When I announced we were expecting, nearly everyone warned me to, ‘get used to never sleeping again!’ My response to this sleep advice was, ‘I sleep poorly as it is. I think I’ll be OK.’ While it is true that I’ve never been a particularly skilled sleeper, this is not what everyone meant. They meant exhaustion beyond childless comprehension. Far beyond.
Sleep when the kid sleeps
And I was soon humbled by the grind of real sleeplessness, joined with stress, anxiety, and early-first-parent realisations that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing with this creature who depends entirely on you.
The best piece of advice anyone gave was simply: “Sleep when the kid sleeps.”
As an at-home parent, my temptation was to spruce up our rapidly decaying house when our son finally settled into a nap. This was a mistake, because if you keep moving while the child sleeps, then you’ll be in motion all day. One cannot endure.
A key pressure point for new parents is balancing getting things done with getting rest. I advise erring on the side of rest; there’ll be plenty of time to mop the kitchen floor in the Spring of 2031. Until then, don’t sweat it
Of course, you’ve got to get the kid to sleep before you can rack yourself with guilt over taking a break while he sleeps. Easier said than done. I found a combination of things did the trick: walking in circles and punk rock noise.
The round and round in circles technique
First, I would cradle my son’s head in my left elbow and walk in circles.
I accidentally discovered that as he tracked objects while I turned, his eyes would naturally fall closed. Without the movement, his attention would dart from amusing thing to amusing thing, seemingly for hours. After all, we spend all this time crafting engaging environments for the kids, then wonder at their inability to dis-engage on schedule.
It’s no surprise.
Anyway, his head on my left arm and anti-clockwise movements eased his eyes involuntarily closed, and that’s what you’re aiming for. Now to keep them that way.
The punk rock sleeping technique
Punk rock noise. I knew from day one that I’d never survive jangly Casio-toned kids’ jingles.
Instead, I’d feed my child a steady, nutritious diet of Motörhead and the Ramones. I can assure you, it worked.
To this day, crunchy, grinding guitar noise with a perky beat puts the boy straight to sleep. Here’s why.
As far as I can tell, in the throes of my most exhausted new-parent moments, drifting off beside my child in his motorised swing, me dozing sleeplessly on the couch, the Ace Of Spades faded to the Ace of Ggggssssshhhh, pounding along at the same pace as an infant’s heartbeat.
Punky growling turns to white noise and heartbeats when you’re this tired. I enthusiastically endorse this strategy.
Trial and error
If my specific implementation isn’t your thing, the general point is simple.
Kids need the right environment to inspire sleep, and that might not be the stereotypical dim-lighted lullaby room with a soothing tropical rain forest sound machine droning behind. Their preferences might surprise you, and might mean your sanity and salvation.
Sleep is not a science; it’s an art
And there’s no shame in creative trial and error, because contrary to much of what you might hear, sleep is not a science; it’s an art.
Persistence and regular schedule are not to be underestimated. We followed a plan that suggested after ninety minutes of awake time, start a nap.
Sometimes it would take forty five minutes to get him settled, then once asleep, we would let him go until he was rested – typically between thirty and sixty minutes. In no time at all (it seemed like an eternity in the middle of it though) we had him sleeping 12 hours through the night.
The (modified) cry it out technique
I’m going to wade into dangerous waters here.
Surely you’ve heard of the cry it out controversy. Briefly, it is this: some argue, with ample fact-based research for support, that allowing a child to cry him or herself to sleep is tantamount to abuse and will permanently scar the child.
Others argue, with ample fact-based research for support, that allowing a child to cry is psychologically harmless and is an effective sleep training technique.
If you have strong opinions on the topic already, you might want to stop reading here. I won’t be offended.
As I said, exhaustion is my enemy.
After a few months of rushing to our boy at the least squeak, adjustments were in order. I was fading to utter functionlessness and nearly suffering hallucinations; my wife was not in especially finer shape. We decided to give cry it out a try.
Short story: it worked for us and relieved one of the worst pressure points for new parents – physical fatigue due to everyone’s abject lack of sleep. Getting the boy to sleep through the night became essential to our survival.
Generally, a kid cries for one of three reasons: hungry, hurting, or tired. As long as you eliminate the first two possibilities, sleep is all that’s left.
Now, some might say that little ones cry when afraid or even when lonely. If this is correct, then the whole debate will start to lean much heavier to the anti-CIO-side. But I’m of the opinion that isolation and fear (of the dark or of bogeymen as opposed to such tangible dangers as tigers and tornadoes) are emotional responses of a higher level than a few-month-old can process.
Even aged 3 years, my son wasn’t afraid of rattlesnakes or violent aircraft turbulence. It’s hard to imagine that a dim room would ruffle him to the point of sobbing if neither of those gave him the least pause?
The cry it out techniques we researched suggested waiting longer and longer durations before going to your child – but to always go at some pre-determined point in order to stave off the possibility of feelings of isolation. Eventually, the crying would stop.
For us, he rarely carried on more than 10 or so minutes, then slept until dawn. Exhaustion abated. Sanity restored.
No advice is universal
It’s trivial to say that all kids are different, but it’s worth pursuing one implication: no advice is universal.
In the end, you’ll be left with tough judgments throughout your child’s life, from education to health care to letting him borrow the car for a long weekend in the city.
But you can rest assured that regardless of what you’re going through and how you choose to deal with it, you’re not alone. You can rest assured, that is, as long as you can get some rest. You’re going to need it.