Sleepless in suburbia

Admit it. Most parents of small children are obsessed with sleep. Much more so than is probably healthy. Sean Coughlan has turned his obsession into a fascinating book. Here he details his top 10 class parent sleeps [or lack of].

Sleep must be the most undervalued pleasure in the world. Go into any bookshop and there are walls of glossy volumes about food, travel and fashion. But what about the joy of sleep?
I’d always enjoyed sleep, but it was when I became a parent that the craving really began. That was when I discovered those surreal, sleep starved nights, sitting up with a baby and thinking that in a couple of hours I’d be at work. It was when sleep became the most precious commodity in our relationship.
I can remember being so tired that I couldn’t make sense of a tube map. And I can remember long nights watching baseball on Channel 4, a sport I’ve never understood, because for some inexplicable reason it stopped my daughter from crying.
From this sleep deprivation came a fascination with this stuff that I was missing. Where do we go for these hours in the night? What happens if we don’t get enough sleep? What is the history of sleeping patterns? How does sleep occur in the natural world? How many hours did children really sleep in the past? Who invented pyjamas and the electric blanket?
This sleep obsession turned into an idea for a book. It was going to be a book in praise of sleep, celebrating its history, mystery and neglected culture. Why shouldn’t we savour sleep, luxuriating in a long lie-in? The book became the Sleepyhead’s Bedside Companion, a tribute to anyone who wanted sleep more than anything else.
And for those who crave sleep, here in descending order are my top 10 of classic parent sleeps, the kind of sleeps where you end up even more desperate to go back to bed than when you began. Maybe you can suggest some others of your own.

1. You are my prisoner
If car manufacturers could design an alarm as sensitive as a drowsing child, they would  end car theft overnight. You’ve read the bedtime story, you’ve held hands, you’ve said  goodnight to the bedside toys in your funny voice… and then you’re just about to creep away. Yaaaaaah! The crying starts up like a hammer drill in a metal bucket. So you have to start all over again. They can play with you like that for hours. It’s psychological warfare. Goodbye sleep. Say that in your funny voice, daddy. Yaaaaah!

2. Where am I?
You’ve been up all night with a howling baby. You’ve watched the hours of sleep dwindle and disappear. You’ve seen the dawn come up like an ugly bruise. You’re so tired you could curl up on a bed of nails. But then you have to go to work. You can barely remember your own name – and you’ve got a day’s work to survive. Sleep exhaustion makes decision-making almost impossible. It takes a half an hour and a few emotional moments to tackle a really tough question, like: “What sort of coffee do you want?”

3. Racoon mothers
This is a phrase to describe the nocturnal mothers who, having eventually got their
children into bed, then decide it’s time for their own online socialising. They pour a
glass of wine, turn on the computer, and then while everyone else sleeps, they’re
Facebooking or Google-shopping. Hours pass, but this is their only me-time, and the next  morning, eyes ringed with tiredness, the cycle starts all over again.

4. Arguing over sleep training
This argument begins when one parent buys a bossy book about training a child to sleep in their own room. It’s usually written by some Californian with fluorescent teeth and qualifications bought over the internet. It guarantees sleep happiness for all, but only if you follow their ridiculously complicated system. It also involves not rushing in when your baby cries. They have to be left there, even though the howling is so loud that the walls are shaking. The parents wait outside the door, wracked by guilt and mutual irritation, blaming each other. In the end, no matter what the good intention, the parents are going to crack, they’re going to rush in to their baby and then fight all
night about whose stupid idea this was in the first place.

5. Foot in mouth disease
Why do children always want to sleep sideways when they get into their parents’ bed? It begins as a short-cut to everyone getting some sleep, next thing, they’ve got their foot jammed in your ear. Both parents are hanging off the edges of the bed, and filling the huge space in the middle is a tiny person sleeping at right angles. Throw in a dog, cat and a few cuddly toys and you can guarantee that moment of waking up feeling more tired than when you went to sleep.

6. Commuter catch-up
Trains and buses used to be ways to get to work, now they are mobile dormitories. It’s a precious slice of emergency sleep time, between dropping off the children and starting work. It might mean resting your head on the cold, hard glass of the window and there’s a risk of falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder, but it’s worth it.

7. Bunkbed head
This medical condition can be suffered by anyone who has said goodnight to children in a bunkbed. Withouth thinking, the unsuspecting parent, who has been sitting on the edge of the lower bunk, straightens up and crashes their head on the upper bunk. It hurts. It really, really hurts. It’s related to other parenting injuries, such as “scooter ankle”, in which a child’s metal scooter hits with your ankle.  There is also “Lego foot”, in which the bare foot finds a sharp piece of Lego. So unfunny when it happens to you.

8. Conference call
A work trip away from home once meant a few drinks and late nights. Now there is an
entirely different agenda. Parents with young children don’t fantasise about going out,
they are dreaming about that hotel bed, with no one to wake you, no breakfasts to make in the morning, no sandwiches for school, no one else to put to bed, no one shouting for a drink of milk, just stretching out and sleeping. It’s going to be uninterrupted bliss.

9. Why don’t men wake up?
It’s not our fault. It’s biology that’s to blame. Women who have had children are more
likely to suffer from insomnia and one theory is that the problem begins when mothers become tuned in to their baby’s waking. It’s that weird thing when mothers wake up almost before their baby cries. Except when the children grow up, mothers can be left with a more fragile, easily disturbed sleep. That might have helped when staying alert for a baby, but it’s not much fun when twenty years later it means waking up every time a car door slams several streets away.

10. Bed time rituals
This is another mind-game played by the very young on the very tired. It’s not just
enough to say goodnight and watch them fall asleep, oh no. There’s a whole intricate set of rules to this, maybe a favourite nursery rhyme, making up a complicated story about an imaginary friend, leaving a particular light on, reading out that special page from the book you can never find, listening to an excruciatingly detailed account of birthday plans… for six months from now. And those are only the first stages. The further you go down that road, the worse it gets. They’re playing with you, a kitten with a mouse. Is this how torturers begin their training?

Sean Coughlan has written about sleep heaven and sleep hell in The Sleepyhead’s Bedside  Companion, published by Preface. His sleep blog can be found here.

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