When my oldest son was two he stopped sleeping through the night. He had been sleeping reliably since he was six months old and even when we transitioned him from his crib to a bed his nightly routine remained unaffected. I thought I had all the answers, until one night when I was about six months pregnant with my second child my son crawled out of his warm, familiar bed, padded down the hallway in his favorite footy-jammies, and scared the wits out of me by whispering my name from the shadows beside my bed.
Once I realized that he was not, in fact, a specter from a horror movie, I gently walked him back to bed. I kissed him goodnight, d trudged my way back to bed, and fell straight to sleep…for about an hour until he reappeared by my bedside with the same confused, sleepy look on his face as before. It was like he had no idea what he was doing there but was drawn to my bedroom like a moth to a flame.
I once again dragged my exhausted, swollen body out of my cozy bed and chaperoned him back to his room. I gave him a drink of water, asked if he needed to use the potty, returned his favorite blankie that had fallen out of bed, kissed him goodnight again and begged him to stay in bed until morning.
He did not.
He returned to my bedside six times that night and at least three times every night for the next two months. The heady combination of sleep deprivation and the reality of another six months of night feedings, colic, and teething, was causing me to panic. I tried every piece of sleep advice I could find: I put him to bed later, I put him to bed earlier, I stopped giving him water before bed, I read him stories about children sleeping in their beds, offered him incentives (otherwise known as bribes), threatened to take privileges away, I begged, and I pleaded.
Night after night he appeared by my bed and asked me to walk him back to his room. I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame over the fact that I’d somehow ruined my perfect sleeper forever. I was angry at myself for failing to solve the problem and frustrated with him for not feeling more remorseful for his transgressions.
He was almost three years old, for crying out loud, he was supposed to be past this stage.
Then one night during his regular 3:00am visit, I turned to him with tears in my eyes asked him why he kept coming out of his room every night. I’m not sure I expected him to answer, but the question burst out of me, unbidden, like a sob or a wail. He looked at me with his big eyes, bloodshot from months of broken sleep, placed his hand on my face and said “Mommy, I just missed you.”
I felt the breath leave my chest. I folded him into my arms and pulled him into bed with me. As I held his tiny body close to mine I realized that there weren’t many years left that this child, who was so recently a part of me, would yearn for me the way he did at that moment. Someday soon he would grow up, go to school, make friends outside our family, spend nights away from home, start dating, go to college, and I would be left at home wondering how he had changed so fast.
I laid there for an hour that night watching him sleep with his little hands curled around my arm, which had fallen asleep long before but I didn’t have the heart to move, before eventually carrying his heavy body back to bed for what felt like the four thousandth time in the last couple months. Only this time I wasn’t frustrated with him or obsessed with the hours of sleep I’d missed. I looked at his peaceful face with only love and longing.
His once chubby cheeks had started to lean out and I could see the boy my toddler was becoming. He was growing up before my eyes, and in that moment I would have sacrificed any amount of sleep to freeze him just the way he was: innocent, sweet, and so full of love for me that he missed me even in his sleep.
He continued to wake in the night for a few more weeks before eventually wearing himself out to the point that he slept through the night, as if by accident. Suddenly the spell was broken and he stopped getting up almost as quickly as he had started. I can’t say that I was sad to lose his night visits, but I never again felt resentful of his soft footsteps or hushed voice calling me out of my dreams.
There is no equal for the love and dependence a young child has for his mother, and someday I will be dreaming of those moments, in my quiet house, wishing I could once again feel his hands tugging mine to walk him back to bed…just one more time.