First-time father Greg Bruce struggles with a baby who won’t sleep, and discovers it helps to know he is far from alone in enduring night-time purgatory.

It's a strange thing, because I am neither brash nor confident in any other aspect of my life, but a whole stream of things combined to make me think fatherhood would be different. I understood it, was emotionally well-equipped for it. That I was, in many ways, born to it.

Tallulah's birth sent me into an emotional fugue state. For the first weeks, possibly months of her life, I lived a sort of suburban psychedelia. I saw the face of God and it was my daughter's. I guess what I'm trying to say is, love is a drug.

We sat in the lounge of our two-bedroom flat throughout the newborn days of midwinter 2013, the 12-fin oil heater on medium, and received a stream of family and friends like benevolent monarchs. They were as visitors to Wonderland, their appearance and disappearance, even their presence, essentially outside of reality. I existed for my child and wife.

That feeling was played into by the strange sleep patterns that fell on us. Sleeping next to our bed, our daughter would wake at random and we would rise as one parental unit. I can't remember what I did, maybe I changed her nappy or just watched in awe the bond between mother and child.

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I would put Tallulah back to sleep, pacing with her tiny body pressed to my chest until it rose and fell with the rhythm of sleep, then I would lower her into her bassinet and climb back into bed. This routine went on for maybe a few weeks. I don't remember feeling troubled by it. Then suddenly, as if it were destined, everybody was sleeping through the night.

When the baby was three months old, we went to Western Australia for a wedding. It is not possible to be better at parenting than I was then. One night, while I was putting Tallulah to bed, one of Zanna's friends said to her, "Do you find it sexy how good he is with her?"

Of course she did and how could she not? I had created this life and here I was, gently nuzzling it along the perfect life path, without obstacle and without fear.

When we returned home, Tallulah stopped sleeping through the night. This was about 19 months ago. What is hell?

"Do you think she's too cold?" Zanna would ask, as the crying began at, say, 10.15pm and went on more or less unchecked from there.

"Do you think she's too hot?" she would say. "I think she might be teething." "I think she's got giardia." "Do you think she's scared of the dark?" "Do you think she needs a dummy?" "I think we should get her checked out." "I think she's having nightmares."

I wish I had kept a list because these are just the regulars, the ones jiggled back and forth over the months and year of our parental relationship. I never had any of my own. I don't think there were any left to have.

We woke up one morning after a typically appalling night and Zanna said: "Do you know what happened last night?" I had tried during the night, about 3am, to remember what had happened, but it had got away from me. She said the same had happened to her.

By the time Tallulah was not sleeping through the night, she was doing it in her own bedroom, so Zanna or I would go in and do whatever it took to settle her.

It took a lot. Each attempted resettling was like a high-stakes battle in which doing what worked last time was generally pointless.

The only thing that worked consistently was the most difficult and painful. I would hold the baby against my chest, place my legs shoulder-width apart and do full squats, right to the floor, in the dim dark, the Himalayan salt lamp glowing mildly on the desk, my daughter's screams falling off as my struggles for breath increased.

Whenever I showed signs of rest and recovery, her screams would start afresh.

Around Christmas 2013, when she was 4½ months old, I remember coming out of her room, after 15-20 unbroken minutes of squats, gross with sweat, effectively unable to stand, and I thought: "How will we ever fix this broken child?"

The answers soon cascaded in from well-meaning friends, family and complete strangers. And they were self-righteous.

Do this, do that, do this and that, do this but not that. We were told of sleep consultants and we dabbled with paying one to come and help us but we were poor and still optimistic.

I tend to distrust strong opinions and I'm married to a woman who, it sometimes seems, has nothing but. We never discussed the idea of letting Tallulah cry herself to sleep but it was understood - by us - we never would.

It was not understood by large numbers of everyone else. They're mostly quiet about it now but their quiet does not conceal their simmering self-righteousness.

"Give her a few nights with me and she'll soon be sleeping through the night," more than one person said to us.

Nothing has tempted me more with its waggling seductive finger than the idea of: "If we just tried it for a few nights, wouldn't it be better in the long run?"

All that well-meaning advice wears you down and makes you question your beliefs, especially when you're struggling with all-day fatigue.

So a few weeks ago I repeated something to Zanna I have heard so many times over the weeks and months: "It's not right that she's not sleeping through the night at 18 months, honey. It's not normal."

"Yes it is," she said.

I sighed. "No, it's not," I said, too quietly for her to hear.

Greg Bruce and his daughter Tallulah at the top of Mt Eden in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Greg Bruce and his daughter Tallulah at the top of Mt Eden in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

I write a regular column about fatherhood for a parenting magazine. I started writing it not long after Zanna got pregnant with Tallulah.

The first few columns were all about the excellence I brought to the early stages of my life as a parent. They were fantastic gushers of psychedelic nonsense: the idyllic, self-congratulatory ignorance of the fortunate.

But early last year they took a spectacularly dark turn into my under-slept psyche and only recovered a few months ago when the editor tactfully suggested that sleeplessness was an important subject and one I had been addressing for six or seven columns spanning 12 or 14 months, but how about trying a different topic next time?

I did, but it soon became obvious that whatever I tried to write just became a Trojan horse for sleeplessness. It seemed beyond my control.

If it was just work, okay. But on a recent Saturday night, after watching something meaningless on TV, the image of the night ahead crept into my mind.

I saw myself crawling into bed, hopelessly tired, taking out my phone and scrolling thoughtlessly through Twitter for half an hour or more, partly because I have an addiction, but mostly because I was afraid of what would happen when I closed my eyes. I knew better than to bring my feelings up with my wife.

Nevertheless.

"Honey," I said, "Sometimes when I go in there in the middle of the night, she has her eyes closed and I can't help but wonder if she would have settled if I'd left her."

I guess I hoped for what everybody hopes for: solidarity, or at least understanding, or in the very worst imaginable case, judgmental silence. Instead, Zanna told me she thought my approach to Tallulah's night wakings was a haphazard mess: that sometimes I went in too quickly and sometimes not quickly enough.

I found this a bit confrontational and I have hardly been on an even emotional keel for the past year and a half, so I allowed myself to engage my heavily pregnant wife in an argument.

Like all domestic arguments, it was pointless and increasingly tangential to the real issue: should a nearly 2-year-old child be sleeping through the night? Why did the answer to that matter so much? I don't know. It just did.

Facebook group Frugal Mumma has been a real help, says Greg Bruce. Photo / Michael Craig
Facebook group Frugal Mumma has been a real help, says Greg Bruce. Photo / Michael Craig

Over the past year or so, a Facebook group has been the leading source of most of our crowdsourced advice.

The collected mothers and occasional fathers of Frugal Mumma have helped us on matters as diverse as where we should live, what playgroup to go to and the best place for replacement breast pump parts. This is part of why we're better parents than our parents ever could have been.

Where they had, at best, five or six other mothers for on-call support, we have 1500. Whether or not it could fix our problems, Frugal seemed the obvious place to settle an argument.

Zanna's question took the classic form of: "I claim X. Barely mentally competent husband claims Y. Your thoughts?" And they came.

"My almost 3-yr-old is still waking up most nights."

"Our 2½-year old still often wakes in the night."

"My son didn't sleep thru till he was over 3. My mum said I didn't sleep thru till closer to 4."

"My eldest slept through from 9 weeks, youngest from almost 4 years old."

"Miss 2½ still wakes 3-6 times a night."

"My boy (now 6) most nights still wanders into our bed. He didn't start sleeping through till about 3. Completely normal."

"My son didn't sleep through till he was over 3 too. Now I can't wake him up."

"She's my third child and I can honestly say it's totally normal for toddlers to still need mummy or daddy in the night."

"Have you seen Frugal?" Zanna texted me after the first 20 or so replies. Eventually, there were 54, and with maybe one or two exceptions, they all said the same thing.

I think she felt the self-righteousness of the victor and hoped for the humiliating admission of defeat from the vanquished, but I would give her no such thing.

That's because it felt like a victory for me, too. I had some emotional attachment to my argument, but at that moment I had no greater need in the world than the need to feel like I wasn't alone in the dark.

Except the need for sleep. Oh, please, God, let me get some sleep.

Methods parents try to settle their baby

1. Pick up/put down

Parents pick up their baby until he or she is drowsy. They then put the baby down to sleep. If it cries, they pick up and repeat until the child falls asleep in the cot.

2. Fading

Parents continue to help the child to sleep, by rocking or patting, but gradually do less of it until they wean completely. This slowly shifts responsibility for falling asleep from the parent to the child.

3. Controlled crying

The child is left to cry for gradually increasing periods before being comforted. Comfort could be just verbal reassurance or being picked up. This is also referred to as spaced soothing or capped extinction.

4. Extinction

Controversy surrounds this but parents leave the child in bed in its room. Consultants say babies can be left to cry for up to 60 minutes but that most fall asleep in a few minutes if it's done properly.

5. Parental presence method

This is designed to reduce the panic of the extinction method. Parents set up a bed in the baby's room and pretend to go to sleep. They don't comfort the baby but stay in the room until the child goes to sleep. Another option is to sit in a camp chair next to the cot and slowly move the chair further away each day until it is outside the room.

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