On sleeping like a baby

A month before my son was born, a very close acquaintance with two small children proclaimed with an exaggerated air of finality: “enjoy your last few days of uninterrupted sleep. I haven’t slept a full night in many years.” As expectant parents, up until that point my wife and I had heard about how our lives would change and indeed, we had taken great efforts to prepare for the arrival of the newest member of our family. But, we were struck by the resigned tone of this pronouncement. You can stock up on diapers, baby clothes, toys, parenting guides, strollers, pacifiers, bottles, and car-seats: but how are you supposed to prepare for imminent sleep-deprivation?

Someone once said  (and come to think of it, it was probably me a few years ago, after tossing and turning in bed next to my soundly-sleeping wife) that putting those who sleep well next to those who do not is bound to cause conflict. I can broaden that definition now; parents of very small children who sleep through the night are definitely the envy of parents of infants who do not.

My own son is a little over three-months now .To watch him grow and assert himself as an individual has been an incredible experience. In that time, I have not learned or advanced much in life. After all what is 100 days in an adult lifetime but a quarter of preparing business reports?  In contrast, in his first 100 days, my son has reached many important developmental milestones. He’s grown as an individual and I’ve seen it happen close up. Understandably, I want to play with him, to “talk” with him, and to “walk” with him as much as I can. The little guy loves to play too; he enjoys eating; he wants to look around and be a part of grown-up conversation, but he does not like to sleep at all. It is as if he feels he’ll miss a major life-altering event if he shuts his eyes for more than a few minutes. It isn’t as if he doesn’t understand the theory of day and night (and it is just a theory to him, not a law). He just doesn’t like to sleep for any reasonable stretch of time.

My son will sometimes shut his eyes, but he will also peek every now and then to see if I’m still looking at him. If I place him in a crib or on an infant cradle-swing, he’ll wake up and start crying. He can be cajoled into entering relatively deep sleep on rare occasions, and these are the times when we go about scurrying about the house like nocturnal animals, desperate not to wake up a powerful predator. We oil the doors so they do not creak. We keep the lights dim and eat quietly and quickly. We keep our phones muted and go to other rooms if we need to talk in hushed tones. We try to hold in sneezes.  If he opens his eyes, we freeze in our tracks. I don’t miss the commentary, but it is challenging to try to watch sporting events without letting out an exclamation of anguish or excitement. We’ve learned much about what wakes him up through trial and error, though invariably even the best efforts end in failure.

For the behavior of adults around a sleeping baby seems to fit a predictable pattern. First, the adults whisper. Then, one starts talking a little louder. This is followed by the admonition, “Shhh, keep quiet: you’ll wake the baby” in a louder voice to which the even louder response, “I am talking softly” is the standard response. At this point, the baby wakes up and diverts the conversation to his crying.

Not sleeping for reasonable durations would be fine, except for the tiny problem of it being a biological necessity in order to rejuvenate the body and mind. Without sleep, both young and not-so-young are cranky. I think the best way to describe sleep-deprivation is that it is like a hangover without the stupid reminiscing grin and the foggy memory of follies of the previous night. And alas, the cute home-truth on the set of two coffee-mugs we drink from every morning – “Mommy/Daddy needs sleep… but she’ll/he’ll settle for coffee too!” – is only partially correct. I’ve tried premium-grade French Roast, Costa Rica, Kenya AA, and Kona: in short, stuff that is so exclusive that it should be illegal. I’m sorry to report that caffeinating the brain is a poor substitute for sleep. During the course of a day, there are meetings to be attended, chores to be completed, meals to be enjoyed, conversations to be had, wisecracks to be made, and TV programs to be watched. Not getting any shut-eye the night before is therefore, not an option.

It would be wrong to say that my son doesn’t sleep at all. It is just that when he sleeps, he sleeps lightly. In addition, because he cannot fall asleep on his own yet, he has to be coaxed through rocking motions and by one of us singing his favorite songs. We have tried non-human substitutes, by which I mean my son has various large and bright contraptions which make hideous noises which cannot be turned off until the batteries in them die. I say he has them, but it would be more correct to say that we, his parents, have these multiple attention-drawing and supposedly-sleep-inducing devices in our arsenal. Some of them have worked for a day, but usually by the second day of deployment, he’s figured out the purpose behind them and this makes him quite agitated.

Take for example a recent attempt to trick my son into falling asleep to recorded music. Sometimes, I do attempt to sing him to sleep, but usually I fail because I lose my patience. More commonly, his mother sings to him. So, I had a bright idea: “let’s make it easier on the vocal chords. Why not record a vocal track and play it back to him in a loop to get him to sleep?”

The first evening, after returning from a long walk, I put the theory to test and it worked brilliantly. My son sat on my lap; I played the track I had recorded earlier in the day; and he dozed off in minutes. I was not fooled, by his usual ploy of feigning asleep, so I kept looping the track for at least twenty minutes after he shut his eyes. He opened his eyes a couple of times to see if I was still there, and convinced that I was, fell into a deeper slumber. Victory, at last!  “I’ve showed him who is the boss,” I thought.

The results were markedly different the second time I attempted the trick.  Just like the previous day, I played the track while rocking my son. This time, he looked at my face and pursed his lips . In horror, I realized my mistake. My lips were not moving. Any parent will tell you that just as lightning strikes first and then seconds later you hear thunder, a child will make a crying face first before the actual crying sound hits you. I panicked and tried to sing along to the track, before the crying started but he would have none of it. He batted my face with his hand and started to wail to the full strength of his lungs. His mother, who was sitting in the same room, was quite amused by the spectacle. Had I been in her place, I probably would’ve let it play out a bit longer, but she is a nicer person than I am (note to bachelors: a very useful trait to look for when deciding who to marry). She promptly came to the rescue and extricated both crushed father and triumphant child from the situation.

Since then, I take things more philosophically. How long before the elusive, sleep-cycle kicks in and my son starts sleeping through most of the night? There is really no way to know… yet. Some experienced parents have told us their babies slept relatively well from the second month, while others have shared that they look forward to that day for their own four and five year-olds. One coworker simply looked out the window and said with a painful sigh, “it will happen, when it happens”. I didn’t ask him what he meant by that deeply meaningful, yet ultimately meaningless bit of introspection. I left him with his thoughts and his sleepy head on the table in the conference room table – something any decent coworker would do.

So, it will happen, when it happens. Until then, I will pass through my days in a dreamy state in between true wakefulness and restful sleep. On the bright side, I expect my singing voice to improve drastically.

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