If He Cries, He Cries

In the summer of 2003, I served as the counselor for my camp’s annual CIT trip. Typically, my camp (plus two others) took a pilgrimage to Israel. That year, we went to Maine—not quite the same thing. Instead of climbing Masada, we climbed ropes. Instead of floating in the Dead Sea, we floated down the Kennebec River … twice.

The campers? They felt cheated a little bit. Me? I LOVED it. Watch 100 kids in Maine or watch them in Israel? Hmmm. Potentially deal with moose or potentially deal with terrorists? Yeah, Maine was much less responsibility, which meant it was much more 21-year-old Ryan’s speed.

While I had a great time, I didn’t enjoy all aspects of the trip. In particular, one of the counselors from the other camps really got under my skin. I won’t name her here; that’s not the grown-up thing to do 12 years later … also, for the life of me, I can’t remember what her name was.

Anyway, on one particular day trip, that counselor and I ended up sharing a bus seat. Crammed between her and the window, claustrophobia and dread set in quickly. Then, even faster, she fell asleep. And slumped over against me. With a string of drool dripping from her mouth. Too nice to elbow her in the ribs, I tried a gentle nudge. And failed. With repeated efforts. Finally, I decided I was trapped and said to myself, “Well, this is it: my personal hell.”

Life in hell is often depicted as repetitive torture (for instance, Homer being forced to eat donut after donut on “The Simpsons”). If this were true, I thought that if I were to end up in hell, my punishment would be to sit in that exact spot on that bus—for eternity. (Hopefully, not naming that counselor’s name is what keeps me in Saint Peter’s good graces! Yes, I am Jewish. Why do you ask?)

For more than 10 years, that experience remained my personal hell. Then, my wife, Elmo, and I drove home after Christmas.

My in-laws live in Rochester, New York. It’s about six hours from our home in Boston. This was our fourth time making that drive in the past month (twice for Thanksgiving and, now, twice for Christmas). Needless to say, we didn’t make any of those in six hours. Our drive there for Christmas had been the worst yet, a 10-hour trek that included an hour and a half standstill. Elmo, miraculously, slept through that. The rest of the trip? He spent that screaming. Eventually, the journey spilled into his bedtime, so we at least drove the last couple hours in peace.

For the ride home, we weren’t nearly as lucky. We got a late start at 11:30 a.m. That meant we’d drive through the meat of the day. The main part of Elmo’s “awake time.” And “awake” he was. Unhappy too. After a brief nap to start the trip, he pretty much wailed the rest of ride every moment, bemoaning being strapped into his car seat.

Eventually, I moved to the back seat with him, trying to play with him, sing to him, or pretty much do anything to stop him from crying. For close to two hours, though, I mostly just stared at his tear-streaked face, beet red from his hyperventilating sobs. His eyes pleaded with me: “How can you sit there without helping me?” It was his personal hell. It became mine too.

Now, this was not Elmo’s only freakout during our vacation. It was merely the cherry on top of the shit sundae (at least when it came to him losing it; the trip and my in-laws were otherwise lovely!). During our week-plus there, Elmo did not make it through a single night’s sleep for longer than 2 hours before waking up, screaming for attention. One of those nights, I stayed in the room with him, hoping my presence would keep him calm. Hah!

Clearly, something had to be done to help our kid calm down on his own. The answer? We were finally ready to “sleep train” him.

“Sleep training” is a funny phrase. In my mind, it cues up a movie montage, likely set to a song by Survivor:

Scene 1: We see Elmo sitting up in his crib. I place my hands next to my head in the universal sign for “sleep.” He giggles, then looks at me quizzically.

Scene 2: We cut to Elmo, lying on his belly in his crib, kicking his legs, pushing up on his arms, and sobbing uncontrollably. I’m next to him, “coaching” him to sleep, i.e., doing nothing to help him.

Scene 3: We see my wife and I, staring at our monitor. Elmo is finally sleeping. We high-five. The noise wakes him up, and he wails once more. We hang our heads, and the audience laughs at our pain.

Of course, “sleep training” is nicer than the more descriptive term: “let your child cry until they’re so worked up they eventually can’t do anything but fall asleep (after crying some more, of course).” Yeah, “sleep training” is better marketing, for sure.

We hadn’t let Elmo “cry it out” yet for a number of reasons: “He’s just getting over a cold.” “He’s just catching a cold.” “He really needs a good night’s sleep tonight.” “I really need a good night’s sleep tonight.” However, after that trip, after that hell, it was time. No more excuses. (It also helped that it was new year’s week and we were both off work, so we really were out of excuses.)

I thought I would document our results here, running diary-style. Ultimately, though, things weren’t eventful enough for that. Not because it was a rousing success immediately—far from it! However, all of the entries would have seemed very similar:

11:30: Elmo begins crying. Wait the allotted 12 minutes

11:42: Enter Elmo’s room. Sing him a song, rub his back. Do anything but pick him up. Eventually, he calms down. Go to exit, while he’s still awake. He recommences freak-out.

11:46: Wait the allotted 15 minutes.

12:01: Wife’s turn. She enters Elmo’s room. Sings him a song …

That first night, we did this routine for close to two hours. It was tough, but if I’m being honest, not horrible. To that point, one of the hardest things about comforting him in the middle of the night was when you couldn’t actually comfort him. He’d wail while you held him, or worse, commence wailing the second you put him down. Surprisingly, the quasi-”no touching” rule made things easier. It didn’t feel “good,” but having a plan did.

The first night was the toughest. The next night, he cried for an hour after my wife first put him to bed. Then, he slept through until the morning. The night after that, it was a half-hour to start, then smooth sailing. The night after that, just fifteen minutes. Things haven’t been perfect; last night, he was up at 12:30 screaming for a half-hour, and as I write this, at 8:45 p.m. on a Monday , he’s started squawking. Still, they’ve improved. He’s improved. And that’s a big win.

Recently, my wife asked if, knowing what we know now, we’d sleep train hypothetical baby number two earlier. I honestly didn’t know. Ultimately, there’s likely no perfect time. It depends not only on when your child seems ready, but also when you feel ready. For me, it took time and experience to reach that point.

I had to go to hell and back.