Any parenting book will tell you, a toddler’s cry in the middle of the night can mean one of a jillion things:
- An ear infection (or other illness)
- A nightmare/night terror
- Normal sleep cycle waking coupled with an inability to self soothe back to sleep
- A painful encounter with a bed rail
- A lost toy, blankie, pacifier, etc.
- Fear of the dark
- A dirty diaper
- Stressful events (a new home, a new room, family discord)
- The realization that his/her parents are doing something much more fun than sleeping
It follows that how one reacts to mid-night wails very much depends on what’s going on.
For example: If Sophie’s got a dirty diaper, I’m going to go in and change it. If she’s got an ear infection, I’ll give her medicine and love. But, if she simply wants out of the crib, I’m going to stuff ear plugs in my ears and do my best to ignore the cries.
The problem is, I often don’t know which it is until I run down the possibilities (e.g., go in and sniff her bottom, feel her forehead, scan the floor for members of her stuffed animal menagerie, etc.) which means going in.
I’ve always been wary of going in. It’s the behaviorist in me. A little voice inside my head says, you go in once and the behavior will escalate. Don’t reinforce! Let her cry it out! Give her an inch she’ll take a yard!
But buried under my training exists my instincts. Weak and muted they plead: “She needs you. Wasn’t it reassuring when your parents responded to your cries? What does it cost you to go in there?”
And there is the physical pain of listening to your child suffer—like the blood being wrung out of your heart.
So, about a week ago, when Sophie started waking in the middle of the night—my heart and mind fought a fierce battle over what to do.
The first time I went to her. She stood in the corner of her crib, real tears streaming down her face, hair damp and matted to her cheeks. Baby in one arm, bear in the other. “Mama! Out! Out!” she cried. I lifted her and felt her body shaking in my arms. She threw her little arms around my neck and burrowed into me.
Are you scared? I asked.
Yeah, responded Sophie.
Did you have a bad dream? I wondered.
Yeah, replied Sophie.
Are you an apple pie? I tested.
Yeah, affirmed Sophie.
I was not going to find out what was wrong. At least not by asking her. Within a minute or two, her body grew limp in my arms.
“Bed,” she told me. So I laid her in her crib, sang a made-up lull-a-bye, and backed out the door. She fell back asleep
She woke an hour later. This time I decided to wait out the screams. She’d cry out, five minutes would pass quietly, and then she’d cry out again. Thirty minutes passed. An hour. Two hours. There was no sign of her stopping. I moved to the attic where I could no longer hear her and slept for two hours. When I came back down, she was fast asleep…but at what cost? How long did scream and sob until she finally passed out? O, the guilt.
She slept like a (proverbial) baby.
On the third night, she was up at midnight again, wailing. I went in, held her a minute or two until she asked for “nap,” and put her back in her crib. I felt relieved. It seemed like the right decision. She slept through the night. I thought to myself, perhaps one size does not fit all…maybe this is what Sophie needs.
Wrong. She first woke at a quarter till midnight. I comforted her; she fell back asleep. And hour later she woke again. I comforted her; she fell back asleep. When she woke for the third time, an hour later, I started to feel like I was getting played. I resisted going in, and she fell back asleep after ten minutes.
But…the next day Sophie was listless, ate poorly, and tugged at her ear. O, the guilt. I called the doctor and made an appointment for the following day.
Sophie woke only once, cried for five minutes, and resettled herself. Later that morning, the doctor peered in her ears and down her throat, and concluded, “She’s fine.”
“Then I AM getting played?” I asked.
“Well, its possible she has a virus that’s making her uncomfortable. I’d give it seven days. If she’s still waking…THEN you’re getting played.”
“Seven days from today?” Kevin asked,” or from when it started?”
“When it started,” replied the doctor, raising an eyebrow.
So now Sophia has two days left of 24-hour full-mom access. After that…it’s tough love, ear plugs, a bloodless heart and a well-rested mom. Some days, it seems that parenting is a constant struggle to find and walk the line between indulgence and neglect.