Monday, September 23, 2013

Bonzo for Bedtime

Ten years into this parenting gig, you’d think we’d be good at the one thing we have to do every darn evening. You’d think. Yet, without a doubt, bedtime at our house sucks.

The younger ones are supposed to go to bed at 7:30. The older one at 9:00.  “Supposed to” being the operative phrase. We usually send the kids to bed as close to the designated time as possible. If they are all asleep by 10 p.m., it’s been a raging success.

Between helping them wash up, reading to them and one of us lying down with the younger ones to help them settle down, it’s always at least a two hour process. More often than not, the one of us who lies down, falls asleep.

It’s a rare evening that we both make it through bedtime awake, with the kids actually asleep. Even when that happens, we almost certainly get a post-bedtime visitor, wandering back down the stairs claiming “I can’t sleep,” or “I had a bad dream,” or, my favorite, “I’m hungry.”

Sometimes they don’t even come down. We just hear giggling, or screaming, or the unmistakable sound of furniture moving across their bedroom floor as midnight encroaches.

Candid scene captured in my children's dollhouse, proving
frustration with bedtime is universal. At least in our house. 
“What the hell are they doing up there tonight?” I’ll ask from my prone position on the couch, as my wife puts her face in her hands and starts to weep. Personally, I don’t care where they put the furniture, as long as they don’t come down the steps.

We’ve thought about it for a while, and we were finally able to pinpoint exactly when the difficult bedtimes began.  Shocker, It was when our first child was born. To be more precise, it was on our second night as new parents.

Ironically, on our very first night as new parents, as we slept in a tiny room in the maternity ward at Georgetown Hospital – my wife in the hospital bed, me on a bizarre fold-out chair that kick-started a decade’s worth of back problems -- the nursing staff wheeled our new baby girl out of the room to the nursery, so we could get some needed sleep. As the sun rose the next morning, an older nurse who’d cared for thousands of newborns on their first night, wheeled our new daughter back in and told us she slept like an angel. We felt blessed. 

After the second night, the same nurse wheeled our child back in again and, this time, gruffly told us that our baby was up all night and was “inconsolable.” They sent us home from the hospital that day, and bedtimes have gone downhill ever since.

We struggled mightily with bedtimes as our child grew and became adept at the bedtime-avoidance arts. We asked more experienced parents, read how-to books, watched Supper Nanny – nothing worked. 

My wife read this one book, in particular, called the “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” The authors had not only figured out how to get difficult bedtimers to sleep, but they posited that failing to do so would result in unhappy children. Yikes.

These experts suggested setting up a routine. Like a bath. So we did it. They suggested reading to them, to help them wind down. We read. They suggested being firm. We were firm. Nothing worked -- at least, not for long.

As a last resort, the book suggested letting our young child cry it out. (We have since learned that "CIO" is a major dividing line in parenting philosophies). They said, most kids will only cry for about 40 minutes. And after a few nights, they'll never cry again.

The first night of “crying it out,” our daughter screamed for three hours before we relented. The second night, it was closer to four hours. Clearly our kid was more stubborn than the test children the authors experimented on. We just didn't have the hearts of the will power to do it. Maybe it's because we had hearts.   

We’ve added three kids to the mix in the decade since. And we’ve tried lots of “strategies” to get them to sleep.  We've sung songs. We used positive-reinforcement, like “Good-Bedtime Charts.” We’ve tried bribery. And, we experimented with yelling at them – at least, I did. Nothing worked with regularity.

Nowadays, we still use routines as the bedtime foundation; one routine being that we always read stories to them. (Though our oldest now reads to herself). Sometimes we lie down with a kid to help them settle. And sometimes we fall asleep.
We're still perfecting our methods.

But ten years in, there’s only one thing we know for certain: bedtime sucks.

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