Oh my friends. We had a ‘good sleeper’. Generally speaking our girl responded well to the sleep schedule I started when she was 5 months old. I learned then that she might not just figure it out on her own, and a little guidance would help her find what her body really wanted, which was more sleep. I knew Mamas and babies who weren’t having it so easy at that stage… and I was grateful for it. My parent friends know, ‘good’ sleeping doesn’t necessarily mean all night long sleeping. It means, maybe you’re up once. It means they go down without too much drama. It means you basically feel rested when you wake up, and your brain begins to function somewhat normally.
Fast forward to 3 years of age. 2 major things happened in my little one’s little life. We moved. And she lost her paci. I could have gone out and gotten another one. I could have given it to her the next day when I found it… But I figured, why not go ahead and nip that habit in the bud right? What happened then, is that she no longer had the comfort she was used to going to sleep with. So, I gave her the comfort of helping her go to sleep. After the bedtime book, I would lie down with her. Sometimes getting up to leave before she was fully asleep, sometimes she’d fall asleep quickly while I was there. It was around the same time, she began to wake herself up to go to the bathroom at night. We still had her in a pull-up, and honestly we wanted sleep more than we wanted a fully potty trained kid, but her little body was ready. Night time potty visits began to be a regular thing. And sips of water. And for a while, she didn’t need a lot of assistance going back to sleep. But a few months ago, the bedtime routine began to evolve. She began to have growing pains. And night terrors, and bad dreams (they’re actually different). She wanted me or Daddy to lie down with her… and cried when we tried to leave before she was asleep. Sounds basically harmless right? Just comfort your child, and everything will work out.
WRONG. The nighttime wakings became more frequent, and she began to demand that we lie down with her in the middle of the night. Until she was asleep again. We had inadvertently trained her to need our presence to sleep. I tried getting her to come to our bed. She wasn’t having it. I tried to cut back on water just incase that was waking her up. I tried talking to her about it, and explaining that Mama needed to sleep and in the light of day she was 100% cognizant of what I was talking about, and when we created a sleep chart for stickers and prizes she was so excited! Until bedtime. Until 10pm, 1am, 3am. On several occasions my husband and I were up with her 5 times. Because even if one parent goes in, the parent who stays in bed isn’t sleeping. You’re just PRAYING to God that its the last time for that night.
After a few weeks, and months of this sleep deprivation, your brain begins to degrade. Literally. In the newborn phase, all parents experience this. You start to feel a little, or a lot, crazy. Patience, which is the thing you need MOST with a toddler, is depleted, emotions are raw. Bills are forgotten, and keys are lost. If you are a working parent, you’re 1/2 there at best. You eat for comfort, or drink to ‘take the edge off’. Sleep deprivation creates a continual loop of stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and insulin in the body. You might even start to resent your child (gasp!!!).
And its not their fault. Its not yours either. But, it is our responsibility as the adult in the equation, to try and figure out a better way. For weeks, I fretted about this. I worried about what I should do. Would allowing her to cry as we retrained the bedtime routine, cause her permanent trauma? It would be different at 3 years of age compared to 5 months, that much I knew. And I was feeling like a complete failure. The midnight version of Mama was not a pretty picture. I was ANGRY. Like, really, really pissed. Because at 2 in the morning, it is not our functional rational brain in charge. It is our basic survival brain, and it needs to fucking sleep! And right alongside parental anger, is guilt. Because it really sucks to be angry at a child. It may be the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced. And yet, as parents we are just human, we are far from perfect even though we think maybe somehow there’s a chance that if we tried harder we could do better. And sometimes we just can’t do better than what we’re doing.
The tipping point came. I gathered some information for support. I ignored the information that didn’t support my gut instinct ( a key skill in parenting at any age, in my opinion… ALWAYS GO WITH YOUR GUT). I prayed. And I prepared to have to stick with my plan, for as many nights as it might take to establish a new normal. I discussed it with my husband. I told him, I promise you, I will remain calm no matter what. I won’t yell or spank (confession of a mom who hates it, but has spanked, and decided that it is ineffective and sucks for all parties) and would channel the calm presence the Montessori teachers we know and love. I discussed it with my 3 year old, knowing that even though a different part of her brain was going to kick in at bedtime, that is was better this way.
That evening, following the previous night of NO FUCKING SLEEP. We were all tired. Many meltdowns had taken place during the day as a result of her over fatigue. So she was ready for bed a bit earlier than normal. Here we go…
The first 5 minutes felt like eternity. I save you the full play by play, and just give you the synopsis. Mama: child, it’s time for night night, (repeating key phrases from earlier in the day about her bed is too little for Mama, its just for Mavis, etc etc). Child: (SCREAMING) MAMA LAY DOWN WITH ME!!!!!!! I NEED YOU!!! !!!! !!! !!!! Mama: (calmly, quietly) child, its time for night night, I love you, etc etc. We were up, we were down, but we stayed in the bedroom. I had introduced the idea of a ‘special sleep buddy’ earlier in the day, a new stuffed animal pillow that had been given to us for Christmas, and hadn’t been used. At first she rejected it. After several in and out of the bed episodes, she was beginning to wear down. I held her standing up, long enough for her to calm herself. Talking all the while, about how she was going to get a sticker in the morning, and what kind would she like? A zebra sticker? A butterfly? A snail? (parenting tip, asking questions will help trip their brain from animal to human and eventually will help them engage in the process… when they’re ready). When she answered ‘A zebra sticker’… I knew we had turned a corner. Then I put her in the bed, and asked her what she was feeling. Child: Scared. Mama: What are you scared of sweetie? Child: Monsters. Mama: Oh! Well did you know that doggies chase monsters away? And your special sleep buddy (a doggie) is here to keep the monsters away. Those silly monsters! Would you like sleep buddy under the covers? Child: Yes! No… I need more room (hilarious because of how much room her adult parents took up).
I tucked her and her sleep buddy in snugly and kissed her cheek and said night night baby, I love you and I’ll see you in the morning. I left the room. Looked at the clock. 30 minutes had gone by. 30 eternal minutes of intense parenting. She was asleep in seconds after walked out. I sat with my husband, a bit stunned. I had anticipated at least an hour of ‘work’. Later, before I went to bed, I went into her room and prayed again. God please protect this child from fearful dreams and thoughts. Let her feel safe and loved, and let her sleep deeply. God forgive me for my short comings as a parent, forgive my for my anger and impatience. Help me to trust you in all things, especially THIS THING. Thank you thank you, Amen ( the blessing our child says over dinner most nights).
I lay myself down to sleep, wondering what the night would bring. At 2:20 she woke up… I readied for a repeat of the bedtime scene. Walked into her room, what is it honey, do you need to go pee-pee? Child: Mama, my sleep buddy fell down. Mama: Oh! let me tuck him in. Sleep buddy tucked, she didn’t even sit up for a sip of water… I left the room STUNNED. Then jubilant. OMG!!! PARENTING SUCCESS!!! I got back in bed, and promptly lay there for the next 2 hours listening to the silence of my child sleeping deeply. Now, my circadian rhythm, still all f-ed up from so many nights of disrupted sleep pattern, couldn’t make the switch. But I lay there breathing deeply, trying to relax my body and giving thanks. Knowing that it would be a few more nights most likely before I could really say we had a permanent change, and probably a few nights before I could sleep again. But all in all, astonished at how quickly my child had adapted and accepted then new situation. 30 minutes of extreme discomfort, would lead us to a new world of rest and peace for our family.
Eventually I got up to write. Because I might as well put all this energy in my brain to good use! My aspirations of early morning Mama-time suddenly now a reasonable hope for reality. My time management issues, and so many other things, now having a solid base upon which to be created. But perhaps above all my self confidence as a parent, given just a little (ok a major) boost. A much needed but totally unexpected, instant feedback, that I made a good choice for my family.
Now, this story, I’m CERTAIN, is not over. And I know we will have countless more challenges in this and other areas. But, I’ll worry about those later and enjoy being able to better enjoy my child because we are all well rested. Because sleep, is not, overrated.