Like physics

On Wednesday night Caroline and I said goodnight to Jay and closed his door, at which point he commenced to talk to himself and loll about in his crib for more than an hour.  Last night was a different story: I closed his door and when I came back upstairs ten minutes later, he was asleep.

The source of the difference was obvious: On Wednesday Jay took a nap, on Thursday he didn’t.  And this pattern holds unerringly.  If he naps for an hour in the afternoon it takes him an hour longer to fall asleep at night.  If he doesn’t nap in the afternoon you can count on him falling asleep almost immediately at night.

What’s interesting about this, I think, is how perfectly correlated Jay’s ability to fall asleep is with his level of fatigue.  If you take away an hour of sleep over here, he makes it up over there, almost like shifting weights on a balance.  And if he’s not tired, there’s no way he’s falling asleep.

This hasn’t always been the case.  When Jay was first born I remember thinking like many new parents probably do: If he’s tired, he’ll fall asleep.  I quickly learned, of course, that this wasn’t true.  All sorts of factors interfere with an infant’s ability to fulfill the basic urge to sleep.  The main source of interference is that they don’t know how to relax themselves enough to let sleep take over.  They have to learn how to do that.

Even as recently as a few months ago Jay’s actions were still not perfectly attuned to his level of fatigue.  There were many afternoons when he clearly needed a nap but his busybody antics made it impossible for him to get into position to sleep.  He’d lie down on the bed, rub his eyes, then start fiddling with the zipper on the pillowcase, and before he knew it, he was sitting up and looking for something else to play with.  His body wanted to sleep, but his mind wouldn’t obey.

Recently, though, the gap between what his body wants and what his mind allows has closed.  Now, when he doesn’t take a nap I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s just not tired.  And some afternoons, he’ll play for an hour and then, when he realizes he is tired, he’ll go lie down on the couch and fall asleep.  Recently he’s become noticeably more aware of the state of his own body—when he’s tired, or hungry, or thirsty, or cold—and he’s learning how take appropriate actions based on that awareness.  Developmentally, I think this is where he’s made the biggest leap in the last few months.

I had time to think about all this last night because, unlike Jay, I did not fall asleep quickly.  When Caroline and I turned out the lights at 11pm I was plenty tired, just as I am at the end of most days.  But as soon as I lay down my mind started to race with images from the day and half-formed anxieties about the future.  After thirty minutes of failing to fall asleep I started to feel like a feeble newborn, unable to give myself the one thing I wanted most.  I pictured Jay, sleeping easy in the room next door, and I thought: Enjoy it while it lasts.

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To Wally: Cry now so we can be friends later

To Wally: Cry now so we can be friends later

This weekend was the first one we’ve all been home for in more than a month, which perhaps explains the air of contentment that settled over our house this Sunday morning: Wally on the floor, grabbing hopefully at blocks; Jay sitting beside him, cheerfully and somewhat accurately narrating a picture book to himself; Caroline and I sitting in a flood of morning sunshine, sipping micro-lot Guatemalan coffee (which has become a fixation of mine since reading about coffee’s third wave in The New Yorker a few weeks ago), feeling for one blessed moment like characters in an American Express ad: this could be your life.

The main storyline from the weekend, however, was sleep—as in we’re all getting more of it, though for two very different reasons.

On Friday night a little after 6:30pm Caroline laid Wally down in his crib, awake, and walked away; at long last, sleep training had commenced.  Wally approached this new turn of events sensibly, which is how he’s approached just about everything in life so far.  He cried for five minutes, flopped over onto his belly, sniffled into his snug fitting crib sheet, and went to sleep.

That night Caroline and I turned off our bedroom light and settled against each other forehead to chin, the way we used to before Wally wedged his way into our lives.  As we nodded off the monitor hummed eerily in the background, filling the negative space left behind by Wally’s silenced protests.

The second major sleep event took place on Saturday afternoon.  Jay and I were lying together on the bed in the guest room when naptime rolled around.  I was tired and not very excited about the thought of cajoling him upstairs to his room for a nap so I made a different proposal: “If you promise to be quiet and not leave the room,” I told Jay, “We can do naptime down here on the bed.”

Jay, who loves novelty, readily accepted.  I turned over and closed my eyes while he played quietly with his cars beside me on the bed.  Every now and again I would hear him stop and settle into sleeping position, only to fidget, sit up, and begin playing again.

Some time later (I think I’d drifted off) I had the dawning recognition that it was quiet in the room and maybe had been for some time.  I turned over slowly towards the other side of the bed, hopeful but hesitant, and there was Jay, lying on his back crosswise across the bed, legs dangling off the edge, hands behind his head, breathing slowly right where he’d been when sleep had finally caught up to him.

Seeing him lying there was my favorite moment of the weekend.

What I loved about it was two things:  First, the independence and responsibility Jay had shown to play quietly in the room and put himself to sleep; and second, that Jay being responsible had made it possible to share the experience of napping together, our heads resting only inches apart on the same pillow as we dozed through the afternoon.  I didn’t have to worry that he was going to run out of the room (because I knew he valued the privilege of being down there too much) or that napping together was going to create a dependency I’d later have to undo (because at two-and-a-half, Jay is solidly established as an independent sleeper).

I realized later that the dynamic between Jay and me at naptime was opposite the one that ruled poor Wally’s fitful weekend.  Wally’s too young to be motivated by privileges, but he’s plenty old enough to have developed dependencies.  He wants to sleep beside Caroline (and part of her wants to sleep beside him, too) but according to our view of how best to help him grow up, he can’t have it until he no longer needs it.

Sleep training deprives me and Caroline and Wally of one kind of intimacy but my hope is that the independence and sense-of-self Wally gains as a result will open up a new kind of intimacy between us: the possibility of meeting as something like equals and sharing an experience (and our lives) the way Jay and I did during our Saturday nap.