Sleep – nice work if you can get it

Sleep.  It somehow comes to define so much of the first year with a baby.  Will the baby sleep?  Will I sleep?  Why won’t the baby ever sleep?  Will I ever sleep again?  Am I currently awake or just having a really annoying dream?

Jacob was (and sometimes still is) a horrible sleeper.  As a baby, he needed an incredible amount of walking, bouncing, rocking, and soothing before we could even attempt to gingerly lay him down in his crib.  And then the real fun began– trying to navigate the minefield of creaky boards in our nearly 100 year old house on the way out of his room.  (Ah, memories.)  Thing was, even if we made it out safely, it was virtually assured that Jacob would wake up again two hours later.  And shriek at the top of his lungs.  (“WHAT KIND OF MISERABLE PARENTS WOULD LEAVE ME HERE IN THIS WOODEN CAGE- with an adorable animal mobile- ALONE!?!”)   The SUPER fun part of it all was that whatever trick we used to get him to sleep one week would inevitably expire and we would have to start from scratch figuring it out again the next week.

Speaking of which, you can imagine my delight when Dan came up to me one evening and announced that he had just developed a new way to get Jacob to sleep: deep knee bends.

“Are you out of your [use your imagination] MIND!?! THAT is what I am now going to have to do at 2am?!?”

Yes.  Yes, it was.  Because whatever Jacob decided he wanted in order to fall asleep was what he got.  I’m not proud of that fact.  But, hey, don’t judge a girl who was tripping on a mere five (non-consecutive) hours of sleep each night.  At some point it was just about survival.  (All that said, when I found out I was pregnant with Emma, I told Dan that if I ever caught him doing a deep knee bend with her, he best be hiring a good divorce lawyer.  “But our thighs were rock hard!” he protested.)

Anyway, for most of Jacob’s first year, I was dead set against sleep training.  “It just seems like it goes against nature,” I said to Dan, “What self-respecting cave woman left her baby alone in a cave to ‘cry it out’?  The baby would have been eaten by a woolly mammoth or something.”  Dan shrugged.

Of course, I also realized that a baby needs to have an opportunity to figure out how to fall asleep on its own, or it never will.  So, occasionally, we would be brave and (sort of) try to let Jacob figure it out.  He never did.  So we kept helping him get to sleep.  Night after night.  And, day after day (whenever we were home with him), he napped on us.  Suffice to say, TWO people in our household had been trained, but Jacob was not one of them.  This wouldn’t be quite so pathetic except that I am, you know, a licensed clinical psychologist with years of training in how to change problematic behaviors (including sleep).  In short: I knew better.  I didn’t care.  I was tired.  (Please don’t take away my PhD.)

Anyway, when Jacob was 11 months old his sleep habits became intolerable.  He was waking up five times a night and we were at the breaking point.  We had run out of other options.

So we did it.  We sleep trained him.  (Sort of.)  We put him in his crib. Patted him on the head.  And skulked down the hall to our bedroom. Then listened to him shriek.  For TWO.  SOLID.  minutes.  Tortured by the sound of my poor baby crying, I had the following conversation with Dan (who was far less conflicted about the whole thing):

“Are we teaching him to sleep or are we teaching him that we don’t love him enough to go to him when he’s in distress?!?”


“Yes to which?”

“The we’re-awful-people-who-won’t-help-him one,” Dan said without looking up from his iPhone.  For awhile I left Dan alone thinking he was staring at the timer on his phone, counting down the seconds until we could (according to the Ferber method) go in and comfort our poor baby.  At least I have someone to suffer through this with me, I thought to myself.  And then I realized that Dan was actually playing Words with Friends.

“He stopped crying.  Why do you think he stopped crying?  Is it because he’s depressed now because we didn’t go in and comfort him?  Does he think he can’t count on us?  Is it learned helplessness?”


“Maybe we should go in there.”


“Why isn’t he crying?  He’s not asleep.”

“Maybe he’s plotting his revenge.”

“Now he’s crying again.  We should go in there.”

The process of sleep training generally takes about three nights. With Jacob, it took ten.  TEN.  Still, when it was all (finally) over, we were so relieved that Jacob was going to bed on his own and sleeping through the night that we were willing to forgive the fact that he was getting up for the day at 4:00am.  The other minor wrinkle was that, every time the wind blew in the wrong direction, Jacob’s sleep habits reverted back to horrible.  In fact, two years later, just before Emma was due, Jacob went through one of these stretches in which he had a lot of trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.  We were so worried that I might go into labor in the middle of the night and Jacob might still be awake (and throw a tantrum when I tried to leave for the hospital) that we started sitting next to him to get him to sleep each night.  (Who’s trained now, SUCKAHS??)

And then came Emma.  The yin to Jacob’s yang.  As a newborn, Emma wanted to do nothing but sleep.  Even at mealtimes.  I tried all of the suggestions I had read about to wake her up: taking off her clothes, rolling her from side to side, lifting her head up.  Nada.  She would lazily open one eye, confirm she was still surrounded by the same group of crazies, and doze off for another half hour.  I was exasperated.  Dan was thoroughly entertained.  

Of course nighttime was a different story.  Like most babies, Emma was up every two or three hours.  But before long, she learned to sleep for longer stretches at night as well.  In fact, at five weeks old, she started sleeping through the night.  Sleeping. Through.  The night.  (Woohoo!)  We didn’t know why she was able to do this at such a young age.  So we chose to assume it was our superlative parenting.  And, like idiots, we also assumed that Emma would simply continue to sleep through the night  until she went through menopause.  Dan and I spent a good solid three weeks smugly high fiving each other about this.  (MY GOD, WE ARE DUMB.) 

And then Emma reached the ripe old age of eight weeks and started waking up again.  DANG.  What did we do?  Exactly what we had done with Jacob.  In other words: whatever the hell we needed to in order to get that kid to sleep.  Because parenting isn’t so much about learning from your mistakes as it is making them over and over and over again until your kid outgrows whatever annoying phase he or she is in.  And you promptly take credit for fixing the problem.  We gave Emma a bottle and rocked her to sleep every night.  And, she napped on us.  For months.  (Which, incidentally, is how I watched all of the seasons of “Downtown Abbey”.)   And we were tired.  Again.  But here’s the amazing thing.  When it came time to sleep train Emma, she figured out how to put herself to sleep in about 15 minutes.  She whimpered a bit, decided she was bored of the whole thing, lay down and that was that.


So, bring all this up now?  Because the story with Jacob took an interesting turn in the past few weeks.  We finally screwed up the courage to try to remove ourselves from the process of getting Jacob to sleep.  (Yes, a year later, Dan was still sitting by Jacob’s bed each night until he fell asleep.)  Of course, we considered the most honest, upfront approach– i.e., telling Jacob that Dan would no longer be sitting next to his bed until he drifted off to sleep.  When we stopped laughing hysterically, we decided to try the following.  Dan first moved the chair that was next to Jacob’s bed across the room.  Jacob hardly noticed.  About a week later, Dan told Jacob he needed to move the chair just outside of his room.  “What did Jacob say?” I asked, bracing for the inevitable fallout. 

“He said, ‘Daddy, can I move the chair?'”  Yes, son, yes you can.

A few nights after Dan started sitting outside of Jacob’s room, Dan told Jacob that he needed to close the door to his room to keep the cool air inside.  Jacob didn’t seem to mind.  A few nights after that, Dan moved the chair halfway down the hall.  And then, at some point, he just got rid of the chair altogether.  Jacob has never said two words about the whole thing. Which all begs the question– WHY the [use your imagination] didn’t we do this months ago?!?  MY GOD, WE ARE DUMB.  Or maybe, just tired.

One thought on “Sleep – nice work if you can get it

  1. Pingback: Customer Service | Dan Dreams of Coding

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