Learning to Sleep

© 2008 Christopher Meredith. Used under Creative Commons 4.0.

Given that I’m an idiot — and a self-absorbed one, at that — it probably comes as no surprise to you to learn that of the myriad things I did not know about babies until I became a father is this: Babies don’t know how to sleep.

More accurately, babies know how to sleep, but they don’t know when to do so or how to fall asleep. I was stunned to watch my daughter — clearly exhausted beyond belief — fight sleep with all her might,1 despite her very obvious, very desperate need for some shut-eye. Babies, I learned, have no clue how to fall asleep. It is the job of their parents to teach them.

Now, it is family lore that I — quite infamously — never slept as a baby. So at least Leia comes by her insomnia honestly. My father, to hear him tell it, did not sleep a wink during the last Nixon Administration, spending his late nights rocking me in a cradle, keeping himself awake by watching old reruns of Perry Mason.2

And so, maybe I should have been prepared for Leia’s epic Battle with Sleep. Beginning partway through week three of her time on earth, she settled on a staunch anti-sleep platform, with no flip-flopping. Desperate times called for increasingly desperate measures, and her sleep-deprived mom and I tried everything we could think of. In what is surely a cruel joke of evolution, babies don’t know how to fall asleep as soon as three weeks…but you can’t teach them how until around eight weeks. Meaning you have four or five delightful weeks of, well, the 21st century equivalent of Perry Mason reruns. (In my case, listening to geeky podcasts. In my wife’s, Serial and Vanderpump Rules.)

But at Leia’s eight-week check-up, our pediatrician gave us the go-ahead to begin the dark art of sleep training, which process involves ritual sacrifice, a purification rite, some kind of pseudo-Catholic baptism, and — in extreme circumstances — invocation of the spirit of Neil Gaiman, just in case.

We performed the rituals as prescribed and — just a few days before the New Year — began sleep training Leia.

And let me tell you — it sucked. Not as badly as for some (I’ve heard of kids screaming for three hours before finally succumbing to Morpheus’s sweet, sweet embrace), but when it’s your kid, even a minute of crying is roughly 59 seconds too much.

Still, two days in, and Leia is taking to sleep quite well. She’s still nap-challenged, but whereas on Night One, she wailed for well over half an hour before falling asleep, on Night Two she cried for a mere fifteen minutes. If the trend continues, she’ll be sleeping with relative ease in a couple of days, and then we can figure out how to get her to nap.

All of this sleep talk has made me come face-to-face with my own sleep issues. I wish I could say I’m a better sleeper today than the days of my dad and Raymond Burr keeping me company into the wee hours, but the truth is this: sleep and I have always been wary of each other.

I’ve had trouble falling asleep as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I would try to relax by creating stories in my head as I lay in bed. This proved counter-productive — the stories would only pique my interest and I would lay there all night long, revising and editing in my head so that I could transcribe the results the next day. A tactic devised to combat my insomnia only made it worse.3 I estimate that through my adolescence and teen years, I probably slept no more than four hours a night on average.

Strangely enough, in college — that time of life when sleep seems fleeting and less important than drinking, hooking up, and occasionally studying — my sleep actually improved. I had programmed myself to be a night-owl, even though the rest of the world (read: school) demanded I waken early in the morning. In college, though, I could tweak my own schedule. Even though I was still tossing and turning into the wee hours, I didn’t have to rise until much later.

After college, it was back to the harsh taskmaster of a “real world” schedule, and I once again got less and less sleep as time wore on. And then I started writing full-time and my life became my own. I made my own schedule and could sleep as late in the day as I wished. It was — no lie — pretty great. I was finally getting as much sleep as I wanted.

But all good things must come to an end. It’s one thing to stay up until two or three in the morning and sleep until ten when you’re single and have no responsibilities other than book deadlines.4 It’s quite another, though, when you’re a husband or a father. Or both. Simply put: It ain’t cool to be sleeping until noon as your wife handles a newborn by herself.

But the damnable part of it is… I’m also no good to anyone before noon because I’m zonked from lack of sleep. I still don’t know how to fall asleep, and unlike Leia, I can’t fall back on the whole “I was just born a little while ago and I’m still figuring this out” excuse. I can’t keep crawling into bed at eleven every night, then laying awake until two, no matter how exhausted I am.

Babies can get away with it. They’re basically stupid, when you get right down to it. I’m not supposed to be. It’s OK to have to teach Leia how to sleep, and that’s exactly what my wife and I are doing.

Now I just have to figure out how to teach myself.

Peaceful Sleep photo © 2008 Christopher Meredith. Used under Creative Commons 4.0.

  1. And she has a considerable amount of might.
  2. This was ancient times, people — no Netflix. No DVDs. Hell, no cable!
  3. But I credit that same tactic with my developing writing skills. My loss is your gain. You’re welcome.
  4. Editors don’t care at what hours books are written, after all.

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