August 2014

The Daddy Handbook: Sleep is a Delicate Thing

Steven J. Moss


“Reaux, Sham, Beaux, sudden death!” Debbie announced, invoking our last-ditch method of determining which one of us would have to do whatever unpleasant task was at hand.

 “Mommy!  Daddy!” Sara screamed from her bedroom.  

Both of us had already tucked her in multiple times.  On each occasion, not long after we sat back down to finish dinner, she’d loudly demand that we come back to her bedside.  Glancing at my almost cold bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese, I raised my fist in preparation for battle with Debbie to decide which of us would return to Sara’s room.

 Sleep is a foreign country Sara would rather not visit.  As soon as she could make an understandable sound she insisted that Debbie or I crawl onto the mattress next to her, and stay there until she closed her eyes.  Every night my wife or I would either fall asleep in her bed well before 8:30 p.m., or lie with her for more than an hour before slowly extracting ourselves from her tight grip.

Getting out of Sara’s bed was like defusing a bomb.  She tended towards a defensive sleeping posture, wrapping a slender arm around my neck, in a kind of modified choke-hold; and/or throwing one of her legs over my waist.  I needed to quietly and carefully shift her appendages off from wherever they were draped on my body.  I usually deployed one of her large stuffed animals to switch out her neck hold, letting her grip that instead. To remove her leg was more difficult, usually requiring that she be in deep sleep.  

Once her initial sleep traps had been eliminated, I’d slowly scoot down the mattress, away from her body, like crawling under barbed wire.  I’d then slide down the edge of her chest bed, feet stretched out to find a clear space on the floor.  The next stage was critical:  avoiding stepping on the toys scattered around her room, being especially careful not to disturb an object that, when squished, would squeak, squeal, or honk, waking her up, and triggering a repeat of the entire excruciating process.  This happened more than once, causing me to mutter angry curses at whomever gave her the stuffed dog that barked when squeezed, or the electronic toy that played a merry tune when jostled.

The exception to Sara’s war against sleep occurred during an eight-week trip to Southern India when she was three years old.  The place’s intensity was overwhelming, filled with swirling, colorful saris, the smell of dirt mixed with sewage, spices, and exhaust, and the cacophony of shouting vendors, rumbling cars and motorcycles, joined by the occasional passage of a clambering religious or political mini-parade.  Going unconscious was Sara’s defense.  As soon as we got into an auto-rickshaw — a three-wheel vehicle with a sheet metal cabin bolted over a two-person bench, pulled by a high-pitched four-cycle engine — Sara would fall asleep against my chest.  Minutes after the start of a Kathakali dance recital, which featured masked and costumed performers, drumming and high-pitched singing, she crawled onto my lap, turned away from the stage, and slept.

 Back in San Francisco, Debbie and I loathed Sara’s insistence on bedtime companionship, and bitterly fought over whose turn it was to put her to sleep.  But we were also sympathetic — it made sense to us of that she’d want to snuggle with someone else, something we ourselves enjoyed—and hopeful that her fitful sleep habits would end soon.  

“She’s not going to want to sleep with us when she’s a teenager,” Debbie desperately joked, her voice tilting towards a question mark at the end.  

We both knew that we’d caused the problem, by mishandling Sara’s sleep habits early on.  This shouldn’t have been allowed to fester so long.  Still, our nighttime lives were being obliterated.  A few weeks after we returned from India we decided to “Ferber” Sara.  The Ferber Method supposedly trains children to “self-soothe” by steadily increasing their tolerance for being left alone.  We’d tuck Sara in, fend off her protests, slink out the door, and wait in the kitchen while she cried.  The initial five minutes of sobbing turned into 10, and then 20.  Days passed, but the method wasn’t working, or we weren’t allowing it to.  If we didn’t go comfort her, Sara would get out of her bed and find us, demand a new tucking-in, and repeat the cycle.  Inevitably, after an hour of back-and-forth, with no sign that Sara would relent, one of us — usually me — would capitulate, and crawl into bed with her.

Finally, one night, we decided to stand our ground.  

“Neither of us is giving in this time,” Debbie said firmly.  We read to Sara, carefully smoothed the blankets over her, slipped her favorite stuffy, Koda, into her arms, kissed her goodnight, and told her that no one was going to sleep with her tonight or in the future.

“No!” Sara, shouted, “Sleep with me!”

We walked out of her room, and gently shut the door.  Sara cried.  We stayed where we were, sitting on the sofa in the living room.  Sara got out of bed, and begged us to come tuck her in.  We told her to go back to bed.  She returned to her room, only to cycle back out 20 minutes later.  Days went by; the battle went on for hours every night.  Still, Debbie and I held firm.

A week and a half into the Ferber skirmishes, Sara got out of bed for the second time that night.  She stood in her too big racecar pajamas — hand-me-downs from her cousin, Asa — clutching Koda, one hand rubbing an eye.

“Go back to bed,” I said, firmly.

“Mommy, daddy, I need to tell you something,” Sara said.

“Okay,” Debbie said.  “What?”

“It hurts my feelings when you walk away from me at bedtime, and it makes me feel bad when you tell me to go back to bed all of the time,” Sara sniffled.  “I’m just a child.”

Surprised by the crack of a new maturity in Sara’s voice, neither of us knew whether to smile at her truthful expression of her feelings, or frown in response to this new, emotionally savvy tactic.  But we both knew that Ferbering was finished.

“Come on, Sweetie, I’ll put you to bed,” said Debbie.

An hour or so later my wife came out of Sara’s room, yawning.  “She’s asleep,” she said.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Debbie.  “We may not have taught her to put herself to sleep, but I guess we did teach her to communicate her feelings.  That’s something.”

Handbook Tips:  Sleepy or Weepy

You have a choice.  You can be firm about bed time, tucking in your kids like clockwork, never letting them get up after they’ve been handed their stuffy or other favorite sleep object, and been fully blanketed.  Or, you can be all loosey-goosey, and let things slip-slide away.  Create a cozy “family” bed, fetch them water on demand, allow them to get up and go to the bathroom.  And never have sex with your wife at home again without wondering whether someone will come padding in during the act.  Your call.

Lots of kids don’t like to sleep alone; who can blame them?  My sister, Marissa, solved this problem by having two of her three boys sleep together until they were in kindergarten, an arrangement that worked well for all involved.  Another option:  get a dog or cat, and have the critter sleep with your child.  Animals can be costly, and leave pesky hair and dirt around, but it’s all worth it if it gets your kid to stay in bed at night.

Some things go in phases, others might last a good long time.  Nearly a decade after our Ferber wars Sara still fights going to sleep.  She follows a nightly battle plan that starts with playing in bed, shifts to reading in bed, and typically ends with her insisting I tell her a story.  Most nights she appears at least once after she’s been tucked-in, marches to where ever we are, and announces, “I have a question,” followed by a mostly irrelevant query about the next day’s activities, or something that happened at school.  I’ll escort her back to bed, fold the covers over her, and kiss, once again, good night.

This is an excerpt from The Daddy Handbook — first published in the paper in 2011 — a book by View editor Steven Moss, sections from which will appear in the paper throughout 2014.   He’s looking for a publisher for this work.  Fellow parents are encouraged to write in with their experiences:

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