Add “I just don’t believe in waking babies up” to the list of things I should never have said out loud, along with “I’m going to try not to show him any screens until he’s at least two” and “marriage is not really for me”.
We had our first visitors in late October when our cousins arrived for a week over midterm break, a week in which we picked apples and attended a live reading with David Sedaris and ate Mexican food and drank spicy cocktails in a trendy restaurant downtown.
Though my sister’s house is larger than ours and has a guest bedroom that is pretty much only used by my parents on their regular, long visits, it was decided that they would stay with me. I work from home and our eight-year-old had, at the time, two single beds in his room, so his older brother could bunk in with him while the visitors slept in his double bed.
In advance of their arrival, I apologised for the still-frequent wakings that have become a feature of our every night.
“Atlas is still waking up a few times a night,” I told them, “so I just hope he doesn’t wake you!”
“Don’t worry,” came the response, “I’ll sleep train him while I’m there!”
I bristled – any and all unsolicited offers to help with children’s habits, routines or discipline are, in my experience, to be made with caution – and replied, “Lol! [to show I’m not annoyed even though I am] That’s okay, we’re not really going down that route.”
That route = sleep training, the goes-against-nature attempt to force one’s child into a sort of sleep-related rhythm that may or may not suit their individual needs. I knew all about it, having flung myself enthusiastically down the rabbit-hole of “natural” and “instinctive” motherhood Instagram, whose captions always ended with something enthusiastic like, “You’ve got this, mama!” or “You know best for your babe!”
A mere three months later, I have eaten my proverbial hat. As I type this, Atlas is down for his second mandated 90-minute nap of the day, from which he will be awoken – gently, carefully, lovingly – so that he may be up for long enough to build up enough of what they call “sleep pressure” before his nightly bedtime of 7.30pm.
Add “I just don’t believe in waking babies up” to the list of things I should never have said out loud, along with “I’m going to try not to show him any screens until he’s at least two” and “marriage is not really for me”. It’s not hypocrisy; it’s growth.
It was after a particularly long night of wailing, screaming, writhing and crying that I shared to Instagram how tough I was finding things. “Watching Encanto at 1am – not my finest moment,” I quipped. (That I have now watched Encanto approximately 72 times should tell you how the “no screens” idea is going.)
So when sleep therapist Avril Carr reached out to me via DM and offered to do a consultation with us, it’s fair to say she caught me at a moment of supreme vulnerability. Exhausted and clueless as to how to reverse the course we’d seemed to find ourselves on – with a baby who woke up every hour or so and often refused, point blank, to be laid back in his crib – I figured, what’s the harm in sleep training? While also thinking, sleep training is probably not for us.
I figured sleep training was essentially a way to impress upon your baby that she or he couldn’t expect you to come running at every whimper; that night time was for sleeping, and her or his problems could wait until morning. I assumed it would involve some level of “crying it out”, no matter how much the sleep expert in question promised it wouldn’t; I felt certain sleep training would serve to eliminate any sense of freedom we had thus far been enjoying with our toddler, binding us to the house for set nap times each and every day.
As it happens, I was right about some aspects – and wrong about others. Avril talked us through what she thought was happening with Atlas, who had been, up to that point, taking three- and sometimes four-hour naps each morning.
Though it was a blissful break for us – a minimum of three whole hours to work or put up clothes or just sit on the couch and stare into the abyss – she suspected that this enormous chunk of kip was doing too good a job of taking the edge off his tiredness, meaning that, when it came to bedtime, he was only just about tired enough to take another little nap, not the epic overnight sleep we were hoping for.
That was the largest suggestion Avril made, but there were others. A new bedtime routine precedes each nap and involves ridiculous-feeling tours of the living room, waving and bidding goodbye to everything in sight “Goodnight couch, goodnight bookshelves, goodnight mirror!” The white noise we play in his room is set to a specific decibel level.
His naps, like I said, are of a prescribed duration, and he is to be woken up at the assigned time, something that goes against my every instinct not just as a mother but as a human – who likes to be woken up?! – lest he over-sleep and lose some of that precious sleep pressure we’re trying to build up ahead of the 7.30pm cut-off.
Avril did not say to let him “cry it out”, but she did – gently – suggest waiting a little bit before running into his room in response to his cries. “You know yourself,” she said, reassuringly, “whether it’s a cry of pain or of genuine upset or if he’s just frustrated because no one’s answering him.”
I’m not sure that I do, honestly – the only cry I would safely say that I recognise is the “you turned off the TV!” cry, to my shame – but we have made an effort to take a few breaths before we respond to his night-time squalling.
In any case, it’s kind of a moot point; since our consultation – with the exception of a few days when he got some kind of virus that gave him a terrible cough and a stuffy nose and had him screaming blue murder at all hours – he has consistently woken only once each night. (We were never aiming for zero wake-ups as he’s still nursing, and even going down to one feed a night has had an agonising knock-on effect on my boobs.)
He knows, just a few weeks in, what the beginning of the bedtime routine signifies. He waves, a bit sheepishly, at the couch, the television, the bookshelves, as we bid farewell to the ground floor and herd him up to bed. When we lay him down in his own bed – groggy but awake, that old chestnut of all sleep trainers ever – he rolls over on to his side and sticks his thumb in his mouth (please, no comments on the thumb-sucking – whatever works!) and takes a deep breath and falls asleep within minutes.
I would love to say that our lives have been transformed, but of course, his routine is the only one that has truly changed.
I still wake, like clockwork, at midnight, 1.30am, 2.30am, 3.45am, 4am, 5am… to get a drink of water or use the bathroom or check the monitor or or or or or. It’s hard to switch off. But at least now I have hope that some day soon I might sleep for more than a few hours at a time. Some day soon.
Photography by @rosemarymaccabe.
This article was originally published in January 2023.