I know everybody does it, but I've always found it a bit unnatural. How could all parents move their babies into a spare bedroom as early as they did? You can say what you about the couple’s need for privacy, the importance of developing the child’s independence and all that, but I still find it a bit unsettling. Putting a small child alone in a dark room, away from the parents. Humans are the only species who do it. All other animals would be afraid of predators. They wouldn’t run the risk of waking up to find their children hurt — or gone.
I thought by now I would have gotten used to the screaming. All my friends with babies said they did. The first time they wake you up in the middle of the night with that high-pitched howl, it feels like someone is sticking a knife in your eardrums. But you get used to it. After a couple of weeks you learn to hear it, sigh and drag yourself out of bed knowing there’s no reason for panic.
It didn’t work like that for me.
It had been six months since Ben was born, but every time he screamed I jumped out of bed in terror.
It wasn’t that bad when he was sleeping in a cot in our bedroom. I guess his lungs were too tiny back then. Instead of screaming, all he did was whimper. My wife would feed him and he would go back to sleep.
Ever since we moved him to his own bedroom, though, everything changed. The whimper gave place to a screech straight out of a horror movie.
I tried to do the mental exercise I learned from other parents. “You should remember that’s his way of communicating,” they said. “He’s just trying to say ‘daddy, I give me attention’. Try to replace the screams with those words in your mind.”
I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. It sounded like he meant to tell me something different. His screams were getting louder every night. They sounded like genuine, desperate cries for help.
One night I woke up at 4 AM hearing a scream so sharp it seemed inhuman. “It’s your turn to go,” my wife muttered to me, still half-asleep. She had gotten used to it. I don’t know how she did it. I nodded and walked to Ben’s room slowly, telling myself I would scare him more if I ran.
I had never seen so irritated, flailing his little arms and legs in despair, as if trying to resist an attack. I picked him up and held him to my chest, doing my best to soothe him, but he just kept screaming as loudly as he could. It took a while for him to finally calm down.
As my eyes got used to the darkness of his room, I noticed a mark in Ben’s right hand: a purple bruise in the shape of a half-circle, with a very small cut in the middle. It looked like a bite.
I smiled. He had bit his own hand while he slept, the poor thing. That’s why his screams had been so loud lately. His teeth had started to come out. I read that could be quite painful.
My wife and I had been preparing for that moment. We’re careful parents. There’s this gel you can apply to the baby’s gums and teeth to help them cope with the pain. We bought it when Ben was just three months old and kept it in our cabinet just in case.
I turned on the lights in Ben’s room and opened his little mouth to spread the gel over the tooth area, but my fingers couldn’t feel a thing. There was no sign of teeth anywhere. His gums were as soft as ever. I rubbed my eyes and looked at his hand again. The tooth mark was still there.
I left the lights on and took Ben to our room. The doctor had warned us about how it could be dangerous for babies to share a bed with adults. They could suffocate on pillows, overheat under the covers, even get crushed by a sleeping parent rolling in bed. They are fragile creatures. But on that night I couldn’t leave him anywhere else. I spent the night breathing heavily in the dark, sitting in bed, watching over my wife and son in their sleep.