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Nighttime can be full of problems - and opportunities - for families

Posted January 18

There was a time when I thought all of my problems would be solved when my babies learned how to sleep through the night.

Now, let it first be said that not being able to sleep through the night is a problem. It is a big problem. I never knew the actual physical pain one can feel from sheer exhaustion, nor the mental anguish, nor the inability to concentrate, nor the emotional assault, nor the despair that comes from lack of sleep until I brought home my first baby.

The first few days were easy. She slept all of the time. And then on day three or four, she started to get fussy. She was awake all night and slept all day. She developed a reflux disorder, and our bedtime routine became fraught with making sure her medicine was administered at the correct time, helping her to sleep on the right tilt — without risking suffocation — and learning how to burp her without making her projectile vomit across the room.

Over the next four months, I learned what happens to a person when they sleep only two or three hours at a time. But at about four months, I slept for about four hours at a time. And then, gradually, I added another minute or two, until she was 18 months old or so and sleeping through the night.

Problem solved, I thought.

Then, our second baby came home. He taught me that I had it easy the first time around. When he came home, my world turned upside down. I couldn’t sleep during the day because I had a toddler to tend. And I couldn’t sleep at night because I had an infant who was crying.

Again, I resumed the anguish of training my child to sleep. I read books. I planned his schedule carefully. I planned his evening and dinner and clothing all around bedtime. And then, I patted, shushed, rocked and pleaded from the side of his crib for hours on end, until I finally gave up and sent for backup.

Sending dad into the room in the middle of the night always seems to be the magic cure.

Eventually, No. 2 was older, and he slept.

When the third came home, almost all of my well-studied rules went out of the window. Ironically, I don’t remember the anguish of the third. By the time he was 12 months old, he was sleeping like a champ. Maybe I had learned my lesson. Or maybe my anguish was associated with my rules. Either way, I thought all of my problems were solved.

I was mistaken.

No. 2, now 6 years old, has developed a fear of the night. It started with him climbing into bed with us in the middle of the night, sending his bony elbows into our backs, stealing our pillows and hogging the blankets. Then he wanted the lights on. He has currently claimed an old crib mattress on the floor next to his dad’s side of the bed where he appears in the middle of the night like a proper squatter.

I bought him a music player with the hopes that it would soothe him when he was scared. Every night, I hear “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits and “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers on repeat. Of all of the songs I loaded onto the contraption, those are his favorites.

The other night, as I stroked his head and tried to calm his nerves, with the sound of “Ramblin’ Man” tweeting in the background, I remember when I couldn’t sleep as a child.

It was a terrible feeling. A feeling of pressure in my chest, of intense loneliness and darkness pushing down as everyone around me slept soundly and I thrashed around in my sheets trying to get comfortable. My solace was my father. He would sit with me and speak in his most dispassionate lawyer voice and tell me stories until I fell asleep.

He made me feel safe and he took away the loneliness.

So, maybe my problems are far from over. Then again, being able to take away someone’s loneliness is a pretty great problem to have.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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