Thursday, May 15, 2008

In which sleep “training” takes on a different meaning

Continuing along with my current theme of “bribery,” we seem to have hit upon a solution to Rowan’s night fears. Remember those monsters? The ones that were waking him up at night? So that he woke us up at night — four, five, six times? So that we were so strange with fatigue it felt like we had a newborn in the house again?

What do you do about monsters? I asked. What you do about a three-and-a-half-year-old boy who wakes up frightened in the night and wants his Mommies?

The answer: give him a really good incentive to stay in bed. This occurred to me suddenly on Saturday evening as I lay, dazed, on Rowan’s bed as he jumped onto it from his dresser and back. We had to make staying in bed more attractive than getting out of it, even in the face of monsters.

I racked my brains for that kind of incentive and came up with the jackpot: James. As in James the red train. James of the pack of Really Useful Engines of the Island of Sodor. As in James the toy character who was recalled last year because he was covered in lead paint. Which is why he has been sorely missing from Rowan’s ever-expanding portfolio of Thomas trains.

But now, James is back in production. And, I figured, he just might be Really Useful in this situation.

I ran the idea past Rowan: if you can stay in your bed for five nights — and not wake up Mommies — then James will come to your house. He stopped jumping. A slow smile spread across his face. “Okay,” he said.

We went downstairs to get paper and crayons, and I put my considerable artistic skill to work, copying a picture of James from one of Rowan’s books, and, underneath, drawing pictures of Rowan, Isaac, and Mommies all asleep in our beds. Smiling. We taped the drawing to the wall above Rowan’s bed. And then I drew the numbers one to five above James.

And crossed my fingers. I had no idea whether this would work, whether he had actually grasped the whole concept. We talked about it a lot — how everyone needs to sleep, how Mommies get tired when he wakes us multiple times, things he could do (cuddling his stuffed animals, telling the monsters to go away) to make himself feel better if he woke up at night. But I was skeptical: did he really get it? Even if he did, would he be able to stop himself from coming to get us when he woke up?

That night, we heard him whimpering in his sleep at about 10 p.m., but he quieted on his own. He got out of bed just once, at 4 a.m. — not perfect, but a marked improvement.

Next night, same thing.

Night number 3? He slept through. At 7:30, he called from the top of the stairs “Mom! It was three nights I slept in my bed!”

Same with nights 4 and 5. And this morning, James was waiting for Rowan at the breakfast table. And Rowan was thrilled. And so were we. (In a tiny bit of cosmic coincidence, Isaac — uncharacteristically — slept through as well last night. Yee-ha!)

I know I’ve been talking a bit about bribery in these posts, but in all seriousness, this one strikes me as a bit different. It’s the first time I’ve seen Rowan figure out and work toward a long-term goal. It’s the first time I’ve seen him really empathize with us and change his behaviour accordingly: “I won’t wake you up. I’ll let you sleep.” If a twenty-dollar (unleaded) toy train buys us a good night’s sleep, it’s worth it to me.

People can debate forever the merits and drawbacks of rewarding kids with material things. Used judiciously, I think it’s a fine parenting strategy. In any case, if you want to see some poor parenting strategies, why don’t you just come on over to our house after we haven’t slept for five nights straight? Cuz we’re marvels of parenting then. All aboard!


  1. We did the same thing with Isabelle where we created a co-operation chart where she gets a sticker if she doesn't "yell in the night". After a week of success we bought her an electric toothbrush (she wanted one - not our idea). The problem is that the stickers just aren't doing it for her anymore when they are always available during normal times. Also working toward a reward isn't effective because she doesn't really play with toys these days and we can't think of other rewards to offer. We have to find something to motivate/bribe her with but she is not obsessive enough to remember the goal from night to night. I am all for the bribe though - but I prefer to think of it as behaviour modification....

  2. I don't know if Rhys is still having night terrors sometimes. If so, he might like this book. It helped me when I was a kid. I still have it on my bookshelf!