My first child, Tristan, would only sleep if someone sat up and held him in one arm, like a football. My wife, Mel, and I split the night in half. She usually took the first shift, until about 3 a.m., and I took the second. It was a lot of long nights gazing at the TV, half awake and longing for some magic pill, or trick, or something to get him to sleep. And like most parents, we searched for one.
We started with the cry it out method, which is the most recommended and most popular when your baby won’t sleep, but by far the shittiest, hardest thing I’ve done as a parent. Mel and I argued about this for several weeks. She told me it was cruel while I gazed at her with bloodshot eyes. I was a college student at the time and both of us were working full-time, and I mentioned how I kept falling asleep on the bus and waking up in strange places.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said.
Eventually we agreed that I would do it.
We put Tristan is his room and let him cry. I comforted him from time to time, but I never picked him up. It took about three nights of listening to my little guy cry. At times, between a mix of exhaustion and emotional turmoil, I nearly cried. There is something so tragic about listening to your child weep and doing nothing. And I will admit, he started to sleep soundly—for about a week.
Then he contracted norovirus, and suddenly everything went to shit—physically and metaphorically.
Once he got better, he was sleeping in my arms again. But the crazy thing was, I didn’t mind it so much. Sitting up with him in the night didn’t hurt nearly as much as letting him cry, so I never let him cry it out again.
Flash-forward nine years, and I haven’t let any of my children cry it out. We have three children now, two girls and one boy. With all three of our kids, we have tried a million different parlor tricks to get them to sleep. We’ve tried putting them on a regular schedule, but with work and school that never seemed to stick.
We’ve tried different essential oils, which worked about as well as snake oil. We’ve tried not letting the child nap during the day, which sucked worse than you can imagine. It felt like I was trying to run a sleepless marathon while holding a really shitty crabby child.
We waited until the child looked drowsy and tried to quickly drop everything so that they would sleep, which more or less meant turning off dinner or forgoing a college assignment, so that one of us could fight a squirmy turd of a child into not sleeping.
We’ve rubbed our children down with various aromatherapy lotions filled with lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang (still not sure what the hell that last one is) and other scents that were meant to put them down, and made me feel like some amateur masseuse. For our kids, every one of these lotions either had the opposite impact because rubbing them on the kid made them giggle and got them all pepped up, or no affect at all outside of making me more drowsy than I was before.
What pissed me off the most about all of these useless sleep tactics was that the parents who recommended them pledged that they worked wonders. And every time I used one and they didn’t work, I wondered if there was something wrong with my child.
My middle child would only fall asleep if she was in her high chair, with soft music playing, and no one in the room. This really wasn’t too bad, although it made my wife worry that she would never sleep in her bed, and I recall saying, “It’s not like the child is going to be in college and sleeping in a high chair.”
Not surprisingly, I was right. My two oldest, 9 and 6, both go to bed at a regular time. Sure, they fight going to sleep. They gnash their little teeth, and drag their little feet, but more or less, by 8:30 everyone is down but our youngest, who is about to turn 2.
The only way I can get her down is to play Baby Einstein: Lullaby Time on repeat, clear out the room, and hold her on the couch for a good hour. Sometimes it takes longer. The lullaby time movie is a mix of random toys and repetitive images mixed to soothing classic songs, and sometimes I’m up so long that it feels like I’m on some sort of acid trip, and this random, pilotless movie starts to make sense—“The train moves in a circle. I get it now.”
And in those horrible long nights with my youngest, I think about the fact that both my older kids sleep through the night. It took much longer than I’d like. In the night, Mel and I have said some crazy spiteful things that could only be said by two people who really love each other, but are so sleep deprived that they can’t, for the life of them, think straight. I think about what I told Mel about our middle daughter not sleeping in her high chair forever.
As much as I want my toddler to sleep, as much as it sucks to realize that my children took as long as three years to figure out this whole sleep thing, they eventually figured it out. And for us, time was the only thing that really worked. And I am sure that there are some parents reading this, or perhaps a “sleep expert,” ready to give me advice, ready to push more sleep magic my way. And to you, I say, “Shut it.” This essay isn’t for you.
I’m writing to the parents who have the little squirmy fighter—the child resistant to all of it—the parents with kids like mine. Listen, the long nights suck. I get it. But realize that it will settle. Your children will one day sleep. There is hope. There is a light at the end of this tunnel. Because all this other stuff may or may not work, but the real key is unconditional love and time. I’m pretty sure you’ve got those two in spades.