On my own
“ I want to sleep on my own!”, she said.
I had been waiting for this moment. Not because I am tired of lying next to her while she falls asleep. I quite like our sleep-time ritual of reading a book then saying goodnight and lying down together. Joan will talk to herself and wriggle around getting comfortable, while I lie still and pretend to be asleep. Sometimes it takes five minutes, sometimes it takes thirty (and occasionally even longer), but eventually she stops resisting sleep and drifts off with her arms around my neck. It’s sweet. Time consuming and at times a little frustrating, but sweet. Once she’s asleep, I creep out of the room to meet Ben on the couch and we generally don’t hear a peep until 11pm, often later. At that point, I leave Ben in our kind-sized bed and join Joan in her single, where the two of us will sleep until morning. For some months this is where we have parked ourselves, as we make the long journey towards independent sleeping (you can read more about that journey in The Big Sleep Post part 1 and part 2).
The idea of falling asleep without me is not new to Joan. Since we transitioned to her big girl bed, I have always given her the option of going solo or having me there for her rests, but she always asks me to lay down. That is, until the other day, when she told me that she wanted to sleep by herself. “Ok”, I replied, trying to hide my shock. “I’ll read you a book and then you can fall asleep on your own.” When the story was over, I closed the blinds and gave her a kiss. “Bye, bye!” she said to me, waving enthusiastically before pulling the blanket up to her chin. I left her bedroom door slightly ajar in case she needed me, but Joan ran and shut it, telling me “I want to close the door properly, Mummy.” “Ok, sweetheart. Goodnight.” She was so excited. Too excited. Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t bring herself to stop wriggling and playing, and after 45 minutes Joan asked me to lie with her, which I did. As soon as she nestled her hand against my chest, she fell asleep.
Before every nap over the following days Joan requested to sleep on her own, and each time she ended up asking for me to come back. Thinking that perhaps she’d do well with a gradual reduction of my presence, I suggested that I might sit next to her and stroke her hair while she fell asleep. If we moved from lying down together to me sitting next to her, we could then move from me sitting on her bed to sitting in the corner of the room, to eventually being outside of the room completely. And while Joan liked this idea in theory, when it came time to sleep she wanted me to lie down. So I picked her up, gave her a cuddle and we had a talk. I said that I knew she wanted me to lie down with her, but that I also knew she wanted to sleep on her own. I told her that this new way of me sitting while she rests might feel strange at first, but that it will help her get used to falling asleep without me. I also told her that I loved her and was always there if she needed me. As she lay down with tears in her eyes, I second guessed whether I was doing the right thing. You see, when it comes to sleep, using the toilet and learning other skills, our way of doing things is such that we create the right environment, offer Joan the option to be independent and look for cues to, where appropriate, gently nudge her along, but we don’t push her to do things before she is ready. In this case, she had asked for independence but then didn’t seem to want it. A big part of me wanted to lie down with her, but my intuition told me to remain sitting, so I showed her a new way to cuddle, which (thank goodness) she was receptive to and after nestling in, she instantly fell asleep. And because I’m a sensitive, sentimental soul, I took pictures.
Right from the beginning, Ben and I instinctively adopted gentle parenting methods. Based on our own personalities and that of our child, it’s just what felt right. Though at times I certainly questioned our methods, especially regarding sleep. I worried about creating bad habits and was initially hesitant to let her become dependent on the ways in which I was assisting her to fall asleep (by feeding, rocking, patting, singing, snuggling, you name it). Eventually, though, I let myself simply do what felt right for our family, which was to follow Joan's cues and be there for her when she needed me, in addition to when she simply wanted me. No more battling or going against my intuition. Instead, I became her comforter because that's what she desired and I had the time and inclination to do so. As a result, when it came to sleep, the two of us became quite attached. Joan could fall asleep without me, say if Ben would put her to bed or when napping in the car, but that didn't happen very often. Day-to-day it was the two of us in the big bed (and later in her single bed), and this didn't bother me because it meant that she would sleep easily and peacefully, and therefore I would, too. I did begin to wonder, however, if she would ever desire to sleep without me, and that is why I am so incredibly heartened to see the sudden, burgeoning buds of independence. Though I also feel a little sad, because this means no more lying down next to her while she falls asleep. I won’t miss the accidental whacks to the face as she fidgets, but I will miss the moments when she settles and snuggles and let’s herself drift off to dreamland in my arms. In order to successfully nudge this independence in a gentle way, however, I know that I must be consistent with these changes. So, it's time to sit.
For those of you with children for whom sleep has never been a big deal, I understand that this may all seem a bit ridiculous. How can a baby, toddler or child need such assistance falling asleep? And by lying with them/feeding them to sleep/rocking them, aren’t you just stopping them from being able to do it themselves? Before I had a baby with this sort of need, I may wondered about that, too. The answer is yes and no. In the short-term, yes, you're encouraging dependence, but by responding to their needs and allowing them to be dependent you're also encouraging other wonderful and important things, such as security. And that's important, as it sets the foundation for them to be independent in the future. Dependence is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it a life sentence, and for our family, surrendering to Joan's dependence was the very best thing we could do. It allowed us to stop battling and actually start sleeping. I recognise, though, that not all families will feel similarly, nor will they respond to co-sleeping and gentle parenting methods as we did. All children and families are different, and this is simply what worked for us. To the parents of babies and children for whom the usual happy-sleeping tricks do not work, I say do what feels right to you. Treat yourself and your child with compassion and grace, and do whatever feels right and works, until it doesn't feel right or work anymore and you decide that you want to (or have to) change things. Indeed, habits can be changed.
So, how have we progressed since initiating this recent change? Well, during the first two sleeps my sitting position was really more of a lean, as Joan still wished to reach her hands towards my chest for comfort. After that, however, she didn't, and I've been sitting upright while she puts her legs on my lap, holds my hand or doesn't touch me at all. It's been just over a week since she proclaimed she wanted to sleep on her own, and I'm yet to initiate the next step of moving away from her bed. I expect it'll take a few more weeks until she gets used to our new way of doing things. But you never know. She may surprise me again and ask me to leave the room. Her soft toys may become more of an appealing cuddle partner than her mum. Or I may remain sitting on her bed for months. Either way, it's fine. I know that good things come when I let her get there in her own time.