AThe other day at two o’clock in the morning I swayed slowly from side to side, rocked my preschooler and whispered the Oompa Loompa song by Willy Wonka “like a lullaby,” as her barked instructions gave. Like most parents, I am particularly fixated on sleep and how to optimize it. When I pulled out the jig-like tune to make it as sleepy as possible, the kindergarten kid whimpered from the top bed and the preschooler gave me the occasional sadistic grin, I was pretty sure I wasn’t optimizing anything but probability that when we finally nodded off, we all dreamed of tiny orange men.
The preschooler slept happily in a pack ‘n play in our closet for the first two years of her life due to a combination of Covid and minimal square footage. But when the girls began to sleep in the bunk beds together, I had visions of bedtime whispers that would render adult participation irrelevant and strengthen their sisterly bonds while leading to a deeper sleep all around. I also assumed that sleeping together in piles was firmly entrenched in us from the days when we were seeking safety from roaming mastodons. So I put the bumper on the lower bunk and wondered what the worst could happen?
“I’m crouching on the floor of your room,” wrote my husband Dave on the first night, a full hour past “bedtime”. “My arm fell asleep so I had to put her down. Now she won’t let me go. “Pulsating ellipse, then:” I’m so hungry. “
I crept in on tiptoe to relieve him as he rushed out to prepare dinner. Two full minutes of silence. A cackle from the top bunk.
“I have the funniest dream ever, My kindergarten child shouted. I lay down on the floor. The preschooler appeared like a prairie dog.
“NO LIES, MOM,” she yelled, a little Sigourney Weaver-as-Zuul in Ghostbusters.
We tried everything over the next few weeks. Shout out. Do not Cry. Play the silent game. A sticker diagram. The promise of any breakfast they could think of, including a bowl of sprinkles. Nothing worked. They chatted and played well after bedtime and then woke up several times each night. At the end of a particularly strenuous stretch, the preschooler declared that she was no longer interested in stickers or sprinkles, a scorched-earth negotiating tactic that came straight from Genghis Khan’s playbook. I fell to the ground almost crying.
Put aside any parental judgment about the right and wrong of bargaining devices that you fail to hold and give in to fruitless and idiotic demands, whether it is Oompa or otherwise. The bigger question for me was whether my ultimate goal – two happy children who calm each other down and therefore sleep soundly – was worthy, considering we weren’t anymore to share the tundra with predators and we had the space to check out if we wanted.
The research and advice on bed use was everywhere, and the data on room sharing was almost nonexistent. Some studies that I’ve read have concluded that sharing a room or bed can maximize sleep during REM. Others concluded that doing the opposite would do the opposite. I’ve learned crazy facts like that birds can turn off half their brains to sleep and keep the other half awake, and when they’re all lined up, the ones on the edge have half their brains awake while the others are in the middle will sleep completely. Oh, being a pigeon in the middle of the pack on a telephone pole, I thought as I curled up on the floor in the fetal position next to the bunk bed, giving in to all the commands that came from above.
“If you asked me the best way to sleep, everyone would sleep individually in their preferred environment,” she told me over the phone. So much for my mastodon theory. Various anthropologists suggest that our circadian rhythms may have evolved differently – you might be a night owl, your spouse a lark – because having more people wake up at different intervals minimizes the likelihood of each individual falling asleep the moment one Predator comes by.
Of course, as anyone who enjoys cuddling or chatting before bed can tell you, that’s not the whole story.
“We don’t live in a vacuum, and there is the emotional part, the psychological impact, of sharing a room at night,” continued Veler. Numerous sleep researchers have told me that calming anxiety is the main reason to throw siblings together, and others have suggested that this may have less to do with sleep quality than with values. I expect you to share a room, I expect you to be a flexible personyou say indeed.
And the psychological effects are often passed on from generation to generation. My friend, who shared a room with her two younger sisters for years, is now forcing her two young children to sleep together, damn it. And this despite the fact that there is a third bedroom and a very practical husband who quietly points out that one or the other child starts screeching in the middle of the night that they could bypass the wake-up calls in the whole house if they so wish.
“I don’t really know if it makes them better at sharing or more tolerant of noises / disturbances while sleeping,” she wrote me via email, “but I almost don’t care at the moment because it makes me so happy to wake up and find both in their cradles smiling at me (or screaming at the same time, as is sometimes the case). “
Dr. Veler had parents come to her to find out why their children fall asleep well together but wake up in the middle of the night. It has to do with the concept of “sleep association,” or what it takes to get you to sleep or quickly go back to sleep when you wake up. To me this is a pitch dark room, a freezing cold climate, and Dave doesn’t move or audibly breathe, which has led him to dutifully put breath right strips on his nose to help ease snoring in the middle of the night. (“It’s like being in an oxygen wind tunnel in there,” he says grumpily as he curls up into the fetal position and sits down for a long night trying to stay immobile so he doesn’t provoke my nightly anger.)
“We found that part of their sleeping relationship was chatting with their siblings,” Veler said, “but if they didn’t have them in the middle of the night, they couldn’t go back to sleep.”
Which is delightful. Not at two in the morning, though. Veler’s recommendation? Separate the children so they can start a new dormitory. Then reunite them if you wish.
Even though the girls begged to stay in their bunk beds, I set the law: our household sleep strategy would be to maximize REM sleep at the expense of any emotional closeness.
It worked well until daylight saving time, the most dreaded sky corrective, which was likely what caused the preschooler to wake up at random hours of the night. And so I found myself rocking her and whispering the Oompa Loompa song until her breath calmed down. Then I crept back on tiptoe to my room, where the steady sound of Dave’s clear nasal passages would rock me to bed. I knew we would be waking up shortly, but the big chance I would rethink my nighttime environment in favor of something as clinical as optimizing sleep.