Monday, December 15, 2014


Sleep, unfortunately, is not something our family is very good at. For myself, after the age of 3 or 4, I didn't really go in for naps. I recall afternoons being told to go nap in my room; I would go to my room and play quietly. My wife and I both grew up hiding flashlights in our rooms so we could read under the covers after we were supposed to be asleep. In college, I had a semester during which I slept between 3 and 4 1/2 hours every weeknight and didn't really do much to "catch up" on the  weekend. It was almost a badge of honor, particularly since it was a semester during which I pulled a 4.0 average while taking an overload of classes. So I flattered myself that I didn't really need sleep.

As I've gotten older, I've learned about the importance of sleep, but knowing and doing are two very different things, especially when your nights are subject to the whims of toddlers.

Typical Nights (Summer 2014)

The truth is, my wife and I are not very committed to establishing consistent and reasonable bedtimes for our daughters, aged 4 and 2. When one of us--usually the me of us--tries to put the younger one to bed, it's usually around 9 pm. Or 10 pm. Or 11:00 at the latest... by which I mean that if it gets to be 11:00, I figure why bother? and let her fall asleep on her own. Lauren swears that our 2-year-old can be put to bed by just laying down with her in a dark room, but I think that reconnaissance is obsolete at best, if not downright naive. If I lay down with her--which I do try sometimes--she tends to just wriggle around in a way calculated to drive me nuts. So usually I put her in my arms so her head can rest on my shoulder and then walk back and forth singing lullaby-like songs until she falls asleep or I get tired.

Meanwhile, there's our older daughter, on whom we've more or less given up the idea of consistent and reasonable bedtimes. She's either running amok or gradually falling asleep by snuggling up to her mother downstairs, where mama is working on grad school homework on her laptop, or not doing grad school work on her laptop, or just watching TV. Our 4-year-old has a tendency to go from wired to out in the blink of an eye. At that point, we've got to carry her upstairs, and we have a decision to make: do we make her go potty or let her sleep. If it's been too long since she pottied, we pretty much have to half-wake her and just hope she goes right back to sleep. Which, to be fair, she usually does, though sometimes she doesn't wake up enough to actually pee. If she doesn't do her business, she's likely to give us the business in a few hours: she'll wake up weeping and wailing with no idea what's wrong with her. Even though this happens almost nightly, she has no idea what's distressing her, so one of her parents has to go to her room and take her to the bathroom. At this point, there's at least a 50-50 chance she'll balk at going back to her room for the rest of the night. And even if she does, or if she doesn't wake up needing to potty, there's a good chance that she'll wake up at some point and infiltrate our bed. If she's really good, we won't wake up until she's firmly entrenched. And once she gets into our bed, it's guaranteed that we won't sleep very well, because she tends to snuggle up to one--or, inexplicably, both of us--compromising our rest.

And although in general our 2-year-old is our good sleeper, every so often--usually when her older sister is in the process of actually sleeping through the night--she'll wake up screaming. Maybe she wants milk, maybe she needs a diaper change, maybe she needs her legs rubbed, or maybe it's just existential angst that can only be answered by one parent or the other holding her. It's almost certainly not the same thing it was the last time.

So yeah: there's not really such a thing as a typical night, except that however much time we try to sleep, it's guaranteed that we won't actually get all of that, and what we get won't be the best sleep of our lives. That's typical.

Let's Go Camping!

In the summer, on our way out to vacation at the Outer Banks, we decided to camp. In part, this was because $18 for a tent site was a lot cheaper than any motel between Indiana and North Carolina, and in part it was because we kind of wanted to go camping. Our daughters have been indoctrinated by cartoons to think that camping is lots of fun, so they were on board, even if they weren't really clear about the details.

We set up the tent, took the girls and the dog on a walk around the campground, then cooked some hot dogs on a skillet on a propane stove. And then we did s'mores on the open flame of the same propane stove (sorry kids, we're not buying firewood and going to the trouble of lighting it up). It actually turned out that neither of our girls liked s'mores, though they love all of the constituent parts. Go figure.

Then Lauren and I read books while the girls ran around our camp site. When the skeeters started sampling us, we retreated to our tent and read until it was too dark outside to continue, maybe 9:30. And then we all went to sleep. Sure, our four-year-old was a little wriggly, our two-year-old was threatened with being thrown out into the night with the bears if she didn't stop being so fussy and restless, and our dog was jostling for position too. But soon enough, everyone settled down and went to sleep.

And, okay, our 4-year-old woke me up, without knowing why, because she needed me to carry her through the woods to the bathroom. And then she fussed and flailed around because pretty much everything hurt. We couldn't reason with her--no, we can't drive somewhere to get children's Tylenol--and no amount of rubbing her legs, her feet, her back, her arms would settle her... but she finally did fall back to sleep.

And despite that, unlike a usual night, we woke up with the dawn and felt great. Seriously: didn't feel a need for coffee, felt totally refreshed and awesome. It's amazing what sleeping and waking with natural cycles will do.

Lesson Learned?

Like I said, I already know that sleep is important. When we're sleep-deprived, especially chronically sleep-deprived, our brain function is lowered. And since it's lowered, we're not really well aware of our own level of impairment. We also age faster. We don't recover as well from exercise. We have a harder time losing weight or maintaining a healthy body weight. Seriously: all kinds of things go wrong when we don't sleep enough. It would be fantastic if every day we went to bed with the sun and woke up with the sun.

But the reality is that we won't. The days are so packed that our only "me time" seems to be in the evenings, so we resist going to sleep, we resist putting our children to bed, and next thing we know, we're all tired and cranky. Every so often, we do manage to go to bed a bit earlier, and maybe some day we'll really get it down.

It's nice to think so, anyway.


  1. Oh dear everything that is dear -- I so desire to achieve the discipline of normal healthy sleep.

  2. I keep starting comments on your posts, then getting distracted and not finishing them. (Clearly I need more sleep.) For many years, I believed that sleep was a waste of time, possibly because of my mother's indoctrination that 'after seven AM the day is wasted.' I've overcome this conditioning, but even without the excuse of children (and with the excuse that I have four dogs of my own plus a foster) I feel like I'm always at a sleep deficit. We're off to Mexico in a week. When I'm there, so close to the water I love so much, my sleep schedule synchs with the tides and I find myself wide awake at 4 in the morning, and ready for bed before 9 at night. Problem solved: I need to live at the beach.

  3. This sounds like my parents' experience with me. They wanted to spend time with me, they were night owls, and I wouldn't fall asleep if I was put to bed before 11. Sounds like your family is the same.

  4. I love to take naps, but hated them as a child. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that, no, you really aren't missing out on anything if you take a nap!