How to get a baby to sleep

When people ask me how I am these days, I tend to answer the same way. I point at my fourteen-month-old and say, ‘For the past two months, this one has been staying up till at least midnight every night, often till two or three in the morning, and I have no idea how to get her to sleep. All she does is scream and scream. I’ve not had a single night off in over a year and I’m physically and emotionally wrecked.’

I figured that response was fine, since it was true. However, since I can hear like a bat, I’ve started noticing people talking about me in other rooms – family and friends and whatnot – saying how I’m always moaning, I’m never happy, I’m always going on about how tired I am, etc., etc. Yes, I have become ‘that guy’. Sucks to be me.

But it’s a real problem nonetheless. She’s too young to be disciplined, threatened, bribed or reasoned with; too old to cry herself to sleep because she can stand up – and special as she is, stand-sleeping is beyond her.

Since I’m clearly not allowed to be honest, and my family, friends and whatnot don’t have the insight to realise my moaning is a cry for help, I thought I would offer the pearls of my wisdom to other parents who find themselves in a similar position: stuck with a screaming child that won’t sleep, and clinging to the end of their rope by a single breaking fingernail.

Here are the tactics and the techniques I’ve tried, considered and/or been recommended to get my daughter to sleep. Use them wisely and with a pinch of salt.

1. Don’t let her nap during the day.

Upsides: It makes her tired.

Downsides: By ‘tired’ I mean ‘cranky’. You get no down time during the day, and now she’s too irritable to sleep.

Overall verdict: Counterintuitively, kids need to be less tired to sleep, so a baby who has regular naps and is well rested goes to bed easier than one who is exhausted. The more you know.

2. Move her bedtime back a couple of hours.

Upsides: You defer the problem till later.

Downsides: You defer the problem till later.

Overall verdict: You still have to face the horrors of bedtime, only now your kid is even more tired and irritable

3. Let her stay up till she goes to sleep naturally.

Upsides: You don’t have to do anything.

Downsides: Where the hell is my evening?

Overall verdict: Who’s the parent here anyway?

4. Give her a bath.

Upsides: It’s fun!

Downsides: It’s too much fun. She’s more awake when she gets out than when she got in.

Overall verdict: A great way to kill an hour. Not a great way to get her to sleep.

5. Leave her to ‘cry it out’.

Upsides: None.

Downsides: It wakes up the rest of the household and makes you want to die. After ten minutes, she’s choking and hyperventilating and it then takes you thirty minutes to calm her down, which makes it counterproductive anyway.

Overall verdict: Might work with earplugs and sociopaths, but painful for all concerned.

6. Shout and scream right back.

Upsides: It feels good.

Downsides: It doesn’t help get her to sleep.

Overall verdict: The only people you should be shouting at are reality TV stars and politicians. Or when they’re both.

7. Take her for a drive.

Upsides: You get to see interesting places, people and wildlife, and avoid watching teleshopping.

Downsides: When you get home after an hour speeding around the countryside, she’s more awake than you are.

Overall verdict: Save your petrol money, pay for a nanny.

8. Take her for a walk.

On these mean streets? In the dark? You must be joking.

9. Give her Calpol.

Upsides: When she’s ill, it soothes her enough to sleep.

Downsides: Unless she’s ill, why are you giving your kid painkillers, you psycho? It’s not a freaking sedative!

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable, you’re at the top of a slippery slope that leads to sprinkling benzos on their breakfast cereal and fixing their ouchies with ketamine.

10. Spike her evening milk with rum/gin/whisky.

Upsides: Your elderly relatives will respect you for following their advice.

Downsides: Are you freaking kidding me?

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable…

11. Cuddle her on the sofa.

Upsides: It’s nice, she goes to sleep, and you get to catch up on a box set..

Downsides: It is physically impossible to get her from the sofa to her cot without her waking up and starting to scream.

Overall verdict: It’s great for killing time on the long evenings when she just won’t settle, but you’re simply deferring the problem till later. And worse, now she’s slept for a few minutes, she uses it as a springboard to propel her past midnight and into the early hours. Depends how much you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, I suppose.

12. Rock her in your arms.

Upsides: Really effective and gives you biceps like Dwayne Johnson.

Downsides: Cramp, boredom, and you’re still left with the problem of transferring her into the cot.

Overall verdict: Can work if she’s really tired, but if she’s not, get ready for her eyes to pop open and her lungs to fill during the transition.

13. Sing to her.

Upsides: You get to practice your aria with an uncritical listener.

Downsides: Pretty hard to get the right pitch and intonation when someone’s screaming at you.

Overall verdict: It can work, but you’d better keep singing because the second you stop, she’s going to give you feedback, and you probably won’t like what you hear.

14. Read to her.

Upsides: You get to do something interesting and she gets to work on her grammar.

Downsides: You have to have the light on. And even if she does fall asleep, you face the awkward prospect of having to get up and creep across the creaky floorboards without waking her up.

Overall verdict: quite good, but it can take a long, long, LONG time.

15. Stay in the room with her.

Upsides: You get to sit there and completely ignore her. You have the power!

Downsides: If she’s anything like my kid, she starts off quiet, then starts talking, then starts shouting, crying, screaming, choking, hyperventilating and then dying, until you have to sort her out. End result: she wins.

Overall verdict: She wins.

16. Bring her into your bed for the start of the night.

Upsides: She goes to sleep happily and easily.

Downsides: You still have to transfer her back to the cot, and since she’s been so happy and comfortable, it makes her doubly angry when she wakes up mid-transition and even less likely to settle.

Overall verdict: It’s better to avoid the aggro.

17. Bring her into your bed for the whole night.

Upsides: The easiest technique of all.

Downsides: Where do I begin? You have the same bedtime as a baby; you’re going to get kicked in the nuts and punched in the neck half of the night; babies are a real passion-killer; you’re paranoid you’re going to roll over and squash her.

Overall verdict: Don’t. Do. It. Once you’ve started, how and when do you stop? It might seem like the easy option in the short term, but do you really want your ten-year-old still sharing a bed with you because she never learnt to sleep by herself? Jesus, cut the apron strings.

18. Give her a relaxing massage.

Upsides: A great way to bond with your child.

Downsides: She giggles the entire time like it’s the funniest thing ever, which isn’t relaxing at all.

Overall verdict: If laughter makes you sleepy, go right ahead. If you’re normal, might be best to skip this one.

19. Give her a slap.

Upsides: I’m not even going there.

Downsides: If you want her to stop screaming, slapping her probably won’t achieve that. Well, I guess it depends how hard you slap…

Overall verdict: Not an effective tool for bedtime, or daytime, or any time, actually, unless you like the look of prison.

20. Knock yourself unconscious.

Upsides: You sleep.

Downsides: She doesn’t.

Overall verdict: Doesn’t solve the problem.

21. Put her on her back in the cot, slip your arm through the slats, place your hand on her chest and pin her to the mattress.

Upsides: You’re in the room with her; you’re in physical contact with her; she can hold onto your hand; she’s reassured that she’s not been left alone; she’s lying down and can’t stand up; when she whines you can rock her gently; you can sing to her at the same time; and eventually when she goes to sleep, you don’t have to transfer her because she’s already asleep in her cot. Job done!

Downsides: This can take up to forty-five minutes; depending on the size of your forearms and the gap between the bars, your arm will probably ache after three; once she’s asleep you’re faced with slowly removing your hand from her chest without waking her and you still have to get out of the room; and if she isn’t tired after all, you’ve just wasted three-quarters of an hour.

Overall verdict: It works. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but my God, it works. Most of the time. And it’s the only way I’ve figured out to get her to sleep these days. You might as well try it – what have you got to lose?

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When parenting gets weird (the owls are coming!)

Parenting a three-year-old and a ten-month-old is, by itself, far outside the norm – I mean, how often do non-parents have to explain over the breakfast table that a noo-noo doesn’t spontaneously turn into a willy on your fourth birthday? – but some days are weirder than others. Last Monday, for example: what started as Parenthood quickly descended into Twin Peaks territory…and not the recent disappointing reboot.

After a long day at Peppa Pig World – and if you’ve ever been to Peppa Pig World, you’ll know just how long a day that can be – I cooked some dinner and then tried to get my youngest, Rosie, down to bed. Three-and-a-half hours later, my wife, who has no religious leanings whatsoever, stormed into the nursery, informed me that our daughter is demon-possessed, and demanded I remove her from the house/exorcise her (depending on my mood) since the incessant screaming was driving her mad. This I duly did, strapping her into the car seat and heading off into the vast emptiness of the New Forest.

That’s when things got strange.

It was down a dark, narrow road in the middle of nowhere, the trees meeting overhead and obscuring the stars, that out of the corner of my eye I suddenly caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers flecked with black, and – CRACK! – an owl flew smack into my windscreen, with a report like a gunshot going off.

My heart thumping against my ribs, I drove on a quarter of a mile, found somewhere to turn around and drove back to where my headlights illuminated a large brown form lying sprawled across the road like an old burlap sack. Clearly a tawny owl, clearly not moving. The speed at which I’d hit it – 35mph or so – didn’t bode well. Crap, I thought – what are the superstitions about owls? What happens if you kill one? Have I opened a door into the underworld, or something?

I considered my options. I had neither my phone nor my wallet with me, and no torch either. At the very least, if it was dead I could move it off the road; if somehow still alive, I could take it to the local owl sanctuary, though I doubted there’d be anyone there at this time of night. In any event, I had to do something.

I climbed out onto the pitch-dark roadside, and in that moment a deer leapt out of the bushes and landed on the road beside me. I don’t know which of us was more startled, but the deer looked at me, freaked, and threw itself back into the bushes, crashing away through the undergrowth into the night. By this point, I was thoroughly unnerved, but I had to check on the fallen owl.

When I turned back to it, the dead owl was now standing in the middle of the road, staring right at me, its big black eyes shining like obsidian in my headlights. It was only a few feet away and the forest had gone unnaturally quiet. It was horribly eerie, like I’d awakened whatever demonic soul inhabited its avian body.

Nonetheless, I held out my hands and spoke to it in a soft voice. ‘It’s okay, I’m a friend, I just need to check that you’re okay.’

I took a step towards it and it took a step away. I took another step; so did it. And then it skipped, spread its wings and flew into the air. I felt a rush of relief as I watched it go, relief that turned to horror as it shot over the top of my car and then – SMACK! – it flew right into a tree.

As it crashed down through the leaves, making one hell of a ruckus, it managed to grab hold of a branch and ended up hanging upside-down, its wings held out to the sides like something you’d see crouching on a cathedral. Worse, it was now directly above a stream that ran under the road, and if it fell it would surely drown.

But still it stared at me.

It was further from the car, directly to the side so outside the arc of my headlights, but I could just about make it out in the dark. I felt incredible responsibility for this creature, this fellow traveller that I had collided with on life’s highway – literally. There was a steep bank down into the water, overgrown with nettles and thorns, and I thought if it fell I would have to leap into the stream to rescue it.

But then I thought of the baby still refusing to sleep in the back of the car. I thought of the darkness all around, and of the stream that slid silent and black through the Stygian gloom. I had no idea how deep it was, or if getting in I’d even be able to get out. If the owl, in its panic or its malice, would claw me with its talons and tear at me with its beak. If my car would be found in the morning at the roadside, empty, no trace of any of us – just the dusty outline of an owl upon the windscreen.

Such are the thoughts that come to you deep in a forest late at night.

I tried to shoo it away, clapped my hands at it, just to get it to a safer place – it simply stared at me. It let go with one foot, stretched out its leg, flexed its toes, then swapped over, but refused to move. And just. Kept. Staring.

Eventually, I decided there was nothing more I could do. I bid the owl farewell, got back in the car and drove on. But a couple of minutes down the road, I felt an irresistible urge to turn back – I had to see this through to the end.

When I got to the tree, the branch was empty and my heart dropped. I checked the stream but couldn’t see anything. The unknown swirled around me. In the less than five minutes I’d been gone, something had happened. Whether it had burst forth to new life, or fallen into death, I couldn’t know.

I was about to leave when there was a sudden rustle above my head, and looking up I found myself staring into those same black eyes. It was higher in the same tree, on top of a branch now, its wings tucked neatly away as its eyes bored into mine.

We watched each other several moments, the aggressor and the aggrieved, with something like mutual respect – for a short time, though being of different species, our fates had become entangled and we had shared a connection that transcended the limitations of our bodies. I saluted the owl, and I could swear that he nodded at me in return. Our time together was at an end.

And what was more, the baby had finally fallen asleep. I turned for home.

I spent the next ten minutes carefully making my way past ponies and cows and foxes in the forest, my nerves on edge as the darkness pressed in around me. I only had to get home. It was barely a few miles away. I was safe.

But safety is an illusion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, and slamming on my brakes I caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers with black trim and – WHOOSH! – a great big tawny owl flew right across my windscreen. I must have missed it by a foot.

It couldn’t have been the same owl. Couldn’t have been. But my nerves now shot to pieces, I crawled home, hoping beyond hope I didn’t hit anything else.

Maybe it cursed me. Maybe some supernatural power in the depths of its being decided that I should suffer. For worse was yet to come.

I got home, put the baby to bed, and crept into the bedroom. There was my wife lying fast asleep in bed, a thin sheet draped over the curves of her naked form. I wanted nothing more than the peace of climbing into bed beside her and cuddling away the nightmare of the forest.

Slowly, carefully, I eased myself onto the memory foam mattress and – CRACK! – my knee snapped one of the wooden slats clean in half!

‘What the hell did you just do?’ my wife cried, jerking awake. ‘You’ve broken the bed, you’ve broken it! You’re too fat, you’ve broken the bloody bed!’

What I wouldn’t have given to be back out in the forest with that owl…

Managing the Toddler Stage

When people see you struggling with a heavy load, they don’t ask if you’re doing an awesome job or exceeding all your expectations, or if carrying heavy loads comes naturally to you – they say, ‘Can you manage?’

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

As a dad, and an autistic dad at that, I want to be the best parent on the planet – guide, teacher, confidante, protector, therapist, playmate, master and friend. I want to be friendly, understanding, patient, relaxed, calm, tolerant, respected and in control. I’m pretty sure that’s normal – no parent thinks to themselves, ‘Damn I wish I was worse at this than I am.’ But where I possibly differ from many is my rigid, black and white, all-or-nothing approach to the subject.

You see, to my way of thinking, if I’m not the best dad in the world, then I must be the worst; if I’m not excelling, then I’m failing; if I’m not winning then I’m most definitely losing. My benchmarks, my expectations and my standards are set so high you need oxygen and ice axes to reach them. This is unrealistic, and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me striving for greatness.

Up to now, this hasn’t been much of a problem. There have been trials and hardships, sure, but every step of the way I’ve overcome them. A bit of perseverance here, some tender loving care there – all it required was patience, endurance and a sense of humour. Simple.

Not so now that she’s hitting two. This terrible toddler stage is something else entirely.

Everything that took minutes before now takes hours. Everything that once was easy is now like quantum mechanics. And everything she used to do willingly has become a clash of nuclear powers that leaves only devastation in its wake.

Bedtime, for example. I used to put her down, read her a story, and that would be that – maybe I’d have to stick her back under the covers a couple of times overnight, but nothing more than that.

Now it’s like carrying a hissing, spitting baby tiger up the stairs, trying to avoid getting your eyes scratched out while enduring a barrage of feral, bestial roars that befuddle your senses and threaten to burst your eardrums. You put her down in bed, and she kicks off the covers and is at the bedroom door before you can escape. So you fight to lie her back down, and you reason, threaten, beg, cajole and finally bribe her with a story until she’s finally quiet and allows you to leave.

Three seconds after you close it, the door flies open and she hangs over the stairgate screaming blue bloody murder at you, as though the sky is falling down and you’re the one to blame. You hide in your bedroom, wait a minute and then pick her up, against her struggles, put her in bed, against her screams, throw the covers over her and race to the door.

And then the whole thing repeats.

It’s like being trapped in Tartarus with a cruel and unusual punishment picked out exclusively for you. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, putting her back in bed each time only to have her wrench open the door behind you and claw maniacally at the bars. Five minutes, six, seven. The screams descend into choking splutters, snorts, grunts, growls, a demon in your midst.

Until that wonderful, horrible moment, hours later, that she’s all cried out and sits on the floor like a dejected prisoner, rattling her dummy against the bars of the stairgate locking her in her room. And you sink to the floor yourself and you slither across the carpet to the stairs, lowering yourself inch by inch, praying they don’t creak because at the slightest sound she’ll start up again.

And you slink away and fall on the sofa, and you feel like bursting into tears because you’re battered and bruised, it’s all so hard and you can’t take it anymore.

And then she starts screaming again.

Unbelievably, the days can be worse. For the past three days, my home has been a war zone. The house is a mess, the floor covered with toys, and I decided that enough is enough. I told her she couldn’t get out any more toys, or watch Peppa Pig, until she had put her wooden blocks away. Two-and-a-half hours later, having screamed, cried, shouted, attacked me, laughed, giggled, batted her eyelids, hugged me, pleaded with me, thrown herself into the walls, thrown the blocks, hit me with her doll and overturned half of the furniture, she put the blocks away.

Did I feel jubilant, triumphant, victorious? Hell no. I felt emotionally raw from the hours of abuse, fighting to stay calm as she pressed every button and tested every boundary. I am the mountain worn away by the sea. But I consoled myself that the next time, it would be easier.

Yesterday, I told her to put away her wooden blocks before we went to the park. Three hours later, on the verge of screaming and crying myself, she put her blocks away. I won. At the cost of my soul and my sanity.

Today, to be fair, it only took one hour. But who knows how long it’ll take tomorrow?

I’ve never really understood the idea of picking your battles – I’ve always been of the opinion that if a principle is at stake then you attack it wherever you find it – but I’m discovering that flexibility in parenting a toddler is a must. After hours of fighting over the wooden blocks, when she started taking the DVDs out of their cases and putting them back in the wrong ones, you know what I did?

I pretended I didn’t see.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand, nailed my colours to the mast – the wooden blocks are the issue on which I hang my hat. If I can master this one thing, then I’ll deal with everything else, but I can’t do it all at once and I don’t have the energy or the emotional resilience right now to be master of all things.

Because the truth is, while I might want to be good at every aspect of parenting, to excel and overcome and be the best damned parent in the world, I’ve realised that in order to survive raising a toddler you have to lower your standards, relax your ideals and temper your expectations, or you’ll go crazy.

And that’s okay. Like the man with the heavy load, nobody is asking if I’m excelling – they’re asking if I can manage. And yes, I can.

That’s the lesson I take from this week – I might might want to conquer Everest, but setting my sights on Kilimanjaro as a more realistic alternative doesn’t make me a failure as a parent, does it?

Does it?