I am trying to force a friendship on my son…it’s with a stuffed dog. It is probably the first of many relationships I will convince my kid to tolerate. In this case, it’s totally self-serving: I want him to love the dog more than me.
Let me explain: at nighttime, my baby prefers to be nursed/held/rocked until he falls asleep. Then he is whisked to the crib where he is blissfully ignorant of ever leaving my aching arms. The problem is that he lacks the skill to really fall asleep on his own. If placed in his crib awake, 9 times out of 10 he explodes in mind-blowing weeps and wails, as if he were like the abandoned baby Moses floating down the river. Occasionally, I can distract him with his musical sea horse with the light up belly (followed by me tiptoeing out the door)…but even the sea horse has grown stale. The doctor hinted that nursing him to sleep wasn’t a long term solution (what, I’m not going to nurse him until he’s 18?). The yoga ball Josh insisted on bouncing on (while holding all 20 pounds of our baby hulk) has been banished upstairs. And, well, the kid is nine months old now. We can see toddler-hood in the distance…and it’s a bleak world if our boy can’t fall asleep on his own. Right?
When he does finally sleep, I catch my baby snoozing in a face down ball with his bum in the air. I marvel at this. Many, many times, we lay him flat on his back as a newborn and he would rage. Sure, we were avoiding a SIDS tragedy every time we insisted he lie this way, but now I realize how badly he just wanted to sleep on his tummy. I look over at my husband in the middle of the night, and there he is, crashed out on his stomach, fast asleep. For 11 years I’ve been sleeping next to the same man, and the majority of his sleep time has been sans pillows, face down, with a look of pure contentment. He is sleep gifted in that he can nod off anywhere and at any given time–on the couch, or camping, or in a dark movie theater… Before my baby was born, I prayed he would be like his Dad. And he is like his Dad in that he prefers to sleep on his stomach. Otherwise, he appears to be just like me.
Sleep has never been my strong suit. As an adult, I toss and turn and kick off covers and worry into the wee hours. As a child, I was merciless in my insomnia–so much so that I ended up at a child psychologist when I was 11. I had spent the entire summer prior to 6th grade sleepless and anxious. I held some sort of neurotic vigil night after night: I would lie in the dark, awake, worrying that the house would be set on fire, or that my Dad would die, or maybe I might contract AIDS (the HIV virus had just hit the news as a mysterious, unknown, killer and I had no idea how one really contracted it; I think I thought it was airborne). The therapist thoughtfully suggested I have my own room–I was still sharing a bunk bed with my brother. This advice was profound and effective. I remember picking out a pink paint sample, proudly anticipating the shining color of my new room. I entered 7th grade with a new bedroom fit for homework, fashion, and yes, sleep.
In 9th grade, my Health class required we write the number of hours of sleep we received the night before in the top right hand corner of our paper. This was in addition to the name and date; a typical heading would look like this:
November 6, 1992
It was this exercise of sleep recording that pushed me back into insomnia. I would lie awake, distracted and silently hysterical, periodically checking the clock and thinking: “Tomorrow in Health class I’ll have to write that I only got 6 hours of sleep last night!” And thus the subtraction game would continue until, yes, unbelievably I would get down to 3, 2, 1, sometimes 0 hours of sleep. I’m not sure why this data recording exercise disrupted my sleep schedule so much. Perhaps it was part of my rocky road into adolescence or a sign of my suggestible, slightly obsessive-compulsive nature. At any rate, I learned that I had to have all clocks turned away from me at night. This rule still stands, otherwise I immediately start calculating: “Oh my God, it’s 1am; I have to get up at 6am, which means I’ll only get an estimated 5 hours of sleep” FREAK OUT.
At our son’s 9 month check-up, I gave his pediatrician the run down on our shitty sleep situation: up usually twice a night, nursing requested both times, refusing Dad, lot’s of crying if left alone. “Which one of you has issues with sleep?” The good doctor looked at my husband and I. Of course, I sheepishly raised my hand. “Me, that would be me…I’m a terrible sleeper.” The doctor nodded, implying that sleep issues can be hereditary, or at least influenced by an equally sleep-challenged parent. I look over at my cheerful son, who is playing with the doctor’s stethoscope. “He’s such a great kid,” I said, “He eats well, plays well…he just doesn’t sleep all that great.”
Thus, the little stuffed dog is introduced. He was given as a companion to the book, “The Pokey Little Puppy.” The dog has a tag with the name “Douglas” inscribed on it. (Whenever I say the name, I think of our neighbor down the street, also a “Douglas,” who has a spectacular yard, with a chicken coop, and a mysterious wife who recently appears facially paralyzed from a firefighting accident). Stuffed “Douglas” is gently nestled between my son’s body and mine as he haphazardly nurses. Always a sloppy nurser, my son has only regressed with age and the onset of teeth. He nips, his mouth barely open, eyeballs rolling all over the place in case he might be missing something. Sometimes he earnestly pounds on my clavicle with a the flat part of his hand, his palm ringing out some sort of secret nursing rhythm. I urgently push “Douglas” on him, and eventually my son’s hand lapses onto the dog’s soft, synthetic, fur. Occasionally, he’ll try and nurse “Douglas’” furry ear, as if initiating the toy into some sort of lactation ritual. ‘This is good,’ I think, ‘My son is bonding.’
Occasionally, a small wave of sadness will sneak up on me. What was once a really comforting ritual, something that could always soothe my son, is now fraught with difficulty. Nursing to sleep is no longer a guarantee, my trump card, my go-to trick. Getting up twice a night to do something purely for my son’s own comfort (instead of necessary nutrition), is putting its toll on me. However, the idea that I am replacing my own, warm, body with that of a stuffed dog feels rather sad.
“Night, night, baby,” I say to my son as I put him in the crib. I stuff “Douglas” next to him, and for a moment my son looks at me with wide eyes. “Night, night, doggy,” I pat “Douglas” on the head, indicating that this is a special toy, a lovey, something to emulate Mommy at night. My son isn’t buying it and I can see the uncertain look in his face. Pretty soon, “Douglas” will be thrown across the crib, a talisman of despair and betrayal. I will find “Douglas” in the corner of the crib, legs akimbo, his comforting features distorted. Later, after the crying is over and my son finally succumbs to sleep, I will return the stuffed dog to his side, in hopes that some day soon, sadly…yes, sadly, he will turn to “Douglas” at 4:30am instead of his mother.
That’s right: It’s time for the stuffed dog to take over…