On a cold night last year, my wife and I endured a fifth straight evening of multiple wake-ups from our newborn. After two feedings, three walks around the house, and four false-alarm cries, Wendy and I trembled with exhaustion. This was compounded by the stress of having just moved to a new home, my starting a teaching gig, and our older sons kicking off a new school year.
Finally, sleep came and, when it did, I went down hard.
That was until I felt a “presence” hovering over me. Dog-tired, I kept snoring. Then I heard a faint wheezing. The wheezing turned to heavy breathing, which got louder and louder. High-pitched moaning pierced my eardrums and my eyes snapped open.
A dark shape stood next to me, holding what looked like an axe!
I screamed. “Ahhhhhh!”
My wife jumped up and shrieked, “Where’s the baby?”
The figure screamed back. “Dadddeee!”
Bolting upright, I recognized the shape as my son, Benjamin. The axe I imagined was his tattered blanket.
My son burst into tears and fell across me in the aftermath of what had been a twisted recreation of the movie scene in which Drew Barrymore sees E.T. for the first time. In this case, I was Drew Barrymore.
“What were you doing standing over me like that?” I said breathlessly.
“I – just – wanted – to – cuddle,” Benjamin blurted between sobs.
And there it was. The dramatic comeuppance for two parents who had long struggled with the issue of a family bed.
Before my wife and I had children, we swore we’d never let our kids sleep with us. We judged others who let their kids in the bed, thinking that kind of arrangement could only create intimacy problems for the couple and therapy sessions for the children.
Sometime later, we found ourselves changing our tune. It began when Benjamin, then almost three and new to a “big boy” bed without rails, started sneaking into our room in the middle of the night. Due to fatigue and the sheer joy of cuddling, we let him snuggle with us for a few hours each night. This went on for a couple of years until Jacob got old enough to leave the crib and want his own time in Mommy and Daddy’s bed.
So we started a campaign to keep the kids on their own mattresses. We told them that they could crawl in with us in the morning, when it was light outside. Jacob, always a deeper sleeper, was easier to keep to the new rule. But we had to experiment with all kinds of tricks to keep Benjamin in his room. Over time, we tried clocks, a sleeping bag on our bedroom floor, extra stuffed animals, a special pillow, and just plain begging with intermittent success.
Then, there was the previously mentioned night of all that wheezing and screaming.
After we all calmed down, I escorted Benjamin to his bed, reminding him of the house rules. A little later, he returned. I got crankier and he went away wailing again. This back-and-forth occurred every 10 minutes, as he tried to gain our sympathy and we used every tactic from yelling to listing all the playdates he was going to lose.
Then, my son Jacob joined the fray, shouting out like a lost child that his pull-up needed to be changed. Jacob fell back asleep but he was replaced by the dog that scratched at the door to go outside and the cat that upchucked a fur ball on the bed. All the while, my wife and I bickered about how to handle the whole mess.
I pleaded with our first-born. I even cried when he cried, asking for mercy on his exhausted father who had to wake up to teach cranky high-school sophomores in the morning.
Finally, with Benjamin as worn out as I was, I found clarity – kind of like a Bugs Bunny horror spoof in which the rabbit realizes the way to stop the monster is by complimenting him (“Gee, Doc, you got really big muscles.”) So, I appealed to Benjamin’s desire to feel like the big boy he was.
“You graduated from kindergarten and now you’re a first grader,” I explained. “It’s time to graduate to sleeping the whole night on your own. You can do this.” I then promised him a reward chart that would track how many nights he could stay in his bed.
Things have been much better ever since. Benjamin still crawls into bed with us at 6am or so, but he’s proud of himself. He’s graduated to sleeping on his own and we have our bed back. Now, if we could only get our baby to stop kicking his crib like a T-Rex three times a night, we could actually get some sleep.