I try to steer clear of giving anything that might sound like parenting advice, but I feel that, for the benefit of humanity and my fragile ego, I should share what was probably one of my most dramatic successes as a mother.
A couple months ago, Miss M – who, I will remind you, is 6-years-old - started having some issues about going to bed. She’s never been a great sleeper by any definition, but after three years of being nursed to sleep, and another year of being accompanied until unconsciousness, she’d gotten into a solid, year-plus habit of going to sleep on her own. But suddenly, our usual routine of book-lights-off-story-snuggle wasn’t enough, and she was growing clingier and needier by the night.
Bedtime itself was longer and more difficult, and then, out of nowhere, she woke up in the middle of the night and called out for me. Twice. In the same night. That was more than she’d woken up in the previous year. The next night, it happened again, and I spoke to her about ways she could calm herself down and get back to sleep.
After a few nights of reportedly normal bedtime behavior at her dad’s house, I figured we were out of the woods. But no, the woods were actually all around us, and filled with those really mean trees from The Wizard of Oz. Our usual bedtime routine, normally about 20-30 minutes, stretched into an hour and a half of stalling tactics. She said her stomach hurt. She said she had to pee. She said she had to tell me … something. When I finally told her I had to go and get her exhausted brother to bed, Sassy took my place at her bedside and she eventually settled down.
For four hours.
At the strike of midnight, she was hollering at the top of her lungs, “MAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAA!” I ran to her and checked for bleeding or armed intruders, but no, the only problem was that she was awake. And, according to her, would never be able to fall asleep. Ever. The steadily worsening nights just proved that point to her; she's the kind of kid who will say “I will never …” until the very moment she can say, “I just did.” She continued arguing this point, at various volumes, for the next two hours. I really can’t even convey the intensity of it without using excessive caps and exclamation points and embedded sound files of my head exploding. She was a tornado of illogical arguments and irrational needs, and if you got close enough to engage with her, she’d suck you entirely in. Despite being utterly exhausted and barely able to keep her eyes open, the slightest move to step away from her bed would result in her bolting upright and starting the entire debate all over again. At 2 a.m., when I moved her to the living room, the spot farthest from any other sleeping person in our 9-passenger house, she was finally able to calm down and fall asleep.
In the clear light of the next day, we had a calm and lucid discussion about the inappropriateness of her behavior. We talked about her long history of being a good sleeper and how she needed to remind herself of all the nights she went to sleep just fine. She took it all in stride, and approached bedtime with a renewed sense of confidence.
And then the lights went out.
I could go into deep detail about the subsequent two weeks, but they were basically all a variation on the night described above. Except worse, because as the nights went on, so did the efforts to discourage her behavior through punishment. But no matter how long she was grounded to her room or how many times she wrote, “I can go to sleep and stay asleep,” her 2 a.m. mantra was the same. And it went something like: “I CAN’T SLEEP I NEED YOU I CAN’T SLEEP I WANT TO SLEEP ON THE COUCH I CAN’T SLEEP I DON’T CARE IF I’M GROUNDED I CAN’T SLEEP WAIT I NEED TO TELL YOU SOMETHING!”
Again. And again. And again and again and again.
I was, as you may expect, exhausted and frustrated beyond measure. I felt like a zombie during the day and, well, one of those really, really angry zombies during the night. Nothing was working and I had no idea what to do and this was our new routine for the rest of our lives.
In consulting with the more experienced parents in my household for possible solutions, however, a brilliant new possibility was suggested: rewards.
As a child raised almost exclusively through the power of feared parental disappointment, it never occurred to me that some kids may need to see more concrete benefits for good behavior, but I gave it a whirl. I made up a calendar, and told Miss M that for every night she went to bed quietly and stayed quiet all night (see how I never used the word “sleep?”), she would get a sticker. And when she had five stickers in a row, she could get $5 to spend at Target. If she held out for ten nights, she’d get $10, and so on in 5-night increments.
And it worked! That very first night, she caught herself in mid-whimper and let me leave her room without a fuss. With the condition that I leave her door open and come back to check on her in half an hour (“How high do I have to count?” “Nine-hundred, dear.”). Easy enough.
And, okay, I hedged my bets a little. I got us a bottle if Hyland’s Calms Forte for Kids, a homeopathic sleep aid, and gave her four doses before bed (the recommendation is up to eight). I’ve used multiple Hyland’s products, from teething tablets to colic tablets to our much-treasured boo-boo stick (Bumps & Bruises ointment), so both Miss M and I had some faith that it would help.
Since then, it's like we entered a parallel universe. Miss M has handily reached the first $5 point, and is now saving all the way up to $20, which we agreed would be the end of the chart system. We’ve talked about how the chart is just a symbol, and that the real rewards are the things that happen naturally when you do the right thing: she feels better during the day, she gets in less trouble because she’s not tired and cranky, I have more energy to play with her, etc. We reduced the Calms dosages until they disappeared entirely. When I tell her it's time for me to go, she says, "Okay, good night, mama." And most importantly, she’s created a new frame of reference she can look back on if she starts to doubt herself again.
And the next time I'm in the midst of a parenting quagmire I can't see how I'll ever get out of, I can remind myself that I just did.