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A Parent's Worst Nightmare: Dealing with a Kid's Sleep Issues

Sleeping ToddlerThe other night I had a parenting nightmare. A literal one I mean, before you start getting worried.

My wife, son, and I stood on a subway platform. We had lots of bags with us, and I believe I was wearing a big backpack, like we were going on a trip. My son, fascinated with trains, hovered near the edge of the platform, leaning forward, looking down the tunnel. “Back away from there, buddy,” I told him. “Stand behind that yellow line.”

He did the opposite: he somehow climbed down onto the tracks. And as he did, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, “An express train’s approaching the station.”

“Get out of there!” my wife and I commanded.

But Felix had that look on his face slim lips curved in a crooked smile, eyes a glint his defiant expression. He moved away from us, as if we were playing chase.

What to do? Ladened as I was with luggage, it would be hard for me to jump down there and get him without becoming stuck on the tracks myself. An even larger worry was that he would take off and we’d both be smashed. “Come here,” we coaxed, and then pleaded, angling our arms into the pit. “You need to listen, a train’s coming.”

Still he kept himself just out of reach. Then the breeze of the oncoming train ruffled my hair, and its headlight limned the mouth of the tunnel in yellow. My muscles tensed, preparing to dive and push him against the wall, and then I woke up.

***

For the past month or so, my son’s been waking up in the middle of the night at least once, if not two, three, even four times, a backslide into an infant’s schedule of feedings. Like a baby, he comes to crying, but not with hunger. He’s frightened, motoring into our room with heavy footfalls, screaming for mom and dad, flailing his arms.

This isn’t a great way to be roused, let me tell you. Though we’ve had enough practice at this point that I don’t jump up as I used to, yelling “What’s wrong? What’s happening!?” or “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” my heart racing, worried he’s in pain, or threw up, or that he might careen into the furniture or trip over a misplaced toy. Once or twice he’s stubbed his toe on the table at the foot of our bed, or he’s flown up into my arms, wrapping himself around me, almost before my eyes have opened.

We’re not clear what the trouble is. He balls himself in his blankets, so there have been nights that he’s soaked through with sweat, his hair curled and damp as if he just had a bath. Or else he needs a drink of water. But mostly he says that he’s having trouble sleeping, which is both honest and obvious.

His trouble is a shared one. He requires re-tucking back into his nest of covers and re-locating his soft Jessie the Cowgirl doll. If only at that point I could say “good night” and return to bed, the way we used to, but these days he needs a gentle hand to hold his, or stroke his back, or else he’ll bolt back up with terror when I’m only a few steps away. Coaxing him down can take a few minutes or upwards of an hour in the dark of the night, it can be hard to tell the difference but either way, I stay, until his breathing’s evened and he’s slipped back off. I’ll admit, a couple of nights, right at the crack of dawn, I’ve crawled into bed with him, rather than linger atop his sheets next to him. That way we both can get some rest.

It’s taken a toll on all of us. My eyes are heavy as I write this, and we cancelled an afternoon play date because he’s over-tired and in a bad, temperamental mood. Eventually, we trust, he’ll get back to where he was, sleeping through the night on his own. And then so will we.

Of course, my son’s not the only reason I find myself wired and actively thinking when I should be sleeping. Like that night after dreaming about Felix on the train tracks, for instance, I stayed awake awhile, replaying the dream’s events.

While I never had that particular nightmare before, the sentiment was a familiar one I worry that Felix’s defiant impulses, his deliberate and willful resistance to listening to me, will one day cause him to get hurt. This is somewhat irrational. He’s had bumps and bangs before, but nothing major. He has a sense of the physical world, and his place in it, and he cares about himself; he likes being safe. My nightmare, like all nightmares, was both familiar but not grounded in reality.

Still, worry teased me, keeping my eyes open. I envied Felix, having an adult to rely on in the middle of the night. Someone he can ask, “Will you watch me as I go to sleep?” and who will say, with no strings attached, “Sure, kid.”

We all have nights when we wake scared and nervous, and find ourselves right back in that toddler mentality, in need of a hand to hold or a kind word. Wanting someone to watch over us. For us as parents, those nights, while few and far between, are hard ones. We’re on our own. We have to self soothe.

My son, on the other hand, has me, as long as he needs me. And as exhausting as that can be, I’m happy to be there for him.

 

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