Exit with care

. September 6, 2012.

Dee’s mother and I have made the typical rookie mistakes in many areas of parenting. One certainly stands out, and that has to do with Dee’s various transitions relating to naps and bedtimes.

Family friends were kind enough to give us a copy of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child before our little one arrived. But when we took her home from the hospital, our opening months of parenthood involved so much sleep deprivation that it took us nearly half of her first year to get around to having the energy in waking moments to read the book. We were quickly brought up to speed on all we’d been doing wrong.

Dee handled her first major nap/bed-time transition, from the bassinet to her crib, with only mild difficulty. This first transition was interrupted by several detours in the form of nights spent nestled between parents on a king-size bed.

Along the way, we tried out a number of different bedtime routines. Warned off of a warm bottle by our dental hygienist, we hoped that a soothing bath and a few bedtime stories would do the trick. They certainly did at first, until Dee developed a complete understanding of the volume of her library of story books and started demanding a repetition of some favorite book in an effort to forestall sleep. We tried some quiet movie musicals, in the hopes that singing along could help Dee find her way to a restful night. In the end, a balance of different approaches has allowed Dee to develop a workable night-time pattern.

Changing it up

Now, a few months into the “terrible” twos, Dee has embarked on a second transition, from crib to her “big girl bed.” Two rails put parents’ minds at ease and a gate which she could presumably figure out while fully awake helps prevent any midnight strolls to the top of the stairwell. 

The toddler bed has actually been assembled for months, but until this past week, largely represented a place to play with a collection of cuddly friends. But a lengthy Thanksgiving break at home provided just enough naptime to transition into sleeping in a new room atop new equipment. The fact that Dee had managed to loop one leg over the rail of her crib on several occasions attempting to escape helped compel the move.

A sleepy adventure

Still, sleep time has been a challenge. Perhaps useful regarding the subject are two scenes from the Indiana Jones films. In the opening scenes of the first Jones movie, our hero attempts to remove a golden statue from a pedestal and replace it with a bag of sand. He reaches out with great care, but still triggers booby traps which cause mayhem and adventure to unfold.

We’ve had similar delicate operations with Dee on nights when she’s needed additional attention after falling asleep. When wrestling with the pains of a new tooth or sore gums, Dee sometimes needed a midnight application of teething gel. And when dealing with the inevitable autumn cold, fevers sometimes demanded a midnight dose of children’s elixir. We felt like the hero from Raiders of the Lost Ark,  trying to administer the appropriate balm without upsetting the giant boulders and other traps that represent a toddler wakened in the middle of the night.

In the third Jones movie, the hero has to walk on a series of stones in a precise order to avoid unleashing similar disasters. He tip-toes and balances from one stone to the next in an effort to avoid an untimely ending. When we put Dee down to sleep, our exit from the room involves a similar delicate set of steps. In an old house, floorboards creak. The various appliances in a nursery or toddler’s room — from humidifiers to baby monitors — can easily become traps for a tired parent whose single misstep may undo an hour’s effort reading bedtime stories and singing soothing melodies. Only after exiting the room and gently pulling the door shut, does it seem safe to exhale.

A toddler’s infant sleep is obviously an essential part of keeping a little one happy, content and ready to encounter new challenges in the coming day. It’s equally important to offer parents some breathing room to recover from an increasingly physical evening of playing and an ongoing effort to try different healthy foods at dinner time. 

The booby traps and dangers we create for ourselves certainly aren’t as frightening as those in the movies, but the prospect of disturbing a toddler at rest is just as likely to trigger nail-biting and the desire for a nice big bag of popcorn.

Geoffrey Rapp is a law professor at the  University of Toledo and the father of a toddler, “Dee.”