After my last blog post, Vasumathi wrote to me, sharing her experiences of parenting her 18 month old child. Helping her child to learn to sleep was one of the key topics of discussion.
Much before I was pregnant, Rajesh Mehar once told me how his son announces when he is sleepy and walks into his room to go hit the sack. We were damn amazed that Malhaar (Rajesh’s son) could do this at less than two years age. Of course, there was a little process involved before Malhaar could actually sleep. He cried a little when put into his bed. Rajesh kept time before going in to Malhaar’s room to comfort him. Typically, within less than five minutes of the crying, Malhaar was asleep. The parents rarely had to step into his room to comfort him. He had learned to sleep.
Learning and insights are easy when read or experienced by observing others. They are hard to internalize when you have to put them into practice yourself because this involves de-conditioning yourself, unlearning and shedding the old, learning something new and then continuously practising the new behaviour till it gets internalized. My favourite example is from my experiences with running long distances. Simple lessons such as lifting your legs higher while running, knowing how to shift weight in the lower half of the body to run more consistently, speed training – these are lessons that I constantly learned on every run, forgot, then switched back to old behaviour, learned the right way the hard way, practised a few days, forgot, then experienced the pain again and back to the same old cycle.
Raising a child is indeed the painful process of unlearning. Rajesh had been cautioning me since Amal was 6 months old to help her learn to sleep by herself. Helping a baby to learn to sleep by herself is the process where you help the child by comforting her till she is drowsy. Put her down on the bed or crib in that window period between drowsiness and sleep so that in the drowsy state, your child figures out how to put herself to sleep. There are tonnes of references and literature out there about how sleeping is a learned behaviour (and not natural or innate), and how children need to be helped to learn how to sleep.
When Vasu brought up the issue of helping Amal learn to sleep, I started to think back on my own childhood. Honestly, I never learned to sleep by myself until the age of 7 or so, and even afterwards, I had a lot of trouble sleeping by myself if I happened to wake up in the middle of the night. To put it more concretely, when I returned back to my parents’ home at the age of 4 or so (I was living with my grandparents and maternal uncles and aunts until then), I needed my mom to sleep next to me so that I could fall asleep. She had a tough time because she’d first put my sister to sleep in her bed. Then she’d lie down next to me until I fell asleep. And only after that, she got her space to sleep by herself.
Even at my grandparents’ place, my aunts used to rock me on the swing and I slept in the comfort of their arms and warmth.
I was always afraid of the dark and of ghosts. It was worse when I saw a horror show or some scary movie before sleeping because then I’d keep thinking about it and had a tough time sleeping.
Learning to sleep is knowing how to comfort your own self and go back to sleep should you happen to wake up at night. From the literature I have read on this topic so far, it seems that we adults also wake up a few times in the night. But because we have learned how to go back to sleep – by pulling a sheet on ourselves, or cuddling up to the pillow or turning to the left or right side whichever is comfortable, turning off the night lamp – by acting on the associations we have built up for learning to sleep, we just know how to go back to sleep. This is unlike in babies and toddlers who haven’t yet learned to build these associations. Hence, they wake up and cry because they want help to go back to sleep.
As a mom, I’d just give my boob to the baby and feed her to sleep. She’s actually not hungry (or not always). She just wants the comfort of sucking to put herself back to sleep. But this means that I am required for her to go back to sleep. And that means my sleep is ruined. Weaning her from the night feeds is not the answer to her sleep problem. The answer to her sleep problem is helping her to learn. And that means I have to learn (or unlearn) to put up with her crying while she is learning to build the associations and becoming more capable.
It is all good when it is not your own child crying. Really, I mean it. Ask me if I can tolerate Amal crying for more than two minutes. Even if I don’t rush to shussh her, I shout out from the other room “what happened? Mamma is coming.”
Helping Amal to go to sleep means I have to time myself before I can intervene to comfort her. Wait until two minutes in that window period between drowsiness and sleep. Is she unable to sleep despite two minutes of wailing? Alright, then I intervene only to the extent of comforting her. Does she manage to fall asleep in the window period? Not again? I wait another couple of minutes. Now?
It’s not going to be as easy as writing this blog post. I’ll really have to develop the patience and also the insights to understand her cues. There’ll be times when she genuinely needs me to comfort her for longer, for example when she is teething and has pains.
It’s going to be a massively huge unlearning process for me. Some of the literature guarantees that within six weeks, she’ll get to sleeping by herself only if I persist.
So I think parenting is also about persistence, but persistence for those aspects which will really help your child become independent.
I never had a room of my own to sleep until the age of 26. I had to rebel silently and fiercely to move out of my parents’ bedroom at the age of 16 and sleep in the living room. This rebellion helped me build my personality. Now that I can afford to hand the luxury down to my child to sleep by herself and get to the first step of building an independent personality, can I put myself through the six weeks grind and persist?
– Dedicated to Vasumathi!