I know kids pretty well, I think. I’ve been babysitting other people’s kids since I was old enough to be left on my own — age eleven or twelve. During my senior year in high school, I used our tiny church school’s senior Independent Study program to teach a combined first-and-second grade class three subjects (two of them were split over half the year, so it was an hour a day of teaching). I spent two years as a preschool teacher in a daycare. In my favorite pre-teaching job ever, I spent five years working mostly in the children’s department at Anchorage’s Barnes & Noble. I have a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and I have five years of teaching under my belt. I’m the parent of an active four-year-old and a firecracker 18-month-old. So, really, I’m not new to the whole dealing-with-kids thing.
The problem is, there’s knowing kids as a general category, and then there’s knowing how to deal with one particular child. My one particular child, Sofia, is a darling, bright, engaging little girl who, at 15 months, appeared to simply never want to ever sleep. She fought it like no one I’ve ever known.
As a tiny baby, Sofie had colic. She showed every sign of being in pain nearly all the time. She cried most of every day; she screamed most of every night. Around 1 or 2 in the morning, she would calm down enough to fall asleep, only to wake after 45 minutes needing to nurse. For the first four months of her life, I was lucky to get three or four hours of disconnected sleep nightly… and that nifty idea of napping when baby naps? She never napped. She would sleep in our Ergo carrier, strapped to my chest, and that was it.
We found that part of her colic-like symptoms were the result of a milk protein sensitivity, which meant that she was calmer and in less pain if I stayed away from dairy. It also meant she couldn’t handle formula, even the “gentle protein” kind; and for some reason the milk I pumped was souring immediately, so bottles were no go. I simply resigned myself — more or less — to having her attached to me constantly. I carried her in the Ergo while I cooked, cleaned, weeded, and did everything else that needed to be done. Until she was about six months old, she would panic if I set her down for more than five minutes; around that time, I could set her down for about half an hour at a time before I had to pick her back up. I rocked her to sleep each night before gingerly laying her down each night; she took most of her daytime naps, or started them, in her Ergo carrier on my back or chest. I believe the term “high-needs baby” could correctly be applied here.
At fifteen months old, she was almost a year past her colicky stage (though too much dairy in her diet would still keep her awake at night). We were weaning, but I would still nurse and rock her to sleep each night, spending 45 minutes or so putting her to bed. She would wake anywhere from two to five times at night; most nights, she’d sleep in about two-hour increments before waking, and I’d nurse her back to sleep each time. It was exhausting, but was — I thought — what she needed.
I knew I couldn’t do this forever, and with a 2-day trip coming up during which Aaron’s mom would stay with the kids, I was on a deadline to figure out a better way to put Sofia to sleep at night and nap during the day. I was determined not to use the Cry it Out method — despite my exhaustion, I just couldn’t face the idea of ignoring my baby’s cries. But I needed a solution.
I asked my mom how she night-weaned my brother and me. She told me that once we were eating solid food, she reasoned that waking up during the night was just habit, and she simply let us cry for a little bit till we learned that we wouldn’t be fed. At that point, we stopped crying at night. “How long did we cry for?” I asked. “How long is too long? Twenty minutes?”
“I’d say twenty minutes is too long,” she agreed. “You didn’t cry that long. Maybe ten minutes, and then you just went back to sleep.”
Well, that settled that. Sofia is more than capable of screaming in rage for two solid hours. She stops, not when she’s exhausted, but when her situation changes. It’s now been months since she’s done this, but the memory is still raw. Her screams are piercing, literally painful to the ear. So letting her cry at night didn’t seem like a workable solution — after all, the rest of us, including her four-year-old brother, needed to sleep too. Back to the drawing board.
Not long after my conversation with my mom, Aaron and I went on a rare evening date. Our babysitter, Alyssa, arrived with her own newborn just as fifteen-month-old Sofia was waking up from a nap. We discussed bedtime routines. “I honestly don’t know how well she’ll sleep for you,” I confessed. “I nurse her to sleep, and it takes forever. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry — I’ll put her to bed when we get home.”
Around 9:00, I sent Alyssa a quick text — “How’s it going?”
“Just fine!” she answered. “Everyone’s asleep.”
What? Everyone? “Sofia too?” I asked.
“She’s been asleep for about half an hour. She hardly cried at all. She went down really well.”
Over the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder what magic Alyssa had worked. How had she gotten Sofia to sleep? Finally I couldn’t stand it any more. I texted Alyssa: “Do you think you could tell me what technique you used to get Sofie to sleep? I could really use some help figuring out how to get her to sleep without being nursed.”
She called me back. “I’m sorry, I wish I could help you, but I really didn’t do anything special. We just did all the bedtime stuff, read a story together, and then I put her into her crib and closed the door. She cried for about a minute, and then she went to sleep.”
Waaiiiiit a minute. She put her into her crib…and then walked away? Just like that? Impossible. She must have worked some wizardly mind magic on her. Still, the thought seemed full of potential. I might not have Alyssa’s touch (she also got Sofie to take a bottle when I couldn’t), but I do know how to use my legs to walk.
That night I braced myself to unleash hell. “I’m going to try it,” I told Aaron. “I’m just going to walk away.” We read a story in Niko’s bed, I tucked Niko in, and then I carried Sofia to her own room. “It’s time for bed,” I told her. “Niko is in his bed. Mama and Daddy are going to go to our bed. And you’re going to sleep in your bed, too.” I kissed her, wrapped her in her favorite soft blanket, and laid her down. To my amazement, she immediately rolled over onto her belly, stuck her little bottom into the air, and cuddled down into the bed without resistance. Her bright eyes watched me calmly, a peaceful smile on her face. I tucked her warm yellow crocheted blanket from Grandma around her, said good night, and walked out of the room. Then I stood outside her door, holding my breath. There was a soft wail. Another. And then…silence. Silence stretching on for minutes. I finally tiptoed away from the door, reeling with the shock. Realization was slowly dawning: for who knows how long now, Sofia hadn’t wanted to be rocked to sleep. She had been wanting to go to sleep on her own. Her resistance to sleeping at bedtime had been resistance to being rocked. And it took an evening with a babysitter for me to discover this.
Yes, I know kids. But what I’m learning is this: no matter how experienced a parent is, how in tune with a child’s needs, at some point, we all need a fresh perspective. The most dedicated parent sometimes misses something essential. This rather humbling experience was one of the best things that’s happened to our family. Sofia, now eighteen months old, has blossomed into a joyful, loving toddler. Putting her to bed without rocking or nursing paved the way for night weaning. I was finally able to take my mom’s advice and let her cry when she woke up at night — and just as my mother predicted, she cried for less than ten minutes before she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. And weaning turned her into a different child. She now runs to her dad when she sees him, rather than withdrawing. She no longer panics the moment I leave a room. She explores, climbs, experiments with new words, waves to strangers, gives hugs to her dad and big brother. She is…fun. I’m enjoying her like I never truly did before. And it all started with a babysitter who just tried doing something a little differently than I’d been doing it.
I’ve never been so delighted to devour a giant slice of humble pie. Mmmmmm, delicious.