When Kids are Sick at Night

The other night, my 2.5-year-old was coughing up a storm. I tried all the usual remedies - from Vicks on the feet to sitting in a steamy bathroom to giving him a dose of albuterol to a spoonful of honey (rejected) to sitting outside in the cool air to try to soothe the inflammation - but it was over two hours before the coughing fit ended. I suspect it was some combination of all of these efforts that eventually calmed the spasms. After the poor kid finally relaxed and was able to sleep, around midnight, I lay in my bed, staring up at the ceiling, listening. His bedroom wall adjoins ours, so I can hear him clearly if he does make any sound.

The baby was asleep beside me. The older two kids were cuddled together on the 5-year-old's bed, as they are wont to do, the 7-year-old snoring softly, more of a low hum than the buzz of a chainsaw.

I was tense, waiting for the hacking to start up again, for the thump of his sliding out of bed, the pit-pat of his feet on the wood floor, a "Mommy, I want to come up your bed." But I heard none of these things, to my relief.

I strained for the sound of gentle breathing, the rasping of a half-stuffed nose, the scraping of his water cup against the wall.

I was wired. On nights like these, all senses are on alert for signs of distress. My brain is seeking other avenues of comfort, cataloging the medicines available in the house, running lists of possible remedies, planning for an emergency room run or a phone call to an after-hours nurse line. I am calculating how much sleep is left to me for the night, deciding how badly I need it, figuring out what can be sacrificed the next day, just in case.

But, the extended quiet period continued. My eyes grew heavy. I forced myself to stay awake for a few more minutes, just to make sure. I resisted the urge to go check on him, buried the nonsensical fear that something was terribly wrong, reassured myself that an intriguing mix of bubbe meises (grandma's wisdom) and modern medical knowledge had relieved the coughing so he could sleep comfortably.

It was a while before my body and brain allowed me to drift off to sleep, and I was still half-listening for a new coughing fit to begin. In fact, I was very confused when I did hear someone cough, many hours later, but it wasn't the toddler. It took me a few moments to change gears and realize that it was the baby, cuddled up next to me, who had coughed! 

I find that I am so attuned to my kids that I am the first to wake up and become aware when one is unhappy or uncomfortable, often before he himself even awakens fully. I hear the whimpering, the out-of-character squirming in bed, the unusual rhythm of his breath. I lie in bed, eyes open, wondering if and when I'll have to wrest myself from the covers and untangle myself from the baby to check on which ever child is in need.

I suppose that awareness of your kids doesn't end when they grow out of toddlerhood. I remember being 11 or 12 and upset about something late at night. I would cry softly in my bed until my mom would wake up and come to my room to find out what was wrong. I didn't go to her. I didn't call for her. But she always knew that I was unhappy and came to comfort me.

Knowing that I know when something's not right with my babies means that I can relax and sleep when everything's fine. I don't have to worry, because I trust my Mama-sense. Perhaps, one day, I'll be able to sleep deeply and unaware once more, but as long as my children are nearby, I'll have half an ear cocked in their direction, I'm sure.

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