Family Matters

Why Sleep Is the Ultimate Parental Bugaboo: Go the F— to Sleep Offers a Clue

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For all the lead-up to having a baby, newborns don’t do much: eat, sleep, poop. Pooping happens without any parental intervention. Eating is a function of breast or bottle. But, ah, sweet slumber — that is the wild card.

It’s among the first cringe-inducing questions lobbed at new moms and dads. How is she sleeping? How many times does he wake up at night? The humiliation of answering truthfully has given rise to the notion of sleep as an industry.

(More on Time.comStudy: Most Babies Sleep Through the Night (But Not Mine))

All you have to do is visit a bookstore to confirm that sleep sells. There are myriad books devoted to kids and sleep, all authored by various baby whisperers whose names are tantamount to legend among new parents: Richard Ferber, Jodi Mindell, Harvey Karp, Marc Weissbluth. The authors present various strategies and methods for getting baby to bed, and sleep-depived parents are eager consumers.

But the latest addition to this pantheon on snoozing differs markedly in its approach. Go the F— to Sleep, published this week by Akashic Books, was written by an actual sleep-deprived parent, not as an advice manual but rather as an expression of solidarity. Author Adam Mansbach’s R-rated verses capture a parent’s frustration with putting a child — in this case his toddler, Vivien, who was 2 when he wrote the book last year — to bed.

How bad were things to warrant 14 verses about sleep or its lack thereof? Well, Vivien’s bedtime routine commonly took up to two hours, including the requisite bath, stories and singing, the pleading requests for milk, for the bathroom, for a favorite stuffed animal — until at last she would fall so still, so peaceful. All parents can identify with that moment, when we stupidly assume she’s drifted off to dreamland.

Mansbach recalled the agony in an interview earlier this month: “Their eyes close, their breathing slows, and you think, This is it.” He tiptoes out of the room. And then, a pint-size protest erupts: “Papa, where are you going? Papa, lie down!” Here’s what that sounds like in rhyme:

Bleary and dazed I awaken

To find your eyes shut, so I keep

My fingers crossed tight as I tiptoe away

And pray that you’re f—ing asleep  

Weeks before the book’s release, it rocketed to bestseller status. Its deliciously vulgar treatment of the dreaded bedtime hour went viral, with leaked copies of the PDF being forwarded from parent to parent.

(For the record, Mansbach admits that Victoria Haggblom, his partner and the first to read the book, was responsible for handling the bulk of Vivien’s bedtimes. “Full disclosure: I only put her to bed between 17% to 28% of the time,” says Mansbach. “She is better at it but she still has the same challenges.”)

(More on Time.comYawn. Working Moms Awake More Than Dads to Care for Kids at Night)

It’s no surprise that Mansbach’s book is resonating with so many parents, says Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night. Although kiddie-sleep literature was launched more than 20 years ago with Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, the phenomenon of child sleep as a hot topic —debated and lamented on playgrounds and in academic journals — arose only in the past decade.

Mindell, for one, was taken aback by the scientific interest in the subject. “I never expected this, but it makes more sense that there’s an industry surrounding this than almost anything else,” she says. “Think about it: it’s half your child’s life. They’re sleeping more than they’re awake at least the first six months, probably even the first year.”

Pop culture often depicts lights-out as a loving moment marked by cuddles and hugs, soundtracked with “Rockabye Baby,” but in reality, it can be marked by exasperation. “Sleep makes or breaks you as a parent,” says Mindell. “It makes or breaks the experience of parenting.”

It can also wreak havoc on a marriage. “Sleep deprivation causes irritability, anxiety, short attention spans, hopelessness and a host of symptoms similar to depression,” Kim West, a.k.a. The Sleep Lady, a personal sleep consultant for hire (yes, this profession now exists), wrote in an email. “Marital discord often accompanies a sleepless child!”

(More on Time.comQ&A with Go the F— to Sleep Author Adam Mansbach)

The good news is that parents have more control over their child’s sleep habits than they think they do, says Mindell. Here, she shares some tips:

• Have a set bedtime, between 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. for kids up to age 5. Parents think if they keep their child up late enough, they’ll sleep, but it backfires,” says Mindell.

• Maintain a consistent bedtime routine. Research published two years ago in the journal Sleep showed that instituting a bedtime routine makes a difference in how quickly children fall asleep and how often they wake up at night. Mindell recommends a bath followed by two stories and two stories only. Use a bedtime chart to depict those two stories, so you don’t end up fighting about reading a third, as Mansbach did:

The windows are dark in the town, child

The whales huddle down in the deep.

I’ll read you one very last book if you swear

You’ll go the f— to sleep.

“Parents don’t have to feel that frustrated and angry,” Mindell promises.

Mansbach’s not so sure. In any case, in one of the book’s final verses, he’s hit upon a coping method:

This room is all I can remember.

The furniture crappy and cheap.

You win. You escape. You run down the hall.

As I nod the f— off, and sleep.