Sleep No More: The Sisyphean Struggle of Baby Slumber

Go the fuck to sleep; wake the fuck up; repeat

Illo by Thomas Pitilli.

Sleeping through the night doesn’t seem like such a hard task. Not to brag, but I used to do it all the time. One minute I would be struggling to decode a Will Shortz pun, the next minute: Sunlight! Garbage trucks! Some asshole honking! A new day dawned.

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My son, Sam, however, does not seem to have gotten the memo. Not only does he not sleep through the night, he is almost no help at all with the Times crossword. Unless the clue is “One who can’t be pacified,” say.

It’s funny how much sleep obsesses new parents.

All we ever want to know is who’s getting it, how often, and how deep. How long does it last, we ask breathlessly over cocktails. Twenty minutes? Three hours? Six? Sleep has become to our 30s what sex was to our 20s: We still talk about it much more often than we do it, and our roommates present a considerable obstacle.

The first question my husband and I had to answer as new parents was: Where will the baby sleep? We got something called an Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper, which is like a mini-crib designed to attach to the side of an adult bed. But our baby did not like the co-sleeper, perhaps because its “mattress” was essentially a sheet of corrugated cardboard (for safety reasons, babies are only allowed to sleep on surfaces that cannot possibly suffocate them, such as parquet flooring and chain-link fences). The average prison cot is cozier than a crib mattress, but babies must endure, swaddled in their cute little straightjackets meant to approximate the uterine wall’s viselike embrace.

When the co-sleeper didn’t work, we started putting our son in a cheerful yellow bassinet that we dragged with us from room to room. But he didn’t like that either, and getting him to doze in it required first rocking him to sleep on our bodies and then transferring him into the new vessel, a task we approached with the anxious care of two people playing Jenga with sticks of dynamite.

Now he sleeps in our bed most of the time. Even if you’re not a hippie, “family bed” sounds cozy, right? Big Love by way of Sesame Street? Wrong. I get kicked in the face, my husband sleeps at the foot of the bed like a Labrador, and Sam’s hair bears the unmistakable scent of armpit. It smells like defeat.

People kept telling us he would sleep better at six weeks. Or 10 pounds. Whichever came first. When he started eating solids, or sleeping on his stomach. People told us to follow the “Five S’s,” a mnemonic made famous by Harvey Karp, a bestselling author and Dr. Phil staple known as “the baby whisperer.” But I still can’t remember what the S’s stand for, as in our house they devolved quickly into “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” Our baby would not sleep—at least, not well. Night after night, I imagined what Sisyphus must have felt like, had he been pushing a Bugaboo instead of a boulder. Or if the boulder had been screaming. Or if his punishment had included listening to Led Zeppelin songs played on the glockenspiel.

“Oh, getting him to sleep is really simple,” our pediatrician told us when we saw her for Sam’s three-month visit. We leaned in like junkies eager for a fix. “You just put him in the crib, close the door, and don’t go in until the next morning.” Readers who are parents will notice that there’s a crucial ellipsis hidden in her advice. Let’s revisit: You just put him in the crib (seems easy enough), close the door (hand-eye coordination challenge, but O.K.) … baby cries for forty-fucking-five minutes while you weep into your vodka (there’s the rub!) … and don’t go in until the next morning. Full disclosure: I only know about this ellipsis through the experience of friends. I was unwilling to let him cry. The one time we tried it, just for a few minutes, he gagged on his own wracking sobs and projectile-vomited. Back to the wakeful family bed we went.

There are countless books and patented methods out there promising to get babies to sleep through the night, but most people opt for one of two: some variation on the “cry-it-out” approach (see above re: tears and booze) or total denial and avoidance, and the hope that the baby will start sleeping like a second-semester college senior without parental intervention.

Cry-it-out, of course, like all parenting choices these days, is divisive. Lots of people swear by it, trading a few nights of misery for a lifetime of peaceful slumber, but attachment parents demonize it as emotionally harmful to children, citing articles by psychologists who argue that babies stop crying and fall into deep sleep not because they learn to self-soothe but because they become despondent and apathetic, convinced that they’ve been abandoned. These studies always claim that babies left to cry carry emotional problems with them throughout their lives.

On the flip side, a lot of people assume that by letting Sam sleep next to me and comforting him whenever he stirs will turn him into some kind of cross between Oedipus and Norman Bates. But I don’t buy any of it, just like I can’t really accept astrology’s dubious claim that all people born under the one sign can be described with the same set of adjectives. (Then again, I’m an Aries.)

We’ve had our victories, however small, like the two instances during which Sam slept for eight hours in his own crib immediately after we watched Ryan Gosling movies on Netflix. It seemed like a harbinger of happy slumber, but then Blue Valentine broke our streak. I think he found it too depressing. Maybe we’ll have better luck with The Notebook.

Sleep No More: The Sisyphean Struggle of Baby Slumber