The story so far: I spent last week teaching Jack, aged 10 months, to sleep through the night. Mille is three years old and also struggles with disrupted sleep, ending up in her parents’ bed more often than not. This week it is her turn.
Monday night (continued): Joanna and I have done a lot of talking this evening. To my mind this is the groundwork required to make sure Joanna understands what we are about to do and why it is so important for Millie – and the rest of the family. The next few hours will mark a change in Joanna and Millie’s relationship: it is a change for the better, but it may not seem like it at the time and as we won’t have a chance to talk too much, we need to ensure we understand each other before we start.
At about 10pm we go to bed; I do not expect to spend much time in my room tonight, however. Once the noise of water running through pipes has quietened and the house is still, I lie on my bed reading, with an eye and an ear on the monitor beside me. Very shortly I hear stirring from Millie’s room. I am on my feet in a flash and intercept her just as she is coming out of her room and Joanna is coming out of hers – she, too, has heard Millie. Millie looks at me sleepily and says: “I want to sleep in Mummy’s bed.” Joanna looks at me for reassurance and then says “No sweetie, you’re going back to your own bed.” As we have discussed, Joanna takes Millie gently by the shoulders and returns her to her bed. She tucks her up, pulls the duvet firmly round her shoulders and says “Sleep tight, see you in the morning” – the mantra we have devised which will become the signal for both Jack and Millie that this is the last time they will see their parents before the following morning. Meanwhile I write the time on my notepad and beside it I make a mark, a single vertical line. Hardly have I done this than I hear Millie getting out of bed again. At a nod from me Joanna goes into her room, returns her to bed, tucks her firmly in, repeats the mantra and leaves the room. I make another vertical mark on my pad. The third time Millie gets out of bed and appears at the door, looking rather confused and a little hurt. Joanna is brilliant and once again returns her to bed. The reality of the situation is beginning to dawn on Millie and she isn’t sure she likes it. The fourth time she is crying – she doesn’t understand why her Mummy won’t let her do what she is used to doing. She doesn’t get out of bed, but calls for her mother. “I’m thirsty, I need a drink.” Joanna glances at me with a worried look in her eye. I know she wants to respond to Millie’s needs, it is a maternal instinct that mothers understandably find hard to deny. But I shake my head and smile at her. She smiles back, remembering the conversation we had downstairs. Joanna had told me that Millie often needed a drink or a wee when she woke up. We had discussed Millie’s diet and the fact that she should be drinking sufficient during the day not to need a drink after her supper, and that if she hadn’t had a drink since supper she shouldn’t need to wee in the middle of the night. Of course, sometimes this reasoning isn’t true, but Joanna understood that she needed to recognise the difference between a real need and an excuse for not going back to sleep. After a few moments we hear Millie getting out of bed and Joanna is on her feet again, returning her quietly to her bed. Millie is crying, “I really, really need a drink.” So Joanna responds in as few words as possible. “No you don’t, darling, go to bed, sleep tight, see you in the morning.” She remembers just to make a statement which closes down the possibility of dialogue, not to open up a conversation by asking Millie any questions. She returns Millie to bed and tucks her in firmly again. Over the next half an hour Millie gets out of bed 19 times in total, using a variety of excuses including feeling too hot, too cold, too dark, dropping her muslin (without which she cannot sleep), feeling scared of funny shapes outside her curtain, not feeling tired, hearing odd noises and many others – if this wasn’t so hard for Joanna already, I would comment on the variety and imaginativeness of Millie’s excuses, but I can see that Joanna is struggling and sometimes she won’t meet my eye when she comes out of Millie’s bedroom.
On my notepad now there is a growing number of vertical lines, every fifth one diagonally crossing out the preceding four, like a prisoner counting off the days of his incarceration. The first half hour has passed and I have started making marks beside the second half hour mark. Joanna looks over my shoulder and manages a little smile. “That’s how I feel,” she whispers. “Imprisoned – I’m not getting out of here until the job is done, am I?” I smile back reassuringly. “It will be worth it for both of you,” I say. Another 20 minutes pass and Millie gets out of bed a further 13 times. Joanna is weary and it shows in her body language, but she is gamely persevering because we both know this has to be done for everyone’s sake. The difference between us is that I know it will work and Joanna isn’t at all sure.
Eventually there is a breakthrough. Millie is put back to bed, Joanna says, “Sleep tight, see you in the morning,” for the 32nd time in less than an hour, returns to her seat on the landing and … nothing. Millie stays in her bed, Joanna and I hold our breath and after five minutes I whisper “Go and check on her.” Joanna peeps round Millie’s bedroom door and looks back at me with a radiant face. “She’s fast asleep!”
Joanna gives me a big hug and I send her off to bed. She looks absolutely exhausted, but pleased with herself, as she has every right to be. Millie has learned a really important lesson tonight, and Joanna has too.
Next time: Millie’s sleep training continues.