Skip to main content
leah mclaren

Just before my son was born, all anyone wanted to talk to me about was the sleep thing.

My best girlfriend, an unrepentant hippie who breastfed her daughter until age three, told me it was "impossible to sleep-train a baby," so I shouldn't even try.

My husband, who was already a father, described the sleep thing this way: "You know those people who come to the door canvassing for money? Well if one of them comes when the baby is six months old and promises you eight hours of unbroken sleep in exchange for every cent you have, you will happily hand it over."

I laughed, grateful for my husband's way of making the darkest things in life seem funny. But when the moment actually came – six months in, 4 a.m., staring at the boy with a shrieking fist for a face through eyes that hadn't actually been closed for more than two hours straight in a week – it didn't feel funny at all. What I felt was white hot fury. And all I could think was, "Thank goodness I'm not 15. Or mentally ill. Or poor. Or addicted. Or even just alone. Thank goodness there is someone sane and marginally less sleep-deprived than me in the next room."

And so we embarked on a sleep-training regimen cobbled together from books and websites that essentially boiled down to this: Feed him at bedtime, then rock him to sleep. Put him down in his crib and leave the room when he wakes up and begins to howl. Fix a large gin and tonic with lots of ice and lime. Check on him once, shushing and patting, then go outside and sit on the front stoop wearing headphones blasting Radiohead. Sit there, drink gin, and weep. If he hasn't stopped in 20 minutes, repeat.

It worked, and that was more or less that for two years. Until a few months ago, when he hopped out of his cot and marched into our bedroom in the middle of the night free associating about dinosaurs and sharks in the closet. We let him into our bed, of course, just a temporary measure. Six weeks later my husband had moved into the spare room and I was being woken every couple of hours by demands for "mo' milk" and backrubs. Screw co-sleeping: It was like sharing a bed with a tiny, sweaty, male Mariah Carey.

I'll save you most of the details of Sleep Training Round Two, except to say that so far it has made Sleep Training Round One look utterly bucolic. A sun-drenched, sugar-sprinkled picnic in the park. Trying as it was, at least newborns, can't walk and talk and turn doorknobs. They can't say, in so many words: "This new regime of yours? It sucks. And it makes me want to die."

"Put him back in his bed silently. Don't communicate in any way," writes the usually very sensible Jo Frost (aka Super Nanny) in the sleep chapter of her book Confident Toddler Care. "He'll ask, 'Why aren't you talking to me? Say nothing.' "

But what if what he actually says is: "I need you mama, please don't go, stay mama, stay! I hurt! My tummy hurts! I'm scared! Stay!" while catapulting head-first out of his bed. Should you then resign yourself to sleeping separately from your husband? Or on the floor of your son's room? Or just not sleeping at all? Perhaps the best thing is to simply submit to the torture of endless wakefulness.

At least I have some tricks now, a bag of disturbing coping mechanisms. Like when I feel angry at him for keeping me awake, I imagine the bad kids who will one day bully him at school. I picture myself screaming and yelling abuse at these imaginary schoolyard thugs, kicking their teenage shins 10 years in the future. This way my rage is deflected and dispersed, and I remember it's my job to protect him. I do yoga breathing and mindfulness exercises and, naturally, I don't go out. I've learned the only way to avoid going crazy when you're not sleeping is to be as dull as possible. The only way to be your best sleepless self is to not be yourself at all.

"I told you it's impossible to sleep-train a baby," my best girlfriend said again when I told her what was going on. And of course she was right, but also wrong.

Like all the contradictory expert advice that exists on the subject, her words were helpful and yet not. Undeniably true and head-shakingly false.

Because of course it is possible to bend children to our wants and needs; it's just a question of at what cost? I hate being a cold-hearted "sleep trainer," but the alternative is worse – the seething 4 a.m. dark thoughts, the persistent morning tears. The horror of failing again and again to sufficiently sooth and offer comfort. I want him to sleep for his own sake, but more than that, for selfish reasons, I just want to sleep.

I know if we could all just have eight hours straight, we would be a family reborn. I believe one day it will happen. That's why I'm sitting here with all my money, every cent I have in the world, waiting for the knock on the door.

Interact with The Globe