Q&A: smacking the kid to get to sleep

Anonymous writes:

"I have one baby who is 10.5months. My questions surround sleep. I hate putting the baby to sleep. It SUCKS. 

In our family and house, cosleeping and rocking baby and all the other "unusual" choices that american's hide are pretty normal. Now that the baby is mobile what it means now is that though when the baby wakes up in the morning, we all have to wake up. There is no 10-15 minutes of time that my husband or I can have while the baby plays. And there is no place where i can leave baby if she is being fussy and needs a nap but refuses to nap so I try to give her quiet time but that means I need to lay in bed with her. Then at night we put her down at 7 but that means until 9 or 10 when i go to bed she wakes up every 30 minutes (or every 1 hour) if we are lucky.. and that usually means another 15mins or so of settling her down to sleep again. Which means we just spend the 2 hours taking turns to resettle her.

We have thought about transitioning to a crib, because we suspect that cosleeping is the problem, and so i tried to first use the pack and play that we have to transition her. She would have none of it. I do all the tricks to get her into a deep sleep and then the minute i try to lower her into the pnp.. she is up and crying. I have left her in the pnp but she is one of those who gains tension by crying (beyond a little fussing) and so the most i have let her cry is about 20 minutes before i can't take it anymore. At that point she is so upset that she doesn't sleep or when she does it is really disturbed.

I can't handle the cosleeping anymore. I need for there to be a space for her where i can leave her if she won't nap. Or for her to play in the morning for a few minutes occasionally so i can get an extra 10 minutes. I just can't handle having to stop my life for sleep and it's gotten to the point that i have smacked her (and this is my shaming part). My mother used to do it to us. If we wouldn't settle down we would get a little smack just to remind us to stay in our place. And the thing is my memories of this implies that we were old enought to understand our behavior. But my daughter- she's a baby and i know she is but sometimes when i have to lay with her to put her to sleep and she is fussing and kicking, a little smack on her thigh gets her to settle down because i know that she will release that little bit of tension that she has and then settle down. But it makes me feel like the absolute worst piece of Turd in the world and yet there are days when i know that it will bring us closer to the goal of sleep and so i do it. It's only been a handful of times but it's been a handful of times too many. I KNOW that this is wrong. I KNOW that it is hurts her but yet I am at my wit's end some days.

My husband is at work all day and he will try to help on the weekends. We can't really afford to get someone to watch her and i have no family around to help out. How do i stop this? How do i not let sleep ruin everything?"

Oh, honey. Take a deep deep breath, and then let yourself cry.

OK, I'm actually starting to tear up a little as I type this, because I can remember so vividly being here when my older one was 10 months old, and being so afraid to admit to anyone that it was harder, not easier, than it had been at 6 months. What was wrong with me? He was supposed to be sleeping better, not worse. And I was supposed to be getting better at parenting, not worse. And yet I felt strung out physically and unable to give anything emotionally.

The good news is, it's normal. Tons and tons of us have felt this way at exactly the same point. I don't think it's a divide between cosleepers and non-cosleepers, either. I think some babies are just tough at this age. The bad news is it makes you feel like a complete failure.

I'm not really going to talk about the smacking, except to say that all of us--every single one of us--has done or will do something we regret. Whether it's something big or small, no one comes out of parenting a child having upheld our ideals every single second. Personally, I don't think the individual incidents are that worthy of note, but I do think they form a narrative and mood, and it's that context that shapes the importance of each incident. A few smacks right now are going to fade into nothing once you can get some of your reserves back to parent as lovingly as you do when you're not at the end of your rope. If you let the smacks become the foreground of the relationship, though, she's going to carry the same sad memories you do, and you're going to feel like a bad mother. Not good for either of you.

So. You need a plan to get some emotional space. It doesn't seem like staying asleep is her problem, it's just the cosleeping and getting to sleep. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I think the pack 'n' play (I believe it's called a travel cot in OZ and the UK--it's a fold-out playpen that can also be used as a baby bed, but is low to the floor) is just destined to fail for a couple of reasons: 1) The mattress is so thin it's really like sleeping on cardboard and a baby can totally tell the difference, and 2) it's lower to the floor than she's used to. Babies who start out in the PNP seem to be fine with it, but a baby who isn't put to sleep in one until almost a year is not going to be fooled.

I think you should jump straight to a crib*. A person can be philosophically opposed to "baby jail" all she wants, but once your baby starts crawling out of bed or making you as stressed out as Anonymous is, you change your tune pretty quickly. Or at least, I changed my tune pretty quickly. You definitely can find someone who needs to switch their child from a crib to a big kid bed who will lend you the crib for awhile or sell it to you cheaply. Try Freecycle or Craigslist if you don't have a friend who needs you to take a crib off their hands. (Just make sure not to use a crib that's older than 20 years old or so, since the bars are too far apart and the baby's head can get trapped. Also beware peeling paint, and old cribs with lead paint.)

Going cold turkey to a crib might be scary, but honestly, how much worse can it get? If you have the space, put the crib in another room. Then, at bedtime, do everything the same way you normally do, but instead of lying down with her in the bed, put her in the crib. You may have to sit in the room for awhile, or lie down next to her, but it's a different task mentally than getting her to sleep while cosleeping is. If you can get your husband to take a turn getting her to sleep, please try it. If she won't go to sleep for him initially, ask him to take any wake-ups from bedtime until midnight. (A surprising number of times, a baby who wakes up a ton for one parent will stop waking up for the other because there's just not the same payoff. Again, it seems to be about shaking up the routine.)

If you can get the bedtime routine to be less attention-intensive for you, you'll be well on your way to getting some of your emotional strength back. Another idea is to see if you can get a mother's helper. Even if you can't afford a regular babysitter, you might be able to afford a middle schooler who can come over for a couple of hours after school once a week. (I just saw my first mother's helper a few weeks ago. He's in college now, and is tall and almost a man. It made me feel old.) You might be able to leave the house by yourself, but even if you don't feel comfortable with that, the mother's helper can occupy your baby in one room while you do something else in the other, especially if that something else involves eating chocolate and reading a cheesy novel.

Whatever happens, cut yourself some slack and hang in there. You're not a mom who hits her kid, so recognize the smacking for what it is--a desperate reaction to a stressful situation. And this situation won't last forever.

OK, comments? Either talk about how horribly you thought you were going to lose it when your baby was this age (or any age, frankly), or comment on something you did that you didn't want to do (to comment anonymously, put an obviously fake URL in the URL box, and a fake email address in the email box) and what you learned from it.

* As I said, I don't think cosleeping is causing this problem, but I do think changing the sleep routine is going to give Anonymous some emotional space. You do what you do while it's working, and then once it's no longer working you switch to something else. If you're having this problem and your baby's a crib sleeper, you might try switching to cosleeping for awhile to see if that helps.