My son is finally asleep. Turned to the wall with his nose dipped in the pillow, he is half covered. I feel a sudden urge to wrap his naked back and green boxers in the blanket, to smell his hair, to kiss his soft cheek, but I am afraid of waking him up.
The road to sleep is long and thorny. It has always been like that. In any age. When my older son was little, he wanted me to stay in the room until he fell asleep. When his eyes were at long last closed for a while and he started to snore, I knew it was time to make a move. Trying not to breath, I would carefully close my book, and slowly get up from the chair. I prayed that the carpet would not screech when I step on it. It took some planning to tiptoe out of the room without making a single noise, not touching anything, not making a chair squeak. But the minute I finally got to the door, silently high-fiving myself in my mind, I would hear: “Where are you going? I am not sleeping yet.” Then there were two options – to leave the room and let him scream for another hour or more, or to come back to the original position and attempt another escape in 5-10 minutes. Quite a few times I fell asleep and woke up in the middle of the night, just to get undressed and go back to bed. I made sure all of the essential tasks were done before his bedtime in case I fall asleep or get too relaxed to move on. I knew it was wrong and counterproductive. You suppose to tack your child in, say good night and leave the room to come back in the morning. I knew I was sending my kid the wrong message, spoiling him and causing potential long-term psychological problems. He is supposed to learn to self-sooth and not be dependent on his parent. But I also liked to relax at the end of the day, didn’t like to hear him screaming for an hour, and simply wanted to be near him for a bit longer.
Knowing that I should do housework and/or spent time with my husband after my child goes to bed rather than “wasting” my time sitting idly in the kid’s room raising a cry-baby, I wanted to change this dynamic. I tried different approaches as advised by various experts in the field: crying out, leaving the room for a few minutes with a promise to come back, bribing, motivational speeches, bed-time stories. None of it worked as promised. The crying would not stop till after midnight, nor would it become shorter in the upcoming days; fairy tales would be read until I lose my voice, bribes would never be worth the effort. Overall, the falling asleep would last even longer than before, except now I was much more tired and aggravated, getting an alarming thoughts of hitting my head against the wall with my bright-red blood splashing all over, blaming God for failing me at the time of need, killing a random stranger for no apparent reason, or hitting my husband, because he was the only one nearby. My toddler clearly had much more perseverance and determination than I did. Somehow I gave birth to a super human, who was never tired or sleepy. The problem went away when we stopped trying. Luckily, in spite of my selfish parenting, he can sleep on his own for the past 11 years, and is a self-sufficient and a self-reliant person.
Last summer my 8-year-old saw something on the U-tube and was scared to sleep by himself in his room. This time I was determined not to give in. But I did. He was terrified, even though there was nothing scary in the clip that he watched. He was hysterical, shaking in fear, begging not to leave him alone. My heart was breaking; what kind of mother I was to let my child suffer like that, to abandon him when he needed me so desperately. I set in his room reading an iPad until he fell asleep, wondering if I was falling into the same trap all over again.
Again I referred to an experts’ advice. They suggested to move out of the room slowly, and gradually to move out of his sight. That way the child would feel secure, while learning to sleep on his own. The next day we agreed that I would sit in the hallway, but he would still see me. Over the next few months I kept moving further and further away from his room. I sat on the carpeted floor with a pillow behind my back to make me more comfortable, reading my book, sometimes sipping my tea or snacking on the fruit, wondering if I went completely insane. Other normal parents would not even think of doing something like that. They are getting stressed and over-worked, and then complain about how hard their lives are and write books about it. So, they tack their “good sleepers” in, say good night and ran to do all of the gazillion things that need to be done after the children are in bed. And here I am- a mother with a full-time job, a house, two kids, no help from anybody, sitting in the hallway waiting for the fourth grader to fall asleep. I am either lazy or insane, or both at the same time.
When at last I came out of his sight, he kept asking me every minute or two if I was still in “my spot”. I would say:”Yes. Stop asking me!”, only to be asked again the moments later. I finally moved to the arm-chair in the living room. It was comfy and soft, and I could watch TV from it.
Then there was a relapse, and we went back to square one. Once, after I came back from work, I found him on the iPad in his bed. Carefully removing the earphones, I laid next to him. We snuggled and started to joke around about everything. He asked me to tell him the story about how I was little. I told him about the movie I watched about “the invisible man” when I was his age, and how scared I was to go to sleep. How my parents left me to babysit my sister and I was paralyzed with fear waiting for him to break into my apartment, even though technically I could not see him, because he was invisible. My parents were not around, and I had to find the way to calm myself down. My older son screamed and demanded dinner, but we were too deep into the conversation. Finally he gave up and joined in, telling us about his scares and how he fought them.
My fourth-grader confessed that he was afraid of a criminal getting into his room in the middle of the night and attacking him. We discussed the probability of this happening. His room was on the second floor, so the criminal would need to get through the door (which beeps due to the alarm), go up the stairs, and pass a few rooms without being noticed. This is impossible. But maybe he could use the ladder and come through the window. My son tried to open the windows, but could not because they were locked. Plus there was a light in the backyard, which had a motion sensor. So as soon as somebody walks in the backyard, the light turns on. It works of the solar panel, making it impossible to be turned off by a person. Therefore, we established without a reasonable doubt that, number one nobody could get to the backyard unnoticed, number two getting to his room that way was nearly impossible. But he was still not convinced. Even though one part of his brain was proving that his fears were baseless, the other part told him otherwise. The other part was making his heart race, and his body shake in panic. The other part was winning the fight. I got back to spending my evenings on the floor in the hallway, scratching my head what to do next.
He was not allowed to watch anything on the internet, or play any even remotely violent video games; he had been reading before bed; we practiced breathing techniques and counting to relax and fall asleep faster. Should I take him to the therapist? I consider it a last resort, because, in my opinion, in dealing with the children “the wrong” therapist could do more harm than good. What works for one child may be detrimental for the other. But my son being dependent on my presence to fall asleep was not a solution either.
As usual the solution came out of the blue. One day my son declared that he would feel safer if Maya (our dog) slept in his room. She is very protective of her family, and if the stranger approaches our house starts barking uncontrollably. She would make him feel secure and keep him company. She could scare any criminal and make the intruder drop his hypothetical weapon and run for his life. We moved Maya’s bed to my son’s room. The going-to-bed routine has been expanded to him announcing “Maya sleep”, after which she proudly marches behind him to his room with her tail and ears up. She proceeds to her bed, lies down and watches him while he reads. If she tries to get up or barks, “the commander-in-chief” stops it instantly.
He still wants someone to sit in the chair in the living room, aka “the designated spot” once he announces that he is done with the reading and ready to go to sleep. He would tell everyone good night and “are you in the spot” about 25 times. But the overwhelming fear is gone, and he falls asleep in no time. I pick in the room and see my two babies peacefully snoring. Life is so simple when they are asleep.