Confession: I was a bad sleeper. I was never “sleep trained,” a phrase that would have had zero meaning to my parents. I tormented my mom when I woke up, long past an age where that was acceptable, an age I’m not willing to admit on the Internet. Seeing it from the other side makes me appreciate the fact that she didn’t murder me.
Young-adult novelist Lisa Selin Davis wrote an essay for The New York Times on her experience with her older daughter, who, at six-years-old is still terrified to sleep in a room without an adult present. She explains that throughout her daughter’s life, she and her husband have met with multiple doctors, sleep and behavioral specialists, who all more or less advised her to lock the kid in her room one night. Bada boom, bada bing, she’ll be sleeping like a little enchanted princess inside two hours, guaranteed.
Davis found this a little close to child abuse for her comfort. Though she first received the advice when her daughter was around three years old, they couldn’t bring themselves to flip the lock for another three years, and by then they had a second child who wondered why her sister was allowed to sleep with her parents without her. Things had come to an extreme impasse:
Finally, in February of last year, we bought them a bunk bed, as a bribe. They could have videos and sugar — they could have anything, really — if they would stay in it.
They did. Bedtime was still a nightmare, but my older daughter stayed in her room until morning. She slept. I slept. Everyone in the house slept, for five months. It was a beautiful thing. And then it stopped.
She appears at the side of the bed, a living ghost, clutching her monkey lovey and staring with a haunted look on her face. She is 6, a month away from 7. For a week she has been waking up at the end of every sleep cycle. Forty-five minutes. Sometimes an hour.
Finally, Davis uses the script she’s been given by doctors and tells her kid that if she leaves her room again, she’ll be locked in it util 7 a.m. While all of this sounds terrible already, it gets worse:
She leaves her room. I bring her inside, and the lock hisses shut. She pounds on the door. After two hours, there has been no change in the screaming, except once, when she says, Is anybody there? Did you all leave?
I would never leave you, I tell her through the closed door, going off script. Never. I love you. I just want you to sleep. This is what the doctor said to do.
She screams the entire night. She writes “I’m sorry” on scraps of paper and slips them under the door. My body feels poisoned.
Is parenting sometimes deciding which way you’re going to let your kid make you sick? It’s difficult to tell if hardening her heart for a night or two or three would help or harm, but the state of affairs Davis is describing seems wildly unsustainable. She wonders briefly if her feelings about sleep training relate to the current mode of parenting she is culturally immersed in, writing, “Maybe if I didn’t live in the over-parenting capital of Brooklyn, surrounded by families that seemed so competent and secure, I wouldn’t have minded.”
My own mother never locked the door on me, but we weren’t living in an apartment with enough rooms for it, nor did she have sleep specialists to advise her. A kid who can’t sleep is common enough, and Davis has settled for leaving a mat on her bedroom floor, telling her daughter that if she wakes up in the night she can come lay on it, but can’t wake her mom. She refuses to lock the door on her kid. And if personal experience counts, that kid will grow out of it, and maybe even prefer sleeping alone someday.