To sleep - FamilyEducation

To sleep

February 12,2008
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.

New parents always receive way more unsolicited sleep advice than they ever want or need, I think. For instance, when our son was only one-month old his pediatrician at the time gave us, two brand-new parents, the following advice (and there we were seated in front of her like naughty kids facing the school principal):

You can cuddle him and hold him and spoil him now, but once he turns about three months old you need to teach him some independence—particularly with his sleep habits. 

I remember we felt so affronted and aghast at the time.  Independence?  Three months? How could she speak of independence in a three-month old child?  Why would a pediatrician even dole out parenting advice?  Needless to say, we soon switched doctors and the new one, an older white-haired man who liked to read Russian novelists and who we remember as the best pediatrician we ever had (alas we had to leave him behind when we moved from New York) crinkled up his eyes in a smile when we told him (sheepishly) that L. slept with us and wouldn’t sleep on his own.

Well, why WOULD he really? Dr. S. responded logically, and that was the end of that. Of course his answer could have been taken two ways--why would a five-month old want/need to sleep by himself when he could have the warmth and comfort of his parents' bed? Or, conversely, why would he even try to sleep on his own when he so readily got his way? But either way, there was no judgment in Dr. S.'s response.  He was not interested in giving us parenting advice, only in caring for our son's health and physical well-being.

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I have the sweetest memories of my sleeping children; I hoard these greedily. It’s amazing to me how vividly I remember some of these moments, particularly given that I saw most of them through the fog of sleep deprivation.  For instance: when L. was only two weeks old I awoke to a terrible thunderstorm.  He was in bed with us, curled on his side with his face near the front of my nightshirt.  My arm hurt and I was uncomfortable lying as I was.  My body had quickly trained itself in sleep to consider his small body next to mine.  I rarely moved at all during the night in those days and would wake up with a stiff left arm and neck.  As I looked down on him that night, wondering if I could shift my arm somehow and still keep him safe and asleep, an especially loud peal of thunder sounded outside.  L., still asleep, jerked and startled with the noise, but ever so briefly; as if a spasm had moved across his body.  He turned his head closer to me, and then opened and closed his little starfish hands. I had done nothing in particular to protect him from the noise; he had intuitively felt my presence around him, enveloping him, giving him the reassurance he needed to stay asleep.

The other night our daughter woke at 11:00 from a bad dream.  She cried out in her sleep and half-woke.  I waited a few minutes for her to settle herself before heading upstairs to her bedroom to check on her.  When I did go up, I found her sitting noiselessly on the floor in our bedroom, a small, tousled-haired scrunched-up figure in her yellow flowered sleeper. She was half-asleep and bewildered.  I scooped her up and carried her into our bed and settled her into her spot on my pillow. Her hand reached around to hold and squeeze my neck, something she used to do when nursing at night. It's been over two years since she was weaned, yet how remarkable to me that the old familiar gesture remains in her psyche--the need to reach out and touch familiar skin, to be lulled back into deep sleep again. When I leave the bed in the morning to shower, she often ends up near my husband--drawn like a magnet towards warmth and comfort.

Soon--I know, soon--we will work on helping her stay in her own bed all night.  Soon she will turn to her stuffed animals in the night, or burrow under her blankets for warmth. We'll both miss her; our bodies will cover up the spot between us she once occupied.  I might dream about her small hand on my neck.

Even now at seven years of age, our son still pads through the dark into our room, wakened from a bad dream.  I might open my eyes briefly to see him standing there. Sometimes I see him as he was at two, a small figure in the dark, asking for comfort.  Long after he returns to his own room, to his own seven-year old sleep, I have scooped him up in my dreams and settled him between us again.