You can put a baby in a crib, but you can’t make him sleep. You can put him in his carseat and rock it with your foot that hangs off the bed. You can turn up the hush of a fan like the rushing of so much motherly blood—a rush, they say, is as loud as a vacuum in the womb—but you can’t make him sleep. You can give a baby a bath: lather shampoo into his hair and rinse it out with a carefully tipped cup, dry him in a terry towel, massage the back that is a perfect width, the distance from the tip of your middle finger to the heel of your palm. You can rub a finger down the tiny curve of his nose. Let him hold that finger. You can help a baby’s body droop and drowse, but you can’t make him sleep.
Try a trick a night: put lavender on the soles of his feet. Cradle him as you bounce on the exercise ball, buoyed up again and again between falls. Set the thermostat to sixty-eight. Bring him to your bed and match his gaze. Pray that those little lids drop and lock. Wait for the yawn. Black out the windows.
Circadian rhythms are their own music, but like playing a violin, you need the prelude of tuning the strings: the bedtime routine that stretches and relaxes him for that numb hum. Don’t let him nap past four. Nurse. Read Goodnight Moon and wait for him to reach for the page you’ve lifted with your thumb. Wrap him in a diaper patterned with stars, tuck each limb into flannel pajamas. Sing as you hold him on your hip and draw the blanket over the window. Lay him on his back. Lay your hand on the mattress, wrist cuffed between bars. Or, leave and let him cry. Check on him after five minutes, or not. A baby will eventually fall asleep, but you cannot make him sleep.
When the baby wakes, too soon, for all babies wake too soon, you can stay away for minutes. You can buckle him in a stroller and rove. You can breathe out the ache above your eyes, but you cannot make him sleep.
You can’t quite make a baby sleep. When he was new to the world and cocooned in the hospital incubator, his hand hidden under the sticker of an IV, a tube strapped over his mouth to expand those so so little lungs, medicine could have hushed his mind to a low white noise and quiet the cacophony of senses—but medicine cannot make a baby dream, cannot truly make a baby sleep.
And though you have never lost a born or unborn baby, you know just enough of fear, abdomen cramping hard enough to cripple, a rippling rhythm of tension and release before his first ultrasound—contractions, you thought—to know, somehow, that you can say goodbye but you cannot make a baby sleep.
Then there are other babies too: the younger brother or sister you think of as you kneel to pray away your debts. Three baby siblings you saw in an ad; you know they have no place to go. Babies you want to adopt, or not. They call you from behind a closed door. They cannot stay asleep.
Once you, too, were so young, and someone could not make you sleep. You have heard these stories before–how, even in your crib, you stayed awake for hours. Across so many years, a broken heart prays over your own sleepless nights; a hand rests on the doorknob outside the room of your cries. One night, your baby will sleep without you, and you will not be able to stare into his owl-open eyes and brush his hair. One day, you will miss him, of course, more than you miss sleep. When night comes, plug in the little red lamp shaped like a bird and, room by room, let the house go dark before it fills with morning light.
Alizabeth Worley is a recent graduate of the BYU MFA program. She was a poetry winner in the 2017 AWP Intro Journals Project and her work has appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Hobart, and elsewhere. She blogs at Lizzie Worley and lives in Utah with her family.