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Mom's Lullaby
Coach Suzy's Dream Client: A Parent With a Newborn That Sleeps Like a Baby

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Claire Shipman is at that new-mom place where the exhaustion from the feeding routines has descended into the bones, and the thought of sleep -- real, uninterrupted, soul-satisfying sleep -- feels decidedly like the promised land. She is the classic mother of an infant: There is no makeup applied for the benefit of guests, and the wardrobe involves sweatshorts and a T-shirt. The hair is tousled. If she seems a bit disoriented, well, there's a reason -- a few minutes ago, she fell asleep on the couch while talking to her mother-in-law.

Shipman, senior national correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning America," and her husband, Time magazine correspondent Jay Carney, have a 4 1/2 -week-old baby and a 3 1/2 -year-old toddler. They celebrate five-hour sleep nights, they're not so sure where they left things -- maybe it's somewhere over there in the kitchen? -- and they don't know when they'll next have time for each other, let alone themselves.

But they have Suzy.

Suzy, as in "You have to get Suzy" or "Do you have Suzy's number?" or "You won't survive without Suzy" -- in other words, they are the lucky ones. Shipman and Carney had to wait a few extra weeks after newborn Della came home from the hospital. Suzy was booked, and her client was a friend of Shipman's, and the friend had twins ("You can't compete with twins," Carney explains), but now it's their turn.

"Suzy," Shipman says, "is the guru."

Suzy is Suzy Giordano, aka "the baby coach," a petite, Brazilian-born woman who is an underground legend in the Washington area for her ability to teach newborn babies how to achieve that parenting nirvana: sleeping through the night.

Sleeping through the night: Only four simple words, but what power they wield over the energy-sapped, stressed-out parents of newborns. The end of 2 a.m. feedings, of nights spent rocking, holding, pacing, pleading. The last 4 a.m. jolt awake because the tiny "eh, eh, eh!" emanating from the baby monitor is a sure harbinger of a full-fledged wail soon to come.

It is possible, in this day and age, to outsource a tremendous amount of the work of parenthood, far beyond the more basic necessities like child care and homework help. There are people who will teach your child how to ride a bike without training wheels. There are day-care centers that take over the potty-training process, sending home detailed directions to the parents on how to "assist" in what is essentially their project.

This is different. This is another category altogether. This is about sleep, that great restorative for body and soul. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: "And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower, then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created."

Sleep can inspire a fetish-like devotion, a pining. "Life," journalist Fran Lebowitz wrote, "is something to do when you can't get to sleep." We watch the sleep ads on television with rapture -- the one with the green butterfly cocooning a woman swaddled in 400-thread-count sheets; the guy who lassos the moon. But you can't take a baby to the Valley of the Dolls. That would be so wrong.

Hire Suzy, and she swears that at approximately 12 weeks of age, your baby will start sleeping through the night -- and, by that, she means in the neighborhood of 12 consecutive hours. Twelve hours.

"Sleep," says Tia Cudahy, a Giordano client who has a toddler and infant twins, "is the difference between misery and joy when you have a newborn."

But for Giordano's converts, it's not just about their own sleep. It's about giving their babies the first building block of life: the gift of the complete zonk-out. That's what Giordano tells them, from day one, and there is a comfort in that.

"If you just want to have a baby nurse or a night nurse where the goal is really 'I need to sleep,' this is not what having Suzy is about," Shipman says. "You're getting your child to learn how to sleep. . . . Sleep is so important. It's teaching your child a basic life skill."

A Cottage Industry

It's bath time in the Schneider household in Falls Church and Abigail is fussy. "Fussy" is that word people use as a euphemism for babies who won't stop crying or wailing or expressing some endless sense of frustration.

"I think maybe she's had some gas today," Abigail's mom, Donna Schneider, explains to Giordano. Abigail and her twin sister, Elizabeth, are 4 months old.

Giordano's work is essentially finished here, and the Schneiders will soon be sent off gently into slumber. For the first 11 weeks of their lives, Giordano -- or one of the extended family members or friends she has trained to help manage her burgeoning business -- spent four nights a week with the Schneiders (Donna is a producer at NBC; her husband, Paul, is a chef), working with the babies from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

That is not a cheap proposition -- Giordano's prices were $25 per hour for twins, $22 for singletons, but with increasing demand, she's planning to offer consulting or overnight care packages that can range as high as $2,910 per week. But even though Paul Schneider recently left his restaurant position to start his own home chef business, the couple believed it would be money well spent.

"We saw it as a good investment," says Paul Schneider, who hired Giordano under the old pricing schedule.

Let's face it: getting babies to sleep is a cottage industry. There is Ferberization -- let them cry, cry, cry until they learn. There are the co-sleeping advocates, who believe babies should be in bed with Mom and Dad for bonding purposes. There are people who believe in this schedule or that one, this feeding process, that response.

Giordano's goal is to teach the parents her process and let them learn how to implement it, though she's happy to do most of the night work for them as well. So for some families, she only does a consultation and a night or two of training; for others, she'll stay seven nights a week until the babies are trained.

According to Giordano, there are two basic tasks to accomplish before the big sleep can be achieved. The first is to shift babies to a schedule where they consume enough breast milk or formula during the day to sustain a night without feedings. The second is to teach the baby to self-soothe, so that he or she can get back to sleep without assistance, and even stay happily in the crib in the morning until mom or dad arrives for breakfast.

"The key is to just slow down the parents so they can have a better vision of the responsibility," Giordano says.

So there are feeding logs and plans based on a baby's weight and age. By about eight weeks, as long as a baby has passed the nine-pound milestone, Giardano shifts into what she calls "baby boot camp," when nighttime feedings are gradually spaced apart and phased out, and late-night and early-morning wakings are handled without the baby getting picked up and held. Instead she rubs the babies, pats their bellies, helps gently move them into more comfortable positions.

"I never let it escalate to the point where they actually wake up," she says.

She works with whatever schedule matches a family. Many want the standard 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. breakdown, or 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. She worked for a musician who wanted 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. so he could see his baby before bed despite his late hours. Parents who work long hours often like later bedtimes, so there is baby bonding time in the evening.

"My own feeling is that I would like to follow the baby rather than superimpose our needs on the baby," says T. Berry Brazelton, a child-care expert and the co-author of "Sleep: The Brazelton Way." "But on the other hand, I understand in working families, when both parents have jobs, the stress is so great that this is the way they try to preserve the parent-child relationship."

Most of Giordano's clients are parents who both work -- Shipman is planning to go back to ABC in early August; Schneider returned to work at NBC in early June.

Giordano also recognizes the value of her own sleep -- which takes place during daytime hours -- in the process. "Because I'm not tired," she says, "I don't make the mistakes people usually make."

Not that it's always easy. Out of her bath, Abigail is pajama'd first and she wants her bottle -- or maybe it's the gas, or maybe it's something else? Giordano walks her, whispers to her, lets her have a pacifier. ("I call them the necessary evil," Giordano says.) But that makes her drift toward sleep -- without her bedtime feeding -- so Giordano takes it away, and Abigail is mad, mad, mad.

"It's tough, I know, I know," she whispers to the red-faced infant. "Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh." She pats Abigail's leg. "It's a tough job being a baby. It's a tough job. I understand that. There you go. I know."

She rubs Abigail's stomach.

"She does have gas, I can feel it," Giordano says.

"And she's so tired," mom says.

This is the delicate point, the time when the parents worry. What if the magic leaves when Suzy leaves? Abigail and Elizabeth have been doing pretty well. Asleep by 10 every night, up around 8:30 or so. Maybe not quite 12 hours, but far better than the new parents had hoped.

"We really didn't know what we were doing," Donna Schneider says. "Suzy told us that the first four weeks would be this, then four, five and six would be this. . . . When you're at the beginning and you think that they're not ever going to sleep through the night -- "

Giordano interrupts: "It will happen. It'll be all right."

Baby Steps to Sleep

Raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Giordano, 43, was married and had her first child at 18. By 28, she had a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, a 2-year-old and a baby on the way.

Or so she thought. When she went to deliver, twin boys came out.

"In that culture," she says, "husbands do not help at all. I cooked. I did the laundry by hand. I was supposed to have the kids clean and fed and look pretty when he came home. I had two cribs on my side of the bed."

She couldn't handle it. At one point she went to her parents' house, exhausted, miserable, desperate. Her father looked at his drooping daughter and took over.

"My dad said, 'Why don't you give the babies to me and go get some sleep?' " Giordano remembers.

Perhaps there was a tiny bit of hesitation, but, at that point, sleep was simply essential. So she went to bed. And slept. And slept.

She woke up 24 hours later in a stark panic.

"What about the babies?" was the immediate jolt in her gut. She was breast-feeding, they hadn't been away from her before, how had her father managed?

"And my dad said, 'I just went to the supermarket and got some formula,' " she says. "He was just fine."

So were the twins.

"I realized then that I had to have a plan," she says.

It evolved quickly. The key elements: a schedule that worked for the whole family, not just the babies. The belief that babies could learn to self-entertain if encouraged to. And the decision to involve her older children in their care.

"I put them in the bouncy seat and said, 'Nobody hold the baby except when I say it's okay,' " she recalls.

She learned that if she slowly stretched out the babies' feeding schedule, they would adapt. She learned that if she didn't pick the babies up the minute they cried -- if she tried to nudge them toward self-soothing -- that eventually they would learn to do it. It was a radical change from the way she interacted with her first-born, Camilla. Camilla got picked up the moment she cried. She was constantly entertained. She could be -- she was Giordano's only child at the time.

"I carried that child until she was 4," Giordano says of Camilla. "Everybody gave in to her. Everything I've learned, I've learned from my own mistakes."

She and her husband (they divorced five years ago) came to the United States in 1990, shortly after her brother, Carlos Moleda, a Navy SEAL, was shot while on assignment in Panama City and lost the use of both legs. He was recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and her family settled in Northern Virginia to be close to him.

At one point, about a year after her arrival, her brother mentioned that he had a friend struggling with triplets. The family had lots of staff, lots of help, but nothing seemed to be working. The babies didn't sleep well. Moleda asked his sister to go visit, to help. She fixed the problem within weeks. That family told a friend, and then they told a friend, and 14 years later, the whispers are stronger than ever.

Systemic Help

Booking Giordano is like getting into the best day-care centers: one must call the minute there is evidence of a zygote, if not sooner.

"Let me see, I called Suzy -- " Shipman begins, only to have Carney interrupt her.

"Were you pregnant yet?" he teases.

"Yes, I was pregnant!" she says. "Around two months."

Now, Giordano comes three nights a week (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), or, as Shipman puts it, "just when you think you're going to kill each other or your toddler."

"I had a hard time turning people down, so I got my mom involved," Giordano says, "then she got booked, so I got my sister involved, and she got booked . . ."

At this point, Giordano has a whole team: mom, daughter, sister-in-law, close family friends. Still, she is continually turning down clients because she simply doesn't have enough time. Partly because of that, she and one former client, Lisa Abidin of Annandale, have just completed a short book outlining Giordano's system. ("Teaching Babies to Sleep 12 Hours by 12 Weeks: A Step by Step Recipe for Baby Sleep Success" will soon be available for purchase online at http://www.babycoach.net/ .)

"It's not me," Giordano swears. "Any parent can do it. It's like a cookbook: If you follow the recipe, I guarantee it will work."

With her first child, Hugo, Shipman actually did a little recipe-following by accident. A good friend of hers with newborn twins had hired Giordano, and she quoted "Suzy's rules" to Shipman like gospel. "At five weeks, do this!" she told her. "At x number of pounds, do this!"

"And I just did it," Shipman says.

Shipman also called Giordano for a phone consult about Hugo's napping issues. When she heard Tia Cudahy, a close friend, was pregnant with twins, Shipman immediately urged her to call Giordano.

"We're lucky that we didn't have to kill each other over Suzy," says Shipman, whose daughter was born a little more than eight weeks after Cudahy's twins.

Cudahy went to Giordano with reluctance. With her firstborn, Eleanor, Cudahy and her husband, Redmond Walsh, had done it on their own until Cudahy returned to work after maternity leave. And she loved it. But twins and a toddler? She was torn.

"With Eleanor, I was a baby-hog -- I liked doing it all myself," Cudahy says one evening, sitting in her kitchen in Georgetown. "But when I knew it was twins I realized I needed help, and I needed systemic help."

So Cudahy and Walsh decided to hire Giordano a few nights a week -- a few nights that quickly morphed into nearly every night for nine weeks. Cudahy is aware of the perception that might leave to outsiders. She understands the kind of criticism expressed by people such as Brazelton, who suggested that the full-time use of Giordano "keeps parents away from their babies at a time when the babies really need that bond."

"When people first began to talk to me about Suzy -- insisting I needed to call her, that she was the best, etc., etc., I resisted," Cudahy wrote in an e-mail this month. "I had this idea in my head that she was some sort of celebrity baby nurse, or was the baby nurse of choice for the pampered set."

What she found was something quite different.

"I'm not the type of person to say -- let alone to feel -- that this person is a part of the family," Cudahy says. "But Suzy has become that. She is so supportive, and she just believes in the best in everyone."

Across the kitchen, her husband nods his agreement. And upstairs, three children -- twin boys and big sister Eleanor -- are all fast asleep.

Night Watcher

In the darkness of the Shipman-Carney house in Washington's Foxhall neighborhood, Giordano is standing over baby Della's bassinet, watching her sleep. It is not late yet, only 10:30, but the night's work has started. The child is perfection: smooth skin, raspberry lips, a delicate thatch of dark hair. One hand is lost inside the still-long sleeves of her nightshirt; the other curls gently, as if, in dreams, she is grasping her mother's finger.

She wiggles. Little noises escape her -- one tiny "eh," then another. It has been 4 1/2 hours since Della's last feeding. To wake now would not be unexpected. Della's approaching 9 pounds, but not quite there yet; she still gets fed when she wants to be.

Giordano looks down, waiting, watching. Is it time to soothe her with gentle words? To pat her softly, to delicately move the blanket? Della opens her mouth again and closes it without a sound. Her chest rises and falls almost imperceptibly. She is not ready to leave her dream world.

"Look at her," Giordano says in a whisper. "Ahhhhh.''

And in the stillness of the house, where two parents, one toddler and a tiny little baby are all tucked in to sleep, hers is the voice of contentment.

"Don't I have the best job in the world?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company