Survivor Story: How Changing My Baby’s Diet Changed My Life…

The latest Sleep Thief Survivor Story is by nutritionist and herbalist Caroline Mentzer.  On discovering that her daughter’s very poor sleep was due to food allergies, the 37-year-old turned her life around and went from rock bottom to a radio gig!  

Caroline & Melissa selfieCaroline’s story:

Early motherhood was a strange phenomenon for me. I’d been used to filling my time working two jobs whilst studying for a degree. I was blissfully and ignorantly looking forward to Melissa’s arrival so that I could slow down and spend some quality time as a family. After all, how difficult could it be? I was used to working hard, and I was aware that the first few months were tough when your baby needed feeding through the night. But nothing prepared me for the total upheaval I would experience when parenting a child that just won’t sleep.

Melissa wouldn’t be put down. She’d sleep well in a sling or in someone’s arms, but in a cot, crib, car seat, hammock, pram or buggy, not a chance. Bedtime became a catastrophe. We’d spend hours trying to get her to sleep. In the end we resorted to taking it in turns to sleep with her lying on our chest, and we muddled through this way for the first 6 months. After all, it was going to get better everyone said. Once she starts solids she’ll sleep more soundly.

But then Melissa started to move and it just wasn’t safe to have her in bed with us anymore and besides, her fitful restless nighttime wriggling kept everyone awake.

During the day Melissa was like a whirlwind. She’d charge around getting into everything. She seemed to need no rest at all, and was often hyper at bedtime and unable to sleep for more than 1 or 2 hours at a time. To make matters worse my husband worked very long erratic hours and had to study for exams at weekends. I was on my own a lot and there was no respite.

No one can prepare you for the effect that sleep deprivation has on your mind, body and soul. It’s relentless and unforgiving. It’s tortuous and terrifying, because you see no way out. You ride on caffeine like a drug addict awaiting your next fix. It keeps you awake and on the edge, never allowing you to unwind and totally relax. You hang out with other mums who seem to have it sussed, and you feel a complete and utter failure.

The impact that sleep deprivation has on the whole family is devastating. You crave quality time together but you’re all so knackered you spend the weekends watching CBeebies unable to talk, function or even sleep. It’s as if you’ve forgotten how to sleep.

By the time Melissa was 15 months old, I’d had enough. Over the past year I’d waded through the majority of baby sleep books and painstakingly implemented their plans, but nothing had worked. It was time to look elsewhere, to forge my own path. Things couldn’t continue as they were, or there was a danger I’d lose my mind.

It’s funny how the answer can be right under your nose, but the sleep deprivation clouds your better judgment. I’m a Nutritionist and Herbalist by profession, and I’d always been vigilant about giving Melissa a balanced diet. Sadly for me she’d been totally disinterested in food and would only eat a few things including bread, oats, hummus and sausages. Frightened she’d go hungry I’d given in. She was completely healthy in every other way. No eczema or tummy trouble, no chronic colds or infections and no visits to the doctors. Yet something niggled at me. What was making her so hyper?

She was still breastfed, and largely got most of her nutrients that way. I decided to put myself on an elimination diet to avoid eating all stimulating and allergic foods. This included cutting out cow’s milk and gluten as well as caffeine, food colourings and anything that may contain chemicals, additives or preservatives. I also insisted that Melissa ate gluten free oats, and bread and persisted with introducing new healthier foods.

After a few weeks we began to see a noticeable difference in her behaviour. She was calmer and less aggressive. Encouraged by the results, I researched ways to help relax Melissa even further and discovered the power of aromatherapy oils, massage and the magical ‘sleep inducing’ acupressure points that help put a child to sleep. We also used homeopathy to help reduce the pain of teething, a herbal sleep tea every evening to chill her out in time for bed, and Bach flower remedies to nurture her emotionally.

The transformation was amazing. Over the next few months this calm, loving and empathetic toddler emerged. She demanded less milk feeds and became more interested in food. As a result I was no longer needed as a human dummy at night and she slept more peacefully, without the continuous thrashing about we’d been used to. It was a miracle.

I started writing a diary detailing some of my desperate as well as hopeful attempts to improve Melissa’s sleep. When Melissa began sleeping through the night, I decided to turn my journal into a blog to pass on my discoveries to other parents. After less than a year my blog won a BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Award and I was invited onto local radio. I have been a regular on BBC Radio Oxford as their parenting expert ever since. I am also involved in a Complementary Health Clinic in London – Be Well London and write for various natural health and parenting magazines.

If I had some advice to give to parents in my situation, it would that for some babies there is more to sleep than purely method and routine. Every baby is different and you need to find out what works for you. Listen and trust yourself because every parent instinctively knows when something is not quite right. Don’t listen to the criticisms or comparisons that come from others, do what feels right for you. I was told many times to leave Melissa to cry, but I couldn’t do it, it felt wrong. In the end it wasn’t necessary, and we found the solution.

With every negative experience comes a learning opportunity. You could say that finding my niche and career out of the depths of sleep deprivation was my silver lining. But for me it’s truly getting to know how my daughter ticks and the relationship we now have with one another.

Has parenthood inspired you to achieve something great?  Whether you have overcome an illness, set up a business or survived a sleep thief against the odds, then I would love to hear your story!  Please get in touch on  [email protected] or contact me on Facebook or leave a comment below.

To read more from parents who rock visit the Survivors page or if you are struggling with lack of sleep check out my Survival Guide!

15 thoughts on “Survivor Story: How Changing My Baby’s Diet Changed My Life…

  1. Really interesting and a very similar story for my little girl who is 14.5 months, she is also not that interested in food, only likes what she likes and sleep is for the weak as far as she is concerned! Thank you for some new ideas 🙂

  2. That’s really kind H, thanks for reading. It’s great that you managed to figure out what the problem was with your son an fix it. It is hard to trust your instinct when others are giving inappropriate advice and you’re clouded by tiredness, so well done for sticking to your guns.

  3. This is brilliant, inspiring and the best advice I’ve seen, I’ve never left my son to cry, never will… we recently realised he had glue ear after back to back ear infections. We got grommets, and while he isn’t sleeping through, he no longer screams about being put to bed – voluntarily lies down, and sleeps in bigger chunks. I know he will get there and so pleased I trusted myself – but this post nails the feelings when “everyone else” has a baby who sleeps and that routine works for.

    • Thanks freebutfun, it was a surprising but happy outcome. Interestingly, my daughter Melissa is okay now with the odd bit of gluten. We abstain at home but if she’s at a party or grandparents house etc. we don’t have to be overly strict any more, which makes life easier.

      • My daughter is lactose and potato intolerant, and yes, in hindsight those were most likely things that kept us up for hours and months… but she can also tolerate small amounts of those now, so it makes life easier when we do as you: keep them off her diet at home but let her have small amount elsewhere. I am told she may even grow out of the potato thing but then I was told by three doctors that one can not be allergic/intolerant of potato in the first place (as a nutritionist, do you have more info on this?). So we’ll see. Lucky she is old enough to be able to say if she hurts now.

      • In reply freebutfun, I’ve come across potato allergy in my practice before. It’s quite common to have issues with the nightshade vegetable family which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine. Hopefully you’re right your daughter will grow out of the potato thing – in any case there’s so many nice alternatives – parsnip, sweet potato and butternut squash – yum! Good luck.

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