We had heard about this mythical, violent phase of toddler development; sleep oppression, sleep aggression, sleep obsession? Something like that. Anyway, it didn’t matter because it wouldn’t happen to us. Like letting your child roll off the bed, or fall down the stairs, or mysteriously chip one of his front teeth, these are parenting issues for other parents to deal with. Like the Brexit; a confusing and mysterious concept spoken about on blogs and in supermarket carparks, it was not something to worry about and certainly not something to understand in any meaningful way.
So late last week when Milo’s sleep regression emerged in all its screaming glory we were shocked, saddened, shocked, alarmed and most importantly thoroughly ill-prepared. A small Brexit playing out in our home in which Milo perhaps represented the fine people of Northern Lincolnshire and Kuepps and I embodied Jeremy Corbyn; steadfast, confident and utterly helpless.
Sleep regression looks like this; one night Milo kisses each of us in turn, drinks his warm milk with an angelic smile and a dimple in each cheek, pulls his blanket up to his chin and says “mummy, daddy thank you for a wonderful day, please switch off the light on your way out and do enjoy your evening”, the following night he is bad Sigourney Weaver from Ghostbusters the original; glowing red eyes, crazy frazzled hair, with a cavalcade of non-sensical utterances pouring out of his mouth at maximum volume as he darts around his room like a poorly played game of pinball, looking for an escape.
When the regression decides to manifest it appears sudden, unreasonable, completely unforeseen. You shrug and wonder what must have happened overnight to cause it; new teeth, growth spurt, low pressure system, Lycanthropy? But as the regression unfolds and you find yourselves with far more waking hours over night to ponder, you realise the utter predictability of your fate. It is a steady process of cognitive development and bedroom appeasement, fusing into a heady mix of willful, asymmetric protest, a testing of the rubberiness of one’s reality and the very limits of stamina. It is a battle of ideas on an uneven playing field. Uneven, mucousy and very very noisy.
It started for us probably 6 weeks hence. Milo, who had slept perfectly for about 4 or 5 months spontaneously decided the cot was no longer for him. He put forward this position forcefully and so we dismantled his bed, made safe the room and set him up on a mattress on the floor. Milo was pleased at this outcome but simultaneously decided he was no longer comfortable nor capable of falling asleep alone. And so Kuepps and I have taken turns lying with him as he thrashes around before slumber demanding to be patted on his “bum”, “gaga” (tummy) or “knee”; only these three locations are suitable patting options. This worked for several weeks but the potency of said patting has been noticeably dropping off in recent times.
Coinciding with this troubling bedroom progression has been an explosion in Milo’s language; he can now string 3 or 4 words together (like “go away daddy, door” – pretty clear) and can mimic almost every word he hears including my favourite “bulldozer”. Milo now has dozens of words at his disposal and so can communicate most desires effectively. He is increasingly enjoying this interaction and the power it gives him. However, like Nigel Farage Milo is only capable of high level, broad communication, with very little nuance. And like Farage Milo’s messaging is purely designed to stimulate an action, a response. Not to facilitate reasoned conversation or debate.
So when the regression arrived last week we should have seen it coming. We had a son who was increasingly displeased about sleep (or more accurately increasingly pleased about the delights of being awake), increasingly interested in the limits of his power, who had developed just enough tools to express himself to a point but with no real way to reason or negotiate a better reality for himself. Disaster.
The first few nights we tried everything we could think of. Stay in the room with him, leave him alone in the room, more milk, less milk. The result remained the same; high impact screaming for literally hours on end. We were mesmerized by his stamina and commitment, but ultimately released him from his room on each occasion, to break the cycle and to refresh him. His response was fascinating and infuriating. Within seconds of release he would actually giggle, climb the stairs and inquire as to whether we would like to build a duplo tower with him. Unfortunately after this period of ‘refreshment’ and tower building the process would begin again. Nobody was sleeping.
So a few days ago we decided I would be our sacrificial anode, to attempt a new technique. Two would go in, and only one would come out, no matter what. And hopefully that one would be me.
Milo is well aware of the series of little steps that lead him to bed so begins protesting each element in turn, hoping that should even one of these steps be avoided, he may enjoy an overall victory; “no bath”, “no milk”, “no book”. These are all things that he loves, but things that must be cast aside to achieve a loftier goal; like forgoing Camembert, the Eurostar and Oktoberfest to break free of the debilitating European Union.
Once Milo is bathed and pyjama’d, Kuepps switches off the light and gently closes the door, wondering if she will ever see one or both of her boys again. Milo unravels immediately, wailing and flailing around the room; banging on the door “daddy door”, banging on the bedside lamp “daddy on” and then banging on my head “daddy up”. We had decided in advance to model my technique on dealing with a bear attack. Our knowledge of this technique is based on one viewing of the film ‘The Revenent’ and seems to involve doing nothing at all to protect yourself while the bear gores you. So that is what I did. I lay on his mattress perfectly still while Milo took turns pushing and pulling my head, clambering over me, stepping on my face in his efforts to pull open the blinds. Pausing every so often to let me blow his nose, Milo screamed for 90 minutes, offering countless other scenarios for my consideration “daddy play park”, “daddy tower”, “daddy gia mumma” (our cat Suu Kyi), “daddy book”. Eventually Milo’s protestations descended into an increasingly laboured march between banging on the door and banging on my head, looking much like the bunny who did not have Duracell batteries in those early 80s commercials, for whom I always held a lot of sympathy.
Finally after one last sobbing stagger back from the door Milo collapsed over my legs and immediately fell into REM sleep, his little body twitching from head to toe as much-needed sleep washed over him. I slipped out from under him like a spatula from an omelette and returned upstairs, largely unscathed and with the knowledge that at least we had discovered the limit of Milo’s rather impressive stamina.
Like the people of the UK we have no idea what lies ahead but our eyes are now open to the likely root cause of our recent suffering. As Milo’s language grows in nuance so too will our ability to negotiate and discuss our shared future; one in which we agree upon mutually beneficial peaceful evenings, and the occasional sleep-in.