They can’t sleep in cribs forever.
It’s actually not a new bed. We bought one of these fancy convertible beds that goes from crib to toddler daybed to a small twin. Moving from crib to daybed entails the very simple step of removing the front rail. That was the only change, but it was huge. HUGE. Because it freed her to roam about the room. Her bedroom is right next to the stairway on the second floor, so we can’t have her able to leave the room in the middle of the night. So I installed a gate.
That first night, the gate was ultimately more exciting than the bed. She had to come and go through the gate over and over again, wanting to close it fully every single time. Being a safety gate, of course, this required me to unlock it each time. I went through the usual bedtime routine: brushing teeth, getting into pajamas, rocking and singing, then tucking her into bed and rubbing her back. And then came the moment of realization – as soon as I stood up to leave, she hopped out of bed. “Rub my back,” she said.
“I did, honey. Time to go to sleep.” I tucked her back in, and this time I made it to the door before she got out of bed.
But she had the door opened before I was halfway down the stairs. “Rub my back!” she screamed at the gate. Then came the crying. “Daddy!” she cried. “Come rub my back!” After a few moments, the crying turned to despondent wailing. Then it became shrieks of misery. “Daddy, Daddy! Rub my baaaaaaaack! Pleeeeaase!” Then, changing tactics: “Water! I want some water!” Nothing makes a father feel proud of himself like hearing his child pleading for a sip of water.
This went on for an hour or so. Every so often one of us would go up and walk her to her bed, try to soothe her, encourage her to sleep. This became harder and harder to do with anything approaching a calm demeanor. She would lie in bed a few minutes, but then she would exercise her new freedom to get out of her new bed and come to her new gate and scream and cry.
The first few years of raising a child is full of game-changers: sitting up, crawling, walking, talking, potty-training. Each one brings a parent both excitement and challenges. You think I’d be used to this by now. But screwing with her sleeping patterns? Oh no no no no no no. This is not good. That first night, in a fit of sanity-deprived craziness, I came very close to reattaching the crib rail and pretending as if nothing had every changed. But you can never go back.
Fortunately, not every night has been this bad. Some nights she’s so tired that she falls right to sleep. Other nights it takes a few return trips on our part to rub her back and soothe her to sleep. Still other nights she calls out to use the potty, and then we have the collision of conflicting developmental needs: which takes precedence, potty-training or new sleep patterns? It’s a tough call. We usually err on the side of potty-training, but for me it’s less about potty-training and more about the hope that this will be what she needs to go quietly to sleep.
Each night feels like a tightrope. Will she go to sleep without incident? What can we do leading up to bedtime that will minimize our chances of a meltdown? How many verses of “Wheels On the Bus” do I need to sing before she’s ready to sleep? Oops, we forgot to brush teeth… screw it, she’s too quiet and I’m not going to risk riling her up by taking her to the bathroom and flipping on all the lights, she can brush them tomorrow.
Last night we had a breakthrough. Apparently she didn’t get enough backrubbing, and she followed her mother to the door. “Rub my baaaaaaaack!” she wailed. Her mother and I went about fixing dinner and picking up the house, trying to shut out the sounds of her screams for an appropriate amount of time before we attempted soothing her again. But after about five minutes, a strange thing happened: she closed the door herself and climbed back in bed. She was still sobbing, mind you. But she put herself to bed. Gradually, the weeping slowed and she drifted to sleep, one foot still hanging off the side of the bed. Watching her on our video monitor, I thought with surprise that I couldn’t be more proud of my daughter for crying herself to sleep.
Change is so disorienting for everyone involved. All that stuff you read in parenting books about “establishing routines” is completely true. And not just for the toddler, but for the parent, too. We feel far more comfortable and safe when events unfold to our preordained expectations. Unfortunately for us routine-craving mortals, growth is nothing but change. Every developmental milestone has brought some grief for us. I miss the days when I could lay her down and she would stay in one place. I miss the days when she didn’t care what we dressed her in. I miss the days when she couldn’t get out of bed on her own. But they can’t stay toddlers forever. Concurrently, we can’t stay parents of toddlers forever. Truth is, Curly Fries adapts to change far more easily than I do. She doesn’t know much different, my attempts to establish routines notwithstanding. Her life is changing all the time. Literally all the time. For crying out loud at the gate, she outgrows a pair of shoes in three months. As disorienting as it is for her to have a new bed, she isn’t nearly as undone as her parents are. Because I don’t want my life to be changing all the time.
So much for that. I became a parent, so I can’t say I didn’t sign up for this. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t also want to cry at the gate. Some nights when I go up to usher her back to bed, she is wedged in between her door and the gate, prone on the floor, whimpering with exhaustion. I know just how she feels. I also want to grab the gate and shake it and cry out for some water or a backrub or something. I don’t even want to get out of the gate. I just want it to feel familiar.
All of us need to cry at the gate, and all of us need compassion when we do. Sometimes we need someone to show us how to cry ourselves to sleep before we can do it on our own. This is what I tell myself when I steer her back to bed. Life changes faster than we can manage, and it makes sense to mourn that out loud every now and then. And if you get a backrub or a cup of cold water out of it, all the better.