When my child was an infant, he was about as good at sleeping as he was at long division. This meant that we, his parents, spent many nights in a vertical position wishing for sleep to move in and overtake everyone in the house. Some nights he would just cry at the unknowable expansiveness of the world before him. Other nights he would just stare up at the ceiling, as I rocked him “down” while singing (or more appropriately, hoarsely mumbling) back-catalog Bowie classics. When he finally started sleeping with some regularity, I was somewhat amazed, as throughout all of those endless nights, I had convinced myself that he not only did not need sleep, but disliked it with great skepticism (as I write this, he sleeps peacefully upstairs).
As harrowing and frustrating as some of those nights were, my wife and I stumbled upon a small bit of wisdom that seemed to work well for us (or in the least, make things more bearable for all involved). It was sort of an inversion of intentions; instead of trying to calm an upset or crying baby, we focused on trying to be calm ourselves. Achieving a sense of calm, an imperturbable sense of calm, was the ultimate and highest goal. No longer would we be wrapped up in the desired result, as much as we would be invested in remaining in a state of purposeful tranquility. That way, if the baby cried for hours, we would not be overtly disappointed, as the goal was not to quiet him, but to provide a sort of blanket of serenity. Believe it or not, this worked (most of the time).
I was reminded of this harrowing time by the publication of an article concerning bedtime routines in The Journal of Family Psychology. The article and research (which regrettably only focuses on the mother’s role in the bedtime ritual – boo, hiss!) argues that it’s not good enough for mothers to simply be there, but they have to be “present” — serene and sensitive and warm — as well. The research, which was conducted at Penn State University, used 39 mothers as subjects and gathered data (via videotaping and questionnaires) about how the mothers felt about each bedtime and how their babies were sleeping. The requisite warm physicality of soothing a child to sleep (rocking down, holding, etc) are, essentially “going through the motions,” the study concludes, and had far less impact on sleep quality than emotional cues. The true shift occurred when the mothers in the study engaged in these actions while feeling generally warm and positive. The result was the baby slept well, (on average at least) and when the warm physical interactions were performed by a mother who was irritable, hasty, or distracted, the children were more likely to sleep poorly. No real surprise there.
OK, I will not say, “I told you so” but I feel this study (however limited and flawed for not including fathers) does provide some form of vindication, or at least substantiation. The baby, or child, has no real emotional control during these times, and therefore is looking toward you (the parent) to lead by example. If you are resentful, rushed, or completely out of your head, the child will meet you in crazy town without a second thought. However, if you are composed and relaxed, the child will find his/her way there sooner or later (hopefully sooner).
Has anyone else tried this? If so, how do you achieve this semi-Zen enlightened state without losing consciousness and/or resorting to mood altering substances. Do you find that your children soak up your mood and reflect your emotional state at, or around, bedtime? What is your secret for staying calm and tranquil for yourself, and the whole family, at the end of the day?