clues that might solve his insomnia. Given a few more broken nights, I'd probably have broken out the whiteboards and red string.

But perhaps this was it working. Perhaps we were getting that extra three hours. We were clearly in the minority in thinking it didn't work – Justin Timberlake loved Snoo so much he invested in it. We had no baseline to compare it to, no other kids of our own, could meet no other parents to compare notes. We had no context. The books told us what some babies might do by each week, the shiny-haired bloggers suggested napping schedules that were laughably precise, and everyone caveated their advice with the truism that every baby is different and what works for one might not work for yours. Yes? And? How do I find the thing that does?

I started to hate the Snoo. My partner and I argued over whether we should abandon it, whether it was doing more harm than good, whether something else might make him stay a-fucking-sleep-for-one-fucking-night. But we couldn't give it up. It was like Schrodinger's crib – maybe it worked, maybe it didn't, but finding out might make things worse. Just in case this was what it felt like when it was working. Just in case those four hours became three, or two, or evaporated entirely.

And then, one day, with no discernible prompt, he slept. And then the next night, he slept. Some gear in his brain had shifted and now he would stay asleep for three hours at a time. Then, one magical night, a six-hour stretch that I still wouldn't believe had actually happened if it weren't there in the Snoo's logs. And just as magically, the wall that I'd built between us began, brick by brick, to come apart. When he smiled at me I'd see it not just as respite from tears, but as a bridge between the two of us. Inch by inch we're drawing closer and the sheet draped over me feels a little bit lighter every day. It's a long road, but at least now we're on it together.

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