My grandmother had a stroke last month. It's left her virtually crippled. She's dependant on her attendants for eating, changing her soiled "incontinence pads," putting a straw into her mouth so she can drink her water. She can hardly move and has no awareness of the passing of time. Her days are spent dozing and eating and seeing therapists but she doesn't seem to know when day has ended and night has come.
She struggles with sleeping. She awakes a lot, sometimes because she's thirsty, sometime's she's wet herself, many times she's scared and feeling alone and needs to just see a smile and hear a gentle voice, maybe have her hand held for a few minutes while she slips back into sleep.
I visited her last week. She's in a nursing home that seems like a good place. Her nurses, though, were mentioning all the night-time disturbances. So I thought I'd come back and spend the night, comforting her as I could. I anticipated it being fairly difficult as she can't really communicate and I wasn't certain how I would know what she needed if and when she awoke.
I arrived and checked in at the nurses station around 10:00pm. It was now an hour and a half after lights out. The night-nurse was sitting at her desk looking at her computer screen. Over her head a red light was flashing.
"Aren't you going to get that," I asked, watching the light frantically jumping on, on, on.
She had the buzzer sound turned off but she knew what I was talking about.
"No," she replied. "They've all been fed and freshened and tucked up. There's nothing they need."
"What if someone's sick?" I asked, getting alarmed.
"No one's sick. They do this all the time. They just want me to go in and tuck them in again or hold their hand. They're being so manipulative, expecting me to run to them whenever they're a little upset."
"But that's your job," I reply, as a suspicion firmly grounds my stomach.
I run down the hall to my Nanny's room and find her awake and terrifed. Tears are streaming down her face as she frantically pushes her call button. I don't know how long she'd been like that before I arrived.
She can't talk but she's whimpering and making gutteral groans.
It's more than I can bear to hear. My poor grandmother, alone, in the dark, terrified. I don't know what she wants or needs, but I speak to her softly; take the call button from her hands; slip my arms under her head and hold her against me, swaying back and forth to rock her into comfort. When she's calm I may try offering her a sip of water or checking her undergarments to make sure she's not uncomfortably wet.
I feel so angry and frustrated with the nurse for leaving her like this. I push those feelings down so I can concentrate on comforting my Nanny. She doesn't deserve to be so scared and alone. She just wants to be held and comforted and soothed back to sleep.
I hear the nurse enter the room and I try willing her away. But she's persistent.
"She's got her days and nights mixed up," she says. "She'll never learn to sleep properly if you keep coming when she calls. You'll spoil her."
"Get out," I mutter through gritted teeth. "Get out and take your little insights with you!"
Can you beleive it? Can you believe one human can treat another that way? Can you believe the things she said? My Nanny is manipulative and demanding! She needs to be "trained!" She's not a dog, she's a person!
I believe it. I believe it because it's what we tell parents to do to their babies.
I have let my children cry themselves to sleep, but only when I know that the tears are going to be short-lived and are due to tiredness only. If they awake in the night, of course I go to them. How could I not? They need me. They need me for nursing or for comfort or for the knowledge that I'm there.
How can this be wrong? How can any of those things be considered unimportant for a helpless baby? Why do parents who prioritise those needs of their baby over their own needs for sleep or relaxation feel like martyrs who are doing something "wrong."
And no, my grandmother has not had a stroke and this story didn't really happen. But in homes all around the world, a very similar story is happening because some "expert" decided it's important to train children to sleep.