Building a Baby Sleep Machine in India

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You might ask how two greasy, 15-pound iron pulleys could possibly be useful to a 5-month-old baby. The owner of the hole-in-the-wall hardware shop in India where we bought them wondered, too.

“What do you need these for?” He was usually gruff but happy to sell us anything, as long as he got the money.

I felt like an addict trying to weasel another prescription out of my doctor. “I, uh … well, they’re for the baby.”

The bright red pottu mark on the shop owner’s forehead scrunched up. Until then, I had been that harmless American expat who huffed up the streets of our South Indian mountaintop bazaar with an overstuffed pack of groceries on my back and a baby tied to my front. I stopped by the hardware shop regularly for little doodads — a couple of screws or a stick broom — but now I was asking for enormous pulleys intended to haul bucket after bucket of water out of remote village wells.

Two?” He guarded the pulleys on the counter, perhaps ready to let me be enough of a fool to walk off with one piece of heavy hardware, but not more than that.

A woman in a silky burgundy sari bustled up and demanded 10 buckets.

Ten? I thought, but the shop owner didn’t flinch. He turned to count off the pails from the tower of shiny red, yellow and blue plastic behind him.

I plunked my rupees down on the counter, grabbed the massive pulleys and, as best I could under the weight with a floppy infant tied to my chest, ran.

The pulleys really were for the baby. Little Liam had a bad case of insomnia.

The first three months of his life, he was colicky. I had memorized the American Academy of Pediatrics sleep guidelines, but every time we put Liam down on his back, he rolled around like a panicked, upturned turtle and howled. His only sleep, day or night, happened face down on my reclined chest or my husband’s with one of our thumbs plugging his mouth like a pacifier. If we tried to give our arms a break by switching out a pruney thumb for a real pacifier, Liam’s eyelids popped open. He scrunched up in a hot, red ball and wailed like a tiny fire engine.

After three mind-numbing months of failed sleep, Rani, Liam’s blessed Tamil nanny, intervened. She tied an old, green cotton sari to a wooden ax handle, added a spring at the top for a bit of bounce, suspended the contraption from a branch of the magnolia tree in our front yard, and laid the baby inside, hammock style.

I spied through the leaded glass windows of our front door as Rani gripped the rope suspending the hammock — called a totil — and swung it forward and back. As the momentum built, she flung Liam up, perpendicular to the ground in front of her, and then plunged him back down on alternating sides of her body. Rani reminded me of skiers dodging moguls in the Olympics, only this athlete wore a daisy-print sari and hurled a tiny, green cocoon around her in a blur of centripetal force.

When I suddenly remembered the little larva inside that cocoon was my baby, I gripped the door handle, ready to intervene, but then I heard something I had never heard from Liam when he was exhausted: Silence. Only the cicadas hummed in the yard.

From that day forward, Liam was a certified hammock sleeper. Rani insisted that totils were only for daytime naps — certainly not to be used at night when, in her view, babies should be snuggled safely in bed with their parents — but having failed at her prescription, not to mention back sleeping, we were desperate. So, instead of listening to Rani, we showered her with unwanted praise and rigged up a hook in our bedroom where we could hang the magical sleep machine at night. Our baby would finally sleep like a baby.

Well, kind of. For a while, Liam agreed to one nap a day with Rani, because she was willing to swing him in the totil for over an hour until he fell asleep. But our nights were punctuated with regular nursing breaks every two hours, after which Liam expected to be agitated back into unconsciousness.

Around five months of age, Liam started waking up for the day at 4 a.m. I realized we were in bad shape, that we were just conditioning our kid to associate sleep with perpetual oscillation. Moving him to the terra firma of his unused crib and letting him cry it out was the obvious solution, but with my nerves so frayed from exhaustion, I couldn’t take a full night of screaming. So, I caved. Halfway through each night, I relocated from my bed to a comforter on the cold floor under Liam’s totil. I alternately dozed and batted at the baby hammock when he whistled every 20 minutes for rocking service.

Thus humbly situated and desperately sleep deprived, one morning I hallucinated that we had installed a pulley system in our bedroom rafters to swing our addicted child from the comfort of our flannel sheets.

At breakfast, I told Tim about my dream, and within two hours I was at the hardware shop. When I got home, Tim climbed up the ladder and installed one pulley above Liam’s totil and one above our bed, connecting them with rope. As a finishing touch, we tied one of Liam’s rejected pacifiers to our end of the rope as a handle.

That night, when the boy cried, we yanked on the rope and the room filled with the sounds of a small factory: metal groaning, rope rubbing over hardware. Liam fell silent. Tim and I smothered anxious giggles under the warmth of our down comforter and smiled up at the pacifier dangling above our heads. We knew it wouldn’t last, but in that moment we were so desperate for a reprieve from the exhaustion that suspending our baby in midair from a Rube Goldberg machine felt like the perfect sleep solution.

Katie Quirk is working on a parenting memoir set in India. Liam is now 10 and no longer requires aerial suspension to fall asleep.