by Andy Zell
My ten-month-old daughter is a terrible sleeper. She wakes up multiple times per night and needs to eat at least twice if not more to make it to morning. This is hardest on my wife because at night she bears most of the burden.
My main excuse for doing so little with the baby was that for a few months, I was dealing with the sleep problems of our three year old. He would wake up nearly every night and cry and scream. It was up to me to help him back to sleep. I became so attuned to his crying that I would wake up as soon as he started across the hallway, but I would sleep right through the baby who wailed in the same room as me. For my wife, vice versa.
I’m not at my best in the middle of the night. My usual strategy was to lie down on the floor next to his bed (his mattress is on the floor) while he took his time calming down and falling back to sleep. If I tried to leave before he was completely unconscious, then the cycle of crying and screaming would repeat. This meant that I usually fell asleep on his floor and slept there for a few hours each night.
After talking with his pediatrician, I knew this couldn’t go on. It was hard on me, but for him it was establishing bad habits. He needed to re-learn how to fall back to sleep on his own. Using the doctor’s suggestions, I slowly started to distance myself from his bed. Instead of lying down next to him, I would sit on a chair while he went back to sleep. I got less sleep, but I did make it back to the comfort of my own bed.
It didn’t happen immediately, but over the course of weeks he needed me less and less. Now he sleeps through the night, and I am left with no excuses for not helping more with the baby. I think the baby also has bad sleep associations. For many reasons (she’s highly distractible when feeding, and bedtime with four kids is chaotic at best, among others), we’ve gotten into the habit of feeding her right before laying her down. So she associates snuggles and eating with going to bed.
The most helpful sleep book we found is Jodi Mindell’s Sleeping Through the Night, where she talks about the importance of bedtime routines and sleep associations. It’s a lesson that we’ve used to good effect with three other kids, but somehow we’ve forgotten. Being a parent is hard. We never have it all figured out, even when we’ve done it well in the past.
And it’s so easy to coast and think that the present routine is going to keep on going forever. One child suddenly drops the second nap from the schedule that had gone on for months. The sweet three year old turns into a biting and yelling tantrum machine. The previously compliant one starts peeing on his carpet to get attention and boy does he ever! Things change all the time, and I don’t like change. But I have to approach situations and my kids as the unique individuals they are. When I get stuck in my own ideas and expectations, inflexible to the context and to the persons my kids are becoming, I get frustrated. I have to adapt.
My wife often reminds me, “This too shall pass,” whether good or bad, and it will. It’s up to me to be open and ready for what comes next.
Andy Zell tutors writing part time, but mostly he’s a stay at home parent for his four young kids. He writes about books, music, faith, and life on his personal blog strangerextant.com and occasionally uses Twitter @strangerextant.