To Be Absolutely Frank

Bedtime Story

For parents of small children, it's a tale of endless frustration.

By 10.10.02

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I just got through reading Goodnight Moon to my 13-month-old son. Remarkable how it holds his attention longer than anything else in his known universe. He clearly enjoys it so much, I hardly feel guilty for choosing a work of propaganda as his first book.

The perennial bestseller by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Clement Hurd) is as much an instrument of persuasion as The Communist Manifesto or L'effroyable imposture. In this case, the goal is the simple yet elusive one of getting kids to sleep.

Even before we had our first child, I knew about three-o'clock feedings and children crying in the middle of the night. I remembered my dad rushing in to comfort me after many a bad dream woke me in tears. But I had no idea how difficult it would be to get my boy slumbering in the first place.

I've often wondered: after a full day of incessant crawling around, knocking over and pulling down, shouldn't he be tired? Judging from how quietly he lies once he does go down, he is indeed pooped. Yet that doesn't stop him from resisting Morpheus with a tenacity that would shame the defenders of Stalingrad.

Maybe he doesn't want to miss the night life. He can't know that his mother and father have nothing more glamorous planned than dining in near-silence and then falling into bed ourselves. That's our idea of luxury now.

For months, we regularly spent the evening coaxing him out of consciousness with songs and cradle-rocking -- or rather, my wife spent the evening that way, while I wandered aimlessly around the apartment or the Internet. It wasn't that I didn't want to help, but after his last feeding, the baby wouldn't let anybody handle him but his mother.

I argued for a tougher approach, but my wife wouldn't hear of it. She's an Italian, and therefore loath to get tough with any child, especially a boy, under the age of 35. Yet as her refusals grew more feeble, and her face more obviously exhausted, I could tell she'd be receptive to an authoritative argument.

That argument finally came from a Catalan physician named Eduard Estivill, whose guide (not yet available in English) to getting kids to sleep is currently a bestseller among desperate Italian parents. He argues that sleeping well does not come spontaneously but is actually a learned skill. Bad habits acquired in infancy, he warns, could mean insomnia and other disorders later on.

Fascinating, I thought, as I skimmed through the analysis to get to the bit that really interested me (along with 99 percent of the book's readers): the doctor's technique for achieving the desired result. Basically, it's a matter of leaving your kid alone in the dark for increasingly long periods till he drops off. If you follow the method, your child is supposed to start hitting the sack without protest within a week.

Naturally this means tears. In our case lots of tears, and once a bout of vomiting. This was not something I enjoyed, but I consoled myself with the thought that we were following doctor's orders, and that my son never seemed distressed the following morning.

In fact, he seemed more comfortable with me, now that I was taking part in his bedtime. My contribution to the process was a one-act play, performed with plastic toys, about a puppy who cheerfully goes to sleep whenever his mother tells him to. Far cruder propaganda than Goodnight Moon, but the audience seemed to enjoy it. (I also discovered that my voice could be a powerful soporific, though my wife claimed she'd told me this many times before.)

After two weeks under this regime, the baby was still screaming himself to sleep, though sometimes in as little as two minutes. He might then stay asleep for as long as 11 hours straight. Pleased with our progress, I was willing to give the method another few weeks to work perfectly; but for my wife, every tear the baby shed was like a drop of her own blood.

When we moved to a new city -- and thus destroyed the familiar atmosphere that is a key element in Estivill's method -- my wife insisted that we suspend the regimen. And of course we never resumed it. Yet somehow the schedule that we imposed then is still in force. A quick reading of Goodnight Moon and a few minutes of rocking is all it takes to get him snoozing now.

My wife claims that this proves we didn't need such brutality in the first place. I say it vindicates the good doctor's approach. No doubt we'll be arguing this way, about one thing or another, for the rest of our son's upbringing. Let's hope that future arguments are equally inconsequential. The happy ending to this episode is that the boy sleeps. So I can stay awake and catch up on my work.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.