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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Imaginative play and the autistic male

Oh my gosh, my daughter is driving me insane. Now nearing three-and-a-half, she has reached the stage where imaginative play is pretty much the only thing she wants to do, and my life has consequently devolved into an endless game of mummies and babies, doctors and nurses, car journeys, shopping trips, picnics and tea parties, and I honestly don’t know how much more I can take.

I don’t mind playing with her. I like building towers out of wooden blocks and playing with her toy trains. I like sword-fighting with her and doing flash cards and making up songs. It’s the pretending games I can’t stand.

When I spend all day and much of the night looking after a real baby, I have little interest in looking after a plastic one. When the only thing I do that isn’t looking after a baby is driving to the shops to go food shopping, it’s a real struggle to get motivated about driving an imaginary car to an imaginary supermarket to buy imaginary items with imaginary money. And I have no idea how many cups of air I’ve drunk, or wooden finger cakes I’ve scoffed, but if they were real I’d bankrupt the NHS with my soaring blood sugar and endless bladder problems.

Ironically, the easiest one to bear is being a patient in hospital.

‘Daddy, please can you play doctors with me?’

‘Do I have to do anything other than lie on the sofa?’

‘No. You got a dinosaur in your tummy and I got to cut it out and make you better.’

‘Fine, knock yourself out. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute…’

At the other end of the scale, the hardest is when she decides the four square feet between the back of the armchair and the wall is her house, and I’m her neighbour, who lives in the main part of the lounge, because she always invites me over for dance parties where I’m expected to shake my booty.

‘How about you come over to my house, where there’s much  more room?’

‘Coz it’s my party in my house.’

‘But why don’t we pretend this much bigger space is your house?’

‘Because this is my house and you need to be dancing!’

So I squeeze myself in and simply shift my weight from foot to foot, because that’s all I can do. You want to know where I get my ‘dad dancing’ from? It’s here. This. Especially when it’s to Justin freaking Fletcher. (Although to be fair, his version of ‘What does the Fox say?’ isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, even if my daughter sings it as, ‘Why does the fuck’s sake!’)

And she gets so into her games that anybody not buying into her reality gets short shrift.

‘The drawbridge is closed, you can’t come through here!’

‘But my coffee’s on the windowsill.’

‘You can’t come in.’

‘Well, I am because I’m going to get my coffee.’

‘No, you can’t come in, no, NO!’ Cue screaming, shouting, crying, trying to block me, holding onto my ankle as I drag her behind me across the lounge (‘You’re in the moat! You’re in the moat!’) to get my gosh-darned drink. It’s excruciating and it never seems to end.

Now, I imagine many parents have this problem, but for once I’m going to play the autism card and say, ‘I just can’t do it, and it’s because of my autism.’

I have NEVER got imaginative play, even when I was young enough to enjoy it. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I understood my own play – it was other people’s imaginative play I couldn’t get.

I’d treat my own toys as though they had thoughts and feelings. I once dragged my mother all the way back to playschool because I left my imaginary pet rabbit there. But give the same suspension of disbelief to other people’s toys and games? I didn’t have the ability.

That’s why at nursery, I’d wander straight through the middle of the farmyard the other kids had set up and not understand why they were now angry and upset – they were just pieces of plastic. That’s why I had no problem breaking my brother’s toys – they had no feelings, although he clearly did, and I’d invariably feel bad (and confused) a moment afterwards when I saw his tears. I was simply unable to appreciate that others could have the same emotional attachment to their toys and games as I did to mine – a fundamental inability to understand how other people think and feel.

And that’s why I’m struggling so much right now. I just don’t get that my daughter is investing her emotions into an imaginative reality.

However, while I might not get it, I can understand it at an intellectual level and adjust my behaviour accordingly. I know that imaginative play is important in child development, and I know that for the benefit of her emotional wellbeing, not to mention our relationship, I have to pretend that the things that are important to her are also important to me. So that’s what I do, as painful as it is.

The best way of surviving it? Biblical levels of sarcasm that she’s too young to understand.

‘What’s that? You want me to keep my voice down so I don’t wake your baby? Gosh, I wish she was just a cheap piece of hardened petrochemically-derived organic polymers, but since she’s clearly a real baby, then okay, honey, I’ll be quiet.’

‘What? Your baby has a poorly knee? Oh poor her, what an absolute tragedy. I’d better drop everything and see to it right away because it’s definitely so much more important than anything I was doing.’

‘I can’t come through here because it’s on fire? Well, let me check what’s on my utility belt, shall I? Wow, what do you know? I just so happen to have a fireproof suit I can put on. Holy asbestosis, Batman! Now get out of my way.’

Of course, if she learns to detect disingenuousness before she grows out of this imaginative phase, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do!

Que Sera Sera

When I was just a little girl,
I asked my daddy, what will I be?
Will I be pretty?
Will I be rich?
Here's what he said to me:

Oh my God, will you give it a rest, you are the neediest kid, stop it with all the gosh-darned questions, can you just give me five minutes to myself, you’re driving me insane, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, and leave your sister alone, no I can see you doing it, get off her, GET OFF HER, she’s not a toy, just be quiet and sit still, no sit still, do you want me to take you into the woods and leave you there, go in your playroom I can’t take it anymore, no there are no dinosaurs in your playroom, no there are no dinosaurs anymore, no there aren’t, okay fine there are dinosaurs but there are no dinosaurs around here, no it’s too cold this far north, they’ve all gone south for the winter, so go away and leave me alone, and stop saying what, stop saying WHAT, right that’s it, say what again, SAY WHAT AGAIN, I dare you, I double dare you, say what again, no, no I was quoting a movie, no I don’t want you to say what again, I don’t want you to say what, oh my gosh my brain is melting, how about I put on Topsy and Tim, okay you can watch Topsy and Tim but only if you promise to stop saying what and give me a break, you promise, okay great, which episode, we’ve got fifty episodes why do you always want that one, you’ve seen it a hundred times, okay whatever watch it then, are you watching it, why aren’t you watching it, well this is the one you wanted, oh for crying out loud, leave your sister alone, no you can’t have an ice-lolly, no you can’t, stop crying, it’s five minutes to teatime, stop crying, no I’m not mean, just because I said you couldn’t have an ice-lolly, come on cheer up, be happy, leave your sister alone, no don’t you dare start singing that song, if you start singing that song I’ll, baby shark doo doo do do do do, baby shark doo doo do do do do, no it’s stuck in my head now, how many hours till your bedtime, three, THREE, oh my God how am I going to manage it, mummy, mummy can you come and look after your little princess, uh huh yeah I’m sure it’s really important but I’m trying to serve up dinner, yeah she keeps saying what again, what, yeah three hours till bedtime, no I don’t know how we’re going to make it either, que sera sera.

The value of persistence

A while ago I posted An open letter to the Mental Health Community arguing that when confronted by a person with both autism and mental health difficulties, they found it all too easy to fob us off to the Learning Disabilities Team without properly investigating our problems. The specific cause of that letter was their refusal to see my wife, despite her deteriorating mental health, because of her autism. Hardly a stellar job of ‘care in the community’.

While not deigning to see her, they did, in absentia, recommend the GP put her on a second antidepressant in addition to the one she was already on, which caused her mood swings to become even more wild, and resulted in massive disruption to our home life without any follow-up. So my wife stopped taking all her antidepressants, and things got even worse. Again, a signal failure of the Mental Health Community to provide much-needed help and support to a person (and family) in distress. (Learning Disabilities, by the way, refused to see her because, apparently, her IQ is too high. So where exactly do people with autism go to get specialist help?)

I will be honest with you – thanks to my wife’s unstable, abusive, and downright crazy behaviour, her unwillingness to address her issues, and our increasingly fractious relationship, I have seriously considered walking out and taking the kids with me. It has been a year of absolute hell, and there is not one person I’ve spoken to who thinks I should stay, and fifteen or so who have told me I should go.

My response has always been the same: I want to make sure I’ve tried everything to make it work before I go so that if one day my kids ask me if there was anything more I could have done, I can honestly say no. People tell me I have passed that point, but I do not need to justify it to them, only myself and my children. But it has been far from easy.

Unwilling to give up and convinced there was more going on with my wife than simply autism, I read everything I could about developmental disorders, learning disabilities and mental health issues, until I eventually came across something called Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder of the Impulsive Type. Of the five criteria in ICD-10, my wife fit all of them, and you need three for a diagnosis. Of the nine criteria on the NHS website (five required for a diagnosis), she fit eight.

Her impulsive behaviours without any thought of the consequences, her self-destructive tendencies, her mood swings and emotional overreactions, her uncontrollable behavioural explosions, her lack of opinions and minimal sense of self, her terrible fear of abandonment, her need for continual reassurance, her turbulent interpersonal relationships, her refusal to follow through with anything that doesn’t give instant gratification, her ‘zoning out’ whenever anything ‘difficult’ is discussed, her hypersensitivity to perceived criticism, her paranoia at times of stress and break from reality when she is highly emotional, her profligate spending, her binge eating, the fact she swings from obsessing over me to hating me, and that she can never be relaxed or comfortable – it all fits EUPD.

And it’s hardly a new thing – her school reports aged five, six, seven say the exact same things: gives up on anything that’s hard; does not apply herself; struggles to control her behaviour; will not take instruction or correction; retreats into her own world and is unreachable; does not mix well with the other children; terrified of failing; requires constant reassurance; moody; angry; difficult.

Armed with this knowledge, I wrote a document outlining all the symptoms and diagnostic criteria of EUPD, and all of my wife’s behaviours that fit these conditions, and examples of each. We then went back to the doctor, who again referred my wife to the Community Mental Health Team, and attached this document. Lo and behold, they agreed to see my wife this time.

She saw them today with her Care Manager. Yes, they said, she almost certainly has Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder. They are referring her to a specialist to diagnose her and giving her twelve weeks of CBT. It is a lifelong condition and they will work with her. Thank goodness.

I suppose I should be relieved, and thankful. But here is my issue: I am not a doctor. I am most certainly not a psychiatrist. I am in no way a mental healthcare professional. So why the hell was it down to me to investigate, research and suggest a potential diagnosis? Why on earth did I have to fight and struggle and browbeat and beg and eventually find the answers for myself before anyone would see us? And why, if it’s so plain she has a personality disorder, has it taken until she is 32 years of age for someone to spot it? Not to mention that if they had seen her seven months ago, it would have saved my family a shitload of soul-searching, heartache and pain. Seems to me there’s not that much ‘care’ in healthcare.

But at least this shows the value of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed…do their job for them.

Explaining ‘fat’ to an innocent

Just had my own Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy moment with my three-year-old. Luckily, I caught the whole thing on video, so what follows is a transcript of a real conversation with a toddler.

Izzie: I want something to eat.

Me: No.

Izzie: I want something to eaaaaaaattttt!

Me: No. There’s no way you can still be hungry. Why do you want to eat?

Izzie: Because… [no answer]

Me: You’ve just spent all afternoon eating.

Izzie: Um, I want to eat…I want to get fat like you.

Me: [silence]

Izzie: I want to get fat like you, daddy.

Me: That’s really hurtful. Is daddy fat?

Izzie: Yes.

Me: Is daddy bald too?

Izzie: Yes.

Me: Is daddy a great big loser at life?

Izzie: Yes.

Me: Thanks so much.

Izzie: I have something to eat?

Me: No. Look, come here, sit down. I want to have a talk with you. Do you really think I’m fat?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Is mummy fat?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Who else is fat?

Izzie: Rosie [her baby sister]

Me: What about you?

Izzie: I am fat.

Me: Gramps?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Granny?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: But they’re thin and you’re definitely not fat.

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: So what do you think ‘fat’ means?

Izzie: Brick.

Me: Brick!?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Fat means brick?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: What does ‘brick’ mean?

Izzie: Brick means beads.

Me: Brick means beads? What does ‘beads’ mean?

Izzie: Chair.

Me: [pause] Are you just saying things you can see?

Izzie: Table.

Me: What does ‘fat’ mean?

Izzie: Err… [no answer]

Me: Do you know what ‘fat’ means?

My wife: What do you think it means, Izzie?

Izzie: Wall.

Me: Do you really think that’s what it means or are you still just saying things you can see?

Izzie: Wall.

Me: I love lamp.

Izzie: Wharf.

Me: Wharf?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: You said daddy was fat.

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: But you don’t know what it means, do you?

Izzie: I do!

Me: So what does it mean?

Izzie: Fort.

Me: Fort?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: So what does ‘fort’ mean?

Izzie: Fort means eeurgh! Yuk!

Me: [chuckling] You are such a freakazoid.

Izzie: I have a bath now?

Me: Sure, go and have a bath. But sweetheart, don’t call people fat, okay? It’s not nice. Okay?

Izzie: Okay.

Me: Okay.

Later, I tried to explain to her what ‘fat’ meant, and you know what? It’s an awful lot harder than you realise. I told her that when you eat too much you can become very big, but she thought that was a great idea.

‘No,’ I said, ‘You don’t want to be big.’

‘But I a big girl!’

‘Yes, you’re a big girl, but tall and grown-up big, not fat-big. Fat-big is when you’re big sideways. Look, see daddy’s big belly. When it’s big like this, it’s fat, okay? And when your arms are big, and they hang down, that’s…well, that could be because you’re old, and…you know what? Yeah. Sod it. Fat means brick. Fat means wall. If you’re built like a house, that’s what fat means.’

She was right all along…

[And in case you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the Brick Tamland scene where he loves lamp.]

Fear not, Aspie Daddy fans

Regular readers of this blog might have been a little concerned by my absence over the past couple of months, particularly when my last post suggested you stay tuned for Part 2.

The truth is, I have been going through an incredibly trying time in my personal life. Far from being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was too dark to find the bloody tunnel in the first place. I have been groping around blind, and not in the appropriate headspace to write about family life and parenting at a time when both were in question.

Now, we have finally turned a corner. I’ve found the tunnel and I can see enough to locate my surroundings. The light might be way off – might always be beyond my reach – but I once more believe it is there, and that is enough to keep going. These experiences might form the basis of another post one day, but for now I am going to embrace this fragile sense of security and move on.

So rest assured, I will be updating this blog again. And to start with, I’ll share some good news: a few weeks ago, over two nights mostly after midnight, in between nappy changes, bottle feeds and lullabies, I managed to write a short story in time to meet the deadline of the Writers’ Bureau Short Story Competition 2018. Reading it back, there were typos and grammatical errors and bits that make me cringe, but it amazingly won fourth prize and has been published on their website. So here is The Embrace of the Sea, and I will see you again soon.