Temper taming or: How not to kill your children in the middle of the night

| June 10, 2013

Every parent knows how difficult it can be to stay composed when your child starts screaming in the small hours – night after night. Anna Gibson offers strategies in calming your baby while keeping your sanity.

I have a bad temper. I’m not happy about it.

In the past it came in handy against schoolyard bullies and workplace sociopaths, but as a mother it’s a daily wrestle.

I believe that your kids tend to teach you the lessons you’ve managed to dodge thus far. Maybe you love them enough to learn. Maybe you just can’t (in good conscience) escape from them, so trying is better than hitting your head against a wall for 21 years.

I suspect I’ve spent the past seven years in Anger 101, and I’m hoping for a Pass.

In our house we do the usual: yell, cry, apologise. For serious transgressions, I’ve whacked the older one on the bottom – and always regretted it. I often wonder if an apology is enough atonement.

Far worse, however, is the fury that rises in me when our baby son wakes in the dead of night and screams, loud and long. He is the first child in our family to do this. I was quite smug about the fact that the other two were able to sleep through by about nine months or so but I realise now that was dumb luck.

This one has stamina and volume. Even the midwives in the newborn nursery politely suggested I use a dummy between feeds after his first night. I was horrified. I’d never needed one before. He broke me in 10 days. There’s nothing dumb about that bit of rubber: in our home it is known as The Mighty Silencer.

And co-sleeping: I was smug about that one too. Until we discovered that wedging him between us in the parental bed was the only way to stop the midnight-til-2am crying jag.

I laughed when I heard about “The Pause” in Pamela Druckerman’s  book “French Children Don’t Throw Food”. Apparently, when French babies cry in the middle of the night, their mothers wait at the door of their bedrooms to see if bébé takes himself back off to the Land of Nod. Had our baby been able to read, he would have snorted too. He doesn’t know where the Land of Nod is, and even if he did, I’m not sure he’d give up the bit of bed between my husband and me to go look for it.

I would lie in bed listening to his cries and feel fury roil under my skin. I would leap out of bed, swearing vilely under my breath and storm into his room. Sometimes I would have to stop at his cot and fight the urge to slap him. I’d tell myself that he was small and precious. Remind myself that I loved him.

Then I’d pick him up and “pat” that nappy-clad bottom, as firmly as I dared, stamping around the living room. It didn’t soothe him much, but it allowed me to express my anger physically without actually hurting him.

These days, when I see those child protection posters of a baby’s face with a “Fragile” sticker on the forehead, I get it. Faced with screaming from one child and wails of misery from his sibling in the same bedroom, I have had to remind myself that babies don’t do this on purpose – and that it is my responsibility as the adult to protect him, even from myself.

After about 16 months I realised that if I didn’t do something to calm myself down, he might have been at real risk. I began thinking about him at his best, holding the image in my head as I walked to the bedroom. The first time I remembered how he’d cleared his plate to the kitchen that lunchtime like his big sister, face beaming as cutlery scattered and leftovers slid to the floor.

Within seconds I felt the anger subside, and for the first time I could recognise his needs and address them. He was cold, I put on a blanket; he was thirsty, a sip of water; he needed a cuddle: I gave him one. Wonder of wonders, when I calmly asked him to please lie down and sleep, he said “Deh”, rolled over and obliged. The whole exchange took 10 minutes. I crawled back into bed, holding my breath, and he slept the whole night.

This happened about four months ago and he’s getting pretty good at sleeping. I’m getting better at managing the daytime tantrums too – his, his sister’s and my own. Most of the time.

I’ve read somewhere that you can use this kind of visualisation technique when your kids become teenagers and behave in particularly unattractive ways. Apparently remembering them as babies helps you remain calm and loving, and make good parenting decisions.

I’m hoping our son doesn’t test this theory too often.