Recently, I read about a scientific theory by University of California, Los Angeles, sleep researcher Jerome Siegel. Siegel is trying to figure out why animals and humans sleep; he has suggested that there is no vital universal function for sleep.
In other words, Siegel denounces the popular idea that animals sleep because there is some physiological or neural function that must be accomplished when they are sleeping, and cannot be accomplished when they are awake. Siegel suggests instead that the main functions of sleep are to conserve resources and maintain efficiency. In other words: to stay out of the way until there is reason to wake.
Now, I’m no scientist. And I confess that until I read about Jerome Siegel, I’m not sure I even knew there was such a thing as a “sleep researcher.” However, I know Jerome Siegel is right. For one thing, I trust his methodology, since I relate to his studied demographic. (Noting that newborn whales and dolphins and their mothers survive on an almost complete lack of sleep, Siegel hypothesized that there must be something other than a physiological motive for sleep.) Which leads me to the real reason that I believe Jerome Siegel is onto something. I’m referring to the indisputable truth that no one sleeps through the night in my house.
Almost every night, I tuck my children in and whisper the same loving words to them as they drift off to sleep: “Please stay in your bed … all night … unless there’s an emergency.” Over the years, emergencies have consisted of spiders, stomach bugs, and terrible nightmares. Emergencies have also consisted of feet coming out from under the covers and brothers snoring in a nearby bed. My oldest son is the most creative. He has arrived at the side of my bed on countless nights. Standing. Staring. Waiting. When I open my eyes with a start to see him there, he leans in and whispers: “Mommy, I almost had a nightmare.”
“What do you mean, ‘almost’?”
“Well, I felt like I was going to have a nightmare, but then I didn’t.”
“Honey, go to sleep.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“I can’t because I’m afraid I’m going to have a nightmare.”
I doze. He continues standing there, relentless. He begins anew. “Mommy, I almost had a nightmare.”
“Mommy, I miss you.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll come tuck you in again.” He pounces into my arms, proud and victorious. And I know, before you say it, that you blame me. That you think I give in too easily and that is why they show up at my bedside so often with pretend emergencies. But have mercy on me; I am vulnerable at 2 a.m. My defenses are asleep, even though I am not. (I have always been intrigued by those to-the-rescue nanny reality shows where the British nanny helps parents get their children to sleep for the night, investing one, two, up to three hours in getting them down, and then leaves the parents to their own devices for the rest of the night. “But wait,” I always ask the unresponsive television screen, “what about when they get back up in the middle of the night? And you’re half asleep? And thus willing to agree to anything? What then?”)
It seems to have started the night I brought my firstborn home. I remember vividly two things from that night. First, I recall that I was terrified to fall asleep, certain that I was keeping him alive simply by staring at him. Second, I recall that I couldn’t have slept if I tried. My son wanted me; he clung to me. He didn’t want to sleep. Not at night, anyway. And he wailed every time I tried to put him down. Every time I thought about putting him down.
At the hospital, the doctor had warned me to allow my newborn to cry a bit, to avoid nursing continually. My doctor, however, did not come home with me that night. So, that first night at home, after nursing my son continually from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., I remember turning to my husband (on the first and last time he ever stayed up with me through the night) and saying, very solemnly, “I think people die from a lack of sleep.”
I wish I’d known about Siegel’s theory back then; I wouldn’t have worried so much. Siegel propounds that animals do not need sleep to survive, they simply use it to adapt. Siegel points out the extreme example of the brown bat who sleeps twenty hours a day because its prey—moths and mosquitoes—are only up at dusk. Thus, Siegel explains, the brown bat sleeps when it does to conserve energy, which in turn enables it to be a more skilled hunter during the few hours necessary to catch its prey. Ah, and there it is. My children get up at night because they believe it is the best time to stalk their vulnerable prey—their prey being me.
And it’s my fault of course, to the extent it’s anyone’s fault. In the beginning, after that first night, I settled into the nighttime feedings. Enjoyed them even. Truth is, I relished nursing my babies at night. The quiet time spent rocking in the nursery was all ours. No one else called my name or my house at that hour. No one expected me to do laundry or to cook at 2:00 a.m. The grocery stores and post office were closed. Even my BlackBerry was unusually silent at that hour. Sleep eluded me, but peace did not.
Those early nights of sleeplessness were strangely satisfying. As our household increased from a family of three to four, and eventually, five, the daytime became more chaotic, and thus, the nighttime became even more important to me and my babies.
My second child nursed every night, every two hours, without exception, from birth until his first birthday. You know that feeling of waking in the middle of the night in a panic, drenched in sweat as you run to the nursery to check on a sleeping, breathing baby who has just slept five or six hours—in a row—for the first time ever? I vaguely remember having a night or two like that with my first child. With my second? Not once. Not even once.
My third child nursed through the night the longest, still waking at least one or two times a night until she was about fifteen months old. My husband would chastise me every morning for “letting” her get up in the middle of the night, but I would remind him why she needed me so much at those late hours. I was working outside the home four to five days a week. The older children demanded me for much of the remaining daytime hours, and the nighttime was really the only time I had with my baby daughter that was all her own.
Now that I have no more nursing babies, and a more flexible work schedule, you would think we’d all have more time together during the day. That it would be enough. And we do have a lot of time … together. Our days are filled with laughs and tears and sibling fights and mediations and negotiations and homework and car rides and errands and laundry. And I’m not complaining, but it is loud and busy. But at night, well, that is when we really slow down. And as Jerome Siegel has finally explained, that is when my children lie in wait. Then, they seek me out, one by one, for their time alone with me. My children do sleep, after all. The younger two are good nappers.
And in the morning, my youngest sleeps in. She stays in her bed, drowsy and quiet, sometimes until 9 a.m. All three children go to bed promptly, one by one, from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. I tuck them in. I kiss them. I whisper, “please, please, let’s sleep all night tonight, guys.” My children do sleep. It’s just that, as Siegel theorizes, they choose their times wisely. They conserve their energy. They stay out of the way until there is reason to wake. And in the night they emerge like nocturnal predators. And I admit, I’m happy to be found. Sometimes. Of course, sometimes, I just want to sleep.
Originally published on Hybrid Mom