Just Go to Sleep

I thought she was asleep. She hadn't wiggled for about five minutes. Her breathing was slow and regular. I quietly slipped out of bed, pulled her covers up, and tiptoed to the door. "Good night," I heard her whisper.

I stopped in my tracks. The sound of her voice meant that I needed to go back, sing a few more lullabies and wait until she was really asleep. Since Molly was born, seven years ago, Sue (Molly's mother) or I have lain in bed with her every night until she falls asleep. Usually, it doesn't take very long. And it is a sweet time. I softly sing to her as she lets go of consciousness, trusting her dad to keep her safe. Some nights, however, have seriously tried my patience. Her legs will keep squirming or she will keep sucking on her fingers, refusing to close her eyes. My voice tense, I end up demanding, "Molly, just lie still and go to sleep already!" 

I hear about other families who send their children to bed and the kids go to sleep by themselves. Usually this takes some period of time where the parents do not respond to the child's cries. When parents can consistently ignore the cries, the child often learns to give up and fall asleep. When parents are inconsistent in responding to the child's cries, however, bedtime can become a terrible battle of wills that lasts for years.

In deciding how we wanted our bedtimes with Molly to go, Sue and I carefully considered our options. Staying with her until she falls asleep would require quite a commitment of time and energy. Neither time nor energy is an endless resource in our family. Yet we both felt strongly that we would not make Molly cry herself to sleep, not even for a single night.

Every parent must decide what are the key things they want to offer their children. Some are moved by the goal of imparting a love of Nature or of God. Some parents feel particularly called to teach their kids to respect others. Some feel it is vital that their child learn to be independent.

Of the many things Sue and I wanted for Molly, we felt particularly passionate about offering her a strong sense of emotional security. For us, this translated into "being there for her whenever she needed, until she doesn't need us any more".

We have been far from successful in living up to this ideal. Many times I dropped Molly off at daycare, knowing that she didn't want me to leave. sometimes I left her there in tears, wrenching myself away, and praying that when I returned the care-giver would reassure me that she had stopped crying and played happily since a minute or two after I left. I told myself that my job as a parent is to make sure she is in safe loving hands, even if she cannot always be in her parent's hands.

We chose to put Molly in daycare because we both had part time jobs, and because we knew that after about four hours of caring for her as a toddler, neither of us had the patience to continue giving her the quality of care she deserved. But we felt that if we could give her really good attention at the end of each day, it might help heal any of the traumas she suffered during the part of the day that we were not around.

So we have laid with her every night for seven years. At times we have wondered, "Exactly when will we not have to do this any more? Is there a danger here of Molly never learning to go to sleep by herself? Will we be doing this when she is a teenager? Are we raising a girl who will choose terrible adult relationships because she can't stand to sleep alone until she finds the right partner?" Without an answer to these questions we have continued to lay with Molly, trusting that one day we would know Molly didn't need it any more.

So there I was, on my way out the door when I heard her say, "Good night." It took a moment to realize that she was not saying, "Come back Daddy. Sing me another lullaby!" She was just saying, "Good night."

I said, "Good night, Molly" and closed the door behind me, knowing that she was still awake and choosing to be alone to fall asleep. I felt like I had finally finished the first chapter of a very wonderful book.

© 2007, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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