some rest for the teary

All of my children have been sleep trained in one way or another. Even the first, the darling, the most demand-parented of the lot, was left to cry it out for two 35 minute sessions at ten months old after we had come back from an international trip that had disrupted his ability – his will, really – to do the usual twelve hour stretch without Mommy by his side. There I was in the next room, crying myself: ears plugged with iPod buds to muffle the sound, eyes boring a hole in the clock as I counted down the minutes to the next round of Ferberization, heart willing the wailing to stop. And then it did. It always does…at some point.

My second child was sleep trained so many times I can’t really pluck from the morass of his first year a comparably well-pruned anecdote. He was just one of those babies, the kind who operates as if sleep is the greatest enemy known to the diapered set. He was the newborn who couldn’t sleep on his back, whatever the swaddle, for more than 30 minutes at a time. The three month old who would wake with a start the minute the stroller stopped moving or the engine cut or his body, perfectly full and dry, touched down on the crib mattress having previously been asleep somewhere else. He was the nine month old who would invariably stir from his nap after a single sleep cycle, however tired, screaming as if he were being tortured. There was no hope of settling him back in these instances. No hope at all.

Children three and four were on a ‘directed’ program of sleep from the early days. In the way of twins, they confirmed my view of just how important nature – as opposed to nurture – can be on this front. I had seen a fundamental difference in my first two sons, with 26 months between them in which to forget and to sugarcoat. But here it was happening again and, for a short period of time, in the very same bed! It was undeniable. One baby was an innately good sleeper: she could settle herself routinely and in a variety of circumstances and she could consolidate sleep appropriately for her age. The other baby, well, he couldn’t really do any of these things. At least not without my ‘help’.

Babies don’t emerge from the womb sleeping through the night, sadly. Left to their own devices, some will reach this milestone fairly quickly, within the first three to six months. Others won’t master the skill for years to come. You never know which baby you are going to get. We all hope – and plan – for a baby from the first group. The reality, though, is that many of us get one from the second. And then a choice has to be made: time or tears?

Sleep training is always an active choice: there’s nothing path-of-least-resistance about it. It’s not something you just stumble into because you are too foggy-headed to come up with a better idea. To do it consistently (and so effectively) requires something akin to nerves of steel. A baby’s cry – our baby’s cry – is one of the most distressing sounds for a human being to tolerate, so much so that an ambulance siren has been designed to mimic its cadences. Nobody endures it lightly. Parents who go this route, it would seem, must be committed to a greater good. The question, the controversy, is just how great a good is it?

For me, it’s pretty damn good. I have always had a high-maintenance, nine-hour-a-night relationship with sleep, even before the children came and threatened to take it away. Like most of us, when I get the requisite amount I am more of a lot of important things: patient, interesting, happy, generous, flexible, competent. In this way, there is certainly a degree of selfishness in my desire for my kids to sleep well.

But it’s not just about me. I actually think I am doing them a service too. Not only in the obvious way that it’s very much in their interests to have me rested and sane (and not nodding off behind the wheel), especially as a stay-at-home mom. But because I see an intrinsic worth in teaching them – from an early age – how to fall asleep on their own, in their own space, and for a determined amount of time. This lesson, together with the benefits of a full night’s sleep for everybody in the family, is high on my list of parenting priorities. It is valuable enough that I am okay, in certain, controlled scenarios, with it trumping other values, such as comforting a child at any cost.

Not sleep training can be hard too, of course. Sleep deprivation is a debilitating thing, and cumulatively so. It is especially hard, from an emotional point of view, when it serves only to delay the tears and not to prevent them entirely. For many parents, it becomes clear that in choosing not to sleep train there was a tacit expectation that the child would outgrow the nighttime waking (or bunking in or milk habit) at some vague but mutually agreeable point in the future. Sometimes this is exactly what happens and lucky stars should be counted.

But sometimes it isn’t and one morning enough is enough. There are only so many broken nights a person can stand, so many nights before the we-can-live-with-it sleeping ‘pattern’ turns into the untenable sleeping ‘problem’. Everyone’s tipping point is different in this regard. But now instead of a crying baby there is a 15 month old throwing up from the angst of the new world order or a three year old, returned to bed for the umpteenth time, screaming that Mommy doesn’t love her anymore. Unfortunately, it’s not always easier to wait.

When it comes down to it, how we handle our children’s sleeping once it goes astray is usually a matter of lesser evils. Which is worse: the problem or the solution? One of the hardest things about this particular arena of childcare is the sheer difficulty of actually making a decision in the first place: inertia is an all too comfortable bedfellow of the exhausted. But there is much to be said for adopting a deliberate course of action – whatever it is – no matter how tired you are. And for having reasons that make sense to you even after the second cup of coffee.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “some rest for the teary

  1. Philippa

    Good piece Lauren. Having had complete polar experiences with my two (son slept through the night from six weeks old, would pretty much nap on command and still sleeps more than anyone else in the house, followed by my daughter who did not sleep through the night until she was FOUR YEARS AND TWO MONTHS OLD), I have been forced to conclude that mostly, you get what’s in the packet. Stopped me feeling smug pretty quickly (on the sleeping front, anyway!) Actually, it just about killed me.
    I’ve always wondered why there is so little research on the subject of prolonged regular sleep-deprivation. Scientists are happy to show what happens if you keep someone awake for 36+ hours non-stop (result: psychosis), but there doesn’t seem to be a lot out there about the effects of getting up to a child several times a night for years on end.

  2. it feels particularly cruel when it goes that way round, doesn’t it? son number two’s inability to do things, sleeping-wise, that son number one did without incident drove me to distraction. i agree that a large part of it is ‘what’s in the packet’. but i definitely think there is an element of parental agency as well, which works in both directions. over the course of time, babies with the potential to sleep well can be warped from this course and babies who are ‘naturally’ bad sleepers can be transformed into good ones. sometimes it depends on what you do with what you’ve got. at any rate, i hope you are enjoying your full nights of sleep now!

  3. Erin Mclennan

    Great to read another expressive and coherent essay Lauren. A very emotionally fraught topic (inescapable when examining childbearing/rearing of course). Our acquaintance with this issue must vary so wildly it would be hard to pin down trends, but whatever our experience, it is undeniably true that it is our responsibility as parents to teach our kids to sleep. This was one of my many mantras when repeatedly sleep training child number one along with “healthy sleep habits, happy family” or some such thing. I have plenty of holes in my memory from those months and years of extreme fatigue. Course, that could have been from the act of repeatedly banging my head off the wall in some warped desire to match physical pain to the mental agony of exhaustion (my husband loves reminding me of this incident whenever we discuss having any more children). Sleep loss is difficult, there is no denying but sleep deprivation is torture. Sophisticated and far reaching with tentacles dipping into every aspect of your existence. And so with judgement impaired, emotions in overdrive, perceptions skewed away from rational thought towards guilt ridden meltdowns, we approach sleep training. From the lofty position of total insanity! What fun!
    And yet I can’t be the only one who wishes just a little of it on every smug newly made parent who utters those five utterly unfair words ” sleeping through the night already!”. Bastards!

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