Why T. still sleeps with us

April 25,2008
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 are trying, gently and carefully, to help T. learn to stay in her own bed all night long. She always wakes up every night, sometimes at 11:00, or 1:00, or 4:00--the times vary--but the results are the same. I rouse myself from my sleep to find her standing next to our bed, a small, breathless, frightened figure. I get up, take her to the potty, then bring her to bed with us, where she snuggles against my back with a deep sigh, arms closed tightly around my neck. My husband is happy with all this, of course--he's not the one who has to stumble around in the bathroom with her in the dark at 4:00 a.m. He loves her presence in the bed, as I do--and we both, without even talking about it, are reluctant to let go of this last sweet bedtime milestone--the one that's such a part of children's baby/toddler years.

But I would like an uninterrupted night's sleep. I wouldn't mind so much if T. took herself to the bathroom in the wee hours of the night, then slipped into bed with us. But ever since she's begun making moves towards staying dry overnight, the bathroom trip has become pretty critical (waking up in wet sheets is no less pleasant for a child than it is for grown-ups, let me assure you). And poor L. was firmly nudged out of our own bed when he was 3-1/2; even our king-sized bed just simply wasn't large enough to accommodate two adults, a wiggly, long-limbed 3-1/2 year old, and a tiny newborn who needed to nurse ALL night long. So we have been suggesting to T., carefully and often, that she might like to stay in her bed all night long. This idea, attractive to her in the light of day ("I a Big Girl now!!"), is something she then wants nothing to do with come bedtime. She is, as she has told us lately, afraid of monsters, and all of this comes bubbling out of her at bathtime, usually while she's seated on the potty and her bathwater is running. Then she sits, her feet dangling in the air and twisting about each other. Conversations have been going like this:

"Are there monsters, Mama?"

"No monsters. I told you that there aren't any."

"Yes, there are!"

"Nope-no monsters, T."

"But I scared of them at night. Them are bigger than one elephant's ears!"

"There aren't any monsters, T. I promise you."

"But I wake at night in the dark and can't see! And there's one monster bigger than one elephant's ears!"

"There's no monster in the dark, T. Just the dark, and Mama and Papa in the next room, and L. in the other one."

"Are you scared of monsters, Mama?"

"Sometimes I'm scared of things, but that's okay. We all are, sometimes."

"Are you brave, Mama?"

"I think I am."

"But why you scared, Mama? Why? Why?"

People talk about the vulnerability of newborns. But I've always thought there's a resiliency in them--in the way their tiny hands ball up and poke the air; their stiffened, flailing arms, the loud cries and the earnest way they suck their milk. When I think of vulnerability, I think about how small my daughter looks, perched up high on the grown-up potty, her little pink and white feet so far from the ground. I think of her waking up at night in the dark, realizing for a few awful moments that she can't see and she's alone. A newborn cries in the dark for warmth and food and a familiar smell, and gets it right away. Vulnerability is T. now, in the dark, with her difficult questions and her fears; her tiny sorrows and worries that are so very, very huge to her. It's hard to take away her mainstay; to not scoop her up in the dark when she appears, a sweet little ghostly figure in the dark, wanting only the safety of her parents' bed.

How can we refuse?