No easy way out

June 23,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We have cycled into a rut of poor sleep around here lately. Not too long ago, it seems, we were enjoying some lazy mornings and relatively seamless nights, but now we're back to middle-of-the night sleep issues rearing their ugly heads all over again. The other night I was awakened by bloodcurdling screams coming from L.'s room, and then heard the rushing of his feet. He burst into our bedroom, with the dog right behind him (wondering, I'm sure, what middle-of-the-night games were afoot).

"Go BACK TO BED," I growled at the dog and, good dog that she is (not even the dog really wants to be awake at 2:00 am), she did.

L., however, refused to go back to HIS bed. I had to drag myself out of bed, go to his room, run through a list of all the things that were "wrong" with his room at that point, tuck him back in, give him water, plant a kiss several times on his forehead, and tune his radio into the classical music station, before he calmed down again. Then he was back up again at 4:00. Rinse and repeat all over again.

Sometimes I wonder if my son will ever sleep "normally" or if he's destined to be a restless insomniac the rest of his life--prone as he is to waking up at all hours of the night, terrified of the dark possibilities, or just too energized to switch off and go back to sleep again. And I find myself thrown back into the role of sleep psychologist, along with all those other roles I fill on a daily (or hourly) basis. I wonder what's bothering him. Is the room too dark? Too light? The book he read too scary? Is something we don't know about bothering him? What inner angsts are keeping him awake?

When the kids were little, it was easier. My parenting bible was the Dr. Sears' parenting book--The Baby Book--a big fat tome chock-full of information. My mother-in-law gave it to us before L. was born and I devoured every page of it, even the sections on toddlers and preschoolers, long before my own baby made his appearance into the world. Later, as we tried to figure out the reasons why our new child just wasn't sleeping right, or staying asleep, or why we needed to pull out so many tricks just to get him to give it up to sleep, I finally remembered studying an elaborate checklist in the Sears book: all the reasons WHY a baby just won't sleep. Systematically we went through them all:

Room temperature correct? Check.

Diaper dry? Check.

Diaper fastened correctly? Check.

Baby's stomach full? Check.

Nose clear? Check.

Windows darkened? Check.

And so on. It was reassuring to have the list in the first place, even if it didn't yield any concrete results for us. But I remember feeling failed by my friend Sears, for not giving us a pat answer to solve our baby's inability to sleep normally. Instead we had to pull out our own tricks, patched together from some of Sears' attachment parenting advice, until we created our own methods for dealing with L.'s sleep issues.

This was an important first lesson for us, though, as new parents. We learned that there is no one-size-fits-all baby manual out there with solutions that work for every child. You have to use a mixture of your gut instincts, paired with advice, empathy, and common sense. Sears didn't fail us, it's just that we were looking for answers no one could provide. One of the most common parenting mistakes I think new parents make is to try to apply universal parenting "rules" and methods to their own children without taking into consideration the individuality of their particular child. We learned this the hard way--we even tried that controversial Ferber sleep method on L. once, with heartbreaking results. We never, ever tried again. But I'm glad we did learn this lesson. Once we let go of the idea that there's a formula out there for good sleep, or good eating, or for preventing meltdowns and tantrums, or for potty training, or any number of other parenting challenges, things went more smoothly for us. We realized that sometimes you have to ride out the tough patches and parent your child in response to the person he is, not the person you want him to be, and that there are sometimes no easy solutions, especially at 2:00 am.