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How I Found Peace With Helping My Baby Sleep

In the spring of 2005, when I was pregnant for the first time, I wrote an article about the potential dangers of leaving a baby to cry. I received much feedback on this topic, some in support of my views, some in complete disagreement of my views, and some merely encouraging an open mind. Three years, two children, and an enormous accumulation of sleep-debt later, do I still believe that it is wrong to leave a baby to cry?

Yes and no.

While I still believe in attachment theory and consider myself to be an attachment parent, through my experiences with our babies I have come to realize that this issue, as with most of life's issues, is not black and white.

It should have occurred to me that in parenting, just as in being a psychotherapist, theory is quite different from real, live practice. What seems straightforward and clear-cut as a set of principles typed out on a sheet of paper becomes more complicated when actual live human beings are thrown into the picture.

After our first baby was born I quickly learned why so many parents leave their babies to cry – it is tiring, frustrating, and dispiriting to respond to a baby’s crying twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It would not be so difficult if we turned into robots the minute our babies were born, because then we wouldn’t need to sleep and could take care of every single one of our babies’ needs without blinking an eye. As it were, once parenting begins you don’t get too much more than a blink of an eye’s worth of sleep each night, so to dip into your energy reserves to care for a baby when your reserves are already depleted is difficult, to say the least.

An important issue to address here is the fact that babies quickly lose the ability to fall asleep by themselves. When you or I feel sleepy we can lie down in bed and fall asleep within minutes. Babies can do this when they are first born. However, within days they begin to fall asleep in the midst of suckling at the breast or while dad’s walking around with baby cradled in his arms or some other activity that provides them with feelings of warmth, love, and comfort. Then they need to be involved in those activities again in order to fall asleep the next time they get sleepy. Which means, when they get tired but those sleep associations are absent, they start to cry.

Multiply this by the (at least) three times a day that babies need to nap, plus the many night-wakings that occur where the baby needs to be put back to sleep, and you’ll find that there’s a lot of crying going on. And along with all of this crying, you’ll probably find a parent or two giving up sleep and expending a lot of energy trying to soothe their baby to sleep.

People who don’t have children don’t know this about babies and no one seems to be particularly eager to tell them, even when they’re pregnant. So I was quite naïve and oblivious when I wrote that article in 2005, before our babies were born. Now, having gone through the experience of parenting babies, it is my firm belief that this sleep issue is where the conflict arises between the two camps – the cry-it-out (CIO) group and the attachment parenting (AP) group.

Most parents will respond quickly to a baby’s cry if they know the baby is hurt or hungry whether they believe in CIO or in AP. It’s when the baby starts crying, and continues to cry, because she’s tired and needs to sleep that parents will split into the two groups.

CIO parents say, “We are tired! Babies need to learn to sleep. There is no other way for them to learn than to just do it – be put in their crib to cry until they figure out a way to fall asleep. It is best for them in the long run.”

AP parents say, “We are tired! But babies need help to fall asleep. If we leave them to cry they will feel abandoned. Babies need to feel loved. It is best for them in the long run.”

These are two very different attitudes towards achieving the same goal: getting the baby to fall asleep.

With our first-born, my husband and I were strictly AP. We co-slept and were woken up by our baby each time he cried to nurse, about every two hours each night. By the time our baby was two months old I had convinced my husband to sleep in the next bedroom so that he could get enough rest to run our fasting clinic. By the time our baby was six months old I was still strictly AP, but resentful because I was so exhausted. At this point I was spending much of my time jiggling and nursing our baby to sleep during the day, taking him for walks in the stroller so that he could nap, and waking up at least every two hours at night to nurse him back to sleep.

We continued along this path until I became pregnant again when our son was fifteen months old. At this point my husband suggested night-weaning so that our child, now a toddler, could finally learn to fall asleep on his own. I agreed so my husband co-slept with our son while I slept in another room. The first night we did this, our son howled and cried when he woke up to nurse but found that he was alone with his void-of-breast milk father. Our child was quite upset. From an AP perspective, however, this was acceptable because he was not left alone to cry. It was all right for him to be upset, so long as he had the presence of a trusted and loving caregiver to comfort him. After a few nights of being separated from me and crying himself to sleep he was a much better sleeper than he’d ever been before.

Throughout our ordeal with sleep deprivation I had searched fruitlessly for help. I had wanted desperately to help our son learn to fall asleep, and stay asleep, on his own without traumatizing him but I had also wanted help for myself, to find a way to get some rest.

In addition to those things, I wanted to learn how I could do things differently with our second child so that my husband and I could raise him in a loving way without punishing ourselves with a lack of sleep. I was not willing to leave our baby alone in a crib to cry himself to sleep, as CIO parents suggest doing, but the only thing I got out of reading AP advice on parenting was, to paraphrase, “Don’t leave your child to cry. Ever.” And I didn’t find that piece of advice particularly useful.

I came to the realization that all of the advice I found online, including my first article on this topic, is not helpful. Both CIO and AP literature suggest a one-dimensional solution to a multifaceted problem. What I ultimately came to understand is that there really is no right way, nor is there a wrong way, to deal with this issue. I believe that it is definitely the right thing to do to pick up and hold your baby when she’s crying because she’s hurt. But when she’s crying because she’s tired and needs to sleep, we each need to do what we feel is the best course of action according to our needs, our child’s needs, the needs of our other family members, and our unique circumstances.

With our second child I decided to take things day-by-day in regards to the sleep issue. For the first four months I did what I could to help him fall asleep – I nursed, held, jiggled, and sang to him.

I continued with attachment parenting principles in other areas as well. I wore him in a sling, kept him with me almost all of the time and nursed him often. We co-slept, both at night and during the day. I responded swiftly to every single one of his cries.

Halfway between his fourth and fifth months I decided it was a good time to have him learn to fall asleep on his own. He was becoming more aware of his surroundings and I trusted my instinct that the timing was appropriate. However, I continued having him sleep in bed with me while he learned this new skill. I would lie next to him while he cried, sometimes rub his back, and sometimes have a cry myself!

I did not hold myself to any hard and fast rules. If I felt like he needed to be picked up and comforted, I would do so. If I felt like he was doing all right I would continue lying beside him as he cried. In other words, I was not consistent. I followed my heart. Perhaps the process of learning to fall asleep may have been quicker for him had I been more consistent, perhaps not, but I refused to deny my instincts. I don’t think there is ever a time when it’s wrong for a parent to hold their child, assuming the child wants to be held, even if the act of holding them interferes with how efficiently they learn a new skill.

I don’t remember exactly how many days it took, but it wasn’t too long before our second-born baby learned to fall asleep on his own. Even with his having learned this wonderful new skill, I continued napping with him during the day and sleeping with him at night because he needed someone to be by his side in order to sleep for any extended period of time. If I decided not to sleep during the day I would still lie beside him and read a book so that he could feel my presence and be comforted. I was lucky that my mother-in-law was more than willing to come live with us for a while in order to provide some help and support.

Finally, at almost six months of age, he was able to nap by himself. At this point I began putting him in a crib for daytime naps but we would still sleep together at night. He is now seven months old and that is still our sleeping arrangement. When he’s tired he falls asleep within minutes once I put him in his crib or lie down with him in bed. Most nights he will wake frequently to nurse, and I don’t deny him. There is no doubt that I will deny him one night in the future, but I haven’t reached the point yet where I feel that that’s an appropriate thing for me to do. Even though I am still exhausted, I am following my mothering instincts and that suits me just fine.

What I learned from my journey through all of this is that any philosophy is merely a set of guidelines. We are all so different from one another, our children are each so unique, and our circumstances are so varied that it’s impossible to give everyone the same set of rules and expect everything to turn out perfectly for everybody. While I consider myself primarily an attachment parent, I can certainly understand the argument in support of CIO. I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to be rigid in following the AP philosophy. It’s possible to modify its guidelines so that the practice of attachment parenting fits well within my family, and helps rather than hinders or hurts us. And that should be characteristic of any parenting philosophy worth following.

Related Article:

Night-Weaning Toddler


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Babies are individual. My first was a high needs child (she's now 21). After losing sleep the first night, I couldn't take it. (I had had a C-section.) She slept with us after that. I never lost another night's sleep. I barely woke up when she became restless. I'd just pull her over, she'd nurse, and fall back to sleep. If she cried any longer (rare), I was there - but there was no way I was getting up to rock her or something. My third child actually liked the crib! She would wake up and play until some one came to get her.

Hi. What a great article, Margaret. So honest about your feelings and how you acted on them. I have to echo the comments of Judy Eastwood that, yes, babies are individual. However, I think that this whole issue hinges on one thing: you have to figure out WHY the baby is crying. Far as I am concerned, there are 2 basic possibilities: either the baby is hungry or wet or sick; or the baby is just wound up/stressed and doesn't know what to do with it in the same way that an adult does (or should). In the first case, I say tend to the need. In the second case, hold them and let them cry till they calm down or fall asleep. It doesn't have to be the mother who does the holding, either.

I sense that you were trying, Margaret, to "make a virtue of necessity". What I mean is that if you were living in a household of a dozen extended family members, your anguish on "what to do" with the baby's crying would be a non-issue. There would always be someone there to tend to the child - not just you or your mother-in-law. Nowadays, though, it's just Ma and maybe one other person (as in your case). So a baby's normal behaviour ends up causing that one person (the mother, usually) to be horribly overstressed from lack of sleep and constant concern for the baby. So, there's nothing wrong with you and nothing wrong with your babies. There is something wrong with this society, though.

With my first baby, I didn't know anything about slings. He cried a lot and nursed constantly and it was very stressful. He didn't eat much food until he was 1 1/2 years old. I nursed him for 4 years and didn't get much sleep. When pregnant with my second son, I read the Continuum Concept and understood where (for me) I had gone wrong.
I remember he began to cry on the fourth day the same way my first had done but this time I was prepared. I ignored him. I held him, but I didn't give the crying any energy. I always carried him in a sling, went about my business and by a week old he was like a miracle baby and stayed like that. He nursed every four hours like clockwork except at night when he would sometimes go for 5. I was in sleep heaven. He was big too, every four hours he completely drained me and never spit up. My first son spit up all the time.
I put my groceries in the stroller, and my son stayed in the sling. By four months he could hold up his head and was "swimming" with his legs so I often put him on the floor. Five minutes, or half an hour, whatever he was happy with. he let me know.
I have spent time in the jungle with a native tribe in South America since then and observed this same indifference to crying. Babies and children are held when they cry, but no fuss is made whatsoever.
I believe it is body separation that causes the distress. One does not really have to DO anything except have the baby on your body. They show you when they are ready for a little separation by what they can do with their bodies. So when my son was demonstrating body skills such as I mentioned, I accommodated them. Such as putting him on the floor. By six months he would fall asleep on the bed with out any need of me because I noticed him falling asleep in the sling and would just put him down. He knew i would pick him up when he woke.
I think we have to notice when babies demonstrate independence and make a space for it. When we miss it, we miss the opportunity. Everything they show they can do, they need to do to move to the next stage.
Also, the other big thing is not to make a fuss about the crying. Who knows what they are crying about. It's stress relief. I am not unsympathetic at all to parents of cryers, I've been there. But I know that my body and being was distressed when my first son began to cry at four days. I wanted him to be okay. I bounced and jiggled and cried with him. When the second one did it, I knew he was okay and just had my being there for him. Calm and assured. They need us to be calm and assured. They need us to be the rock they can rely on. They look to us for how to be.

I think I must have fallen in the middle somewhere between these two philosophies. When my babies were newborn through several months, they slept in our bed and nursed as needed during the night with very minimal disruption to our sleep. When they could go longer without nursing at night, 8 hours or so at a few months old, we moved them to a cradle in the same room, and eventually to a crib in another room. We played soothing music whenever we put our children to sleep, if they weren't in our bed. None of my children struggled with falling asleep or had to cry themselves to sleep. It was a gradual transition and I guess the music became the soothing sleep cue once nursing wasn't. It worked for us. Toddlers at nap time were a different story, but that is a whole other topic.

I agree with Margaret's conclusion that different things will work for different people and also it may be different with each child. I admire that she is willing to come back and update her opinion after writing something prior to having children, that she has now experienced differently. It is often the case that once we experience something we become less black and white about it. When receiving advice, I always consider the source and if the person has come anywhere close to walking in my shoes or not, before I decide how heavily to weigh the information. The older I get the more gray areas I see, and I don't mean in my hair.

Having born, nursed, and raised three children, I must emphasize that each person/baby is different from any other.

My first one was like a text-book in terms of 4 hour up, 4 hours down, just like in the books. He still falls asleep easliy, like flicking a switch, as an adult.

The second baby was more like one and a half hours awake, one and a half hours sleeping, and so neither of us rested much. His nursing was as frequent, so my milk never seemed to be replenished. To this day, going on 27 years, my son still has difficulty falling asleep.

The third one was less structured in needs, actually seemed to be lying there just listening to the world going on around her. She wasn't so frantic about her needs.

All babies are different. They are unique in their own way. That gives moms a broader perspective on the variety of ways to soothe a crying baby.

The ability to think up so many things all at once to comfort a distressed infant is so amazing.

I have a seven month old son who also has problem sleeping. He loves staying awake when it is supposed to be his bed time. When he feels sleepy he starts crying expecting to be rocked to sleep. he does not want to be put in a pram but to be carried lying on a pillow. The rocking motion puts him to sleep.

Recently i have tried to lie beside him so that he would notice that it is sleep time and that seems to be working but not all the time.

My elder one, who is now seven, however, preferred to be tapped gently on the back and in no time would fall off to sleep.

I have 2 sons, almost 13 and 9 yrs old. i am in my second marriage, and pregnant with a girl, lo these many years later. I was a big AP and long term nursing parent with the boys, and both had their own need levels, pretty high to extremely high, in that regard. with my second, i should have taken into consideration that he wanted to nurse like a newborn well into toddlerhood, among other clinging and screaming signs, as an indication that there was something else going on sooner than i did. i found when he was 2yrs, 9 mos, that he was actually suffering from a sleep disorder and a high-functioning form of autism with sensory integration issues that were off the charts, hence why he sought comfort and all over body closeness and pressure.

anyway, being an attachment parent, when i discovered i would be working with Dr Ferber of the Ferber Method, a big proponent of the opposing side of the big infant sleep debate, I was wary. But i will tell you, after working with him at Boston's Children's Hospital to get my son to sleep through the night on his own - which was a lot of work - I was not a whole convert, but i definitely found the merits of looking at another way of going about what was best for my children. I also found that Dr. Ferber recognized well the individual sleep needs of each child. in my son's case, he only slept 7 hours in any given 24, and we worked to get them in a row instead of irregular naps. it has made a huge difference in uncountable ways, not the least of which was a good night's sleep for myself.

with my new daughter on the way, and a lot of perspective, i still plan on attachment parenting and long term nursing, but i will use whatever will work best for my family as a whole, esp since i believe my husband now, about to have his first baby, has no idea what he is in for and is a very light sleeper himself. we have bought a co-sleeper, something i didn't have with my boys, they were just in bed with me and my ex. i think this will be a big help for both of us to get some good sleep and have her close enough to nurse when needed.

i hope this helps anyone who may be reading with recognizing that each child is different and no one method is the absolute answer to all of life's variations, esp when it comes to babies!

I co-slept with my second child since I work full time and was able to nurse past a year (I chose to discontinue at 13 months). Since we co-slept for so long, my 2 year old still wants mommy and her paci any time she wakes up, which is about 50% of the time. I very much long for uninterrupted nights of sleep. My 4.5 year old rarely wakes me up, but when she does, it is usually for emotional support from a bad dream or just missing mommy b/c I've been working too much. I believe that mother nature intended us to nurse for 3plus years, but our society discourages it. Given this belief and the actions of my 4.5 year old, I feel that being physically available to my baby for those first few years is important,especially since I am not still nursing. And I do hope that when she reaches 4 plus years, she'll sleep as soundly at night as my 4.5 year old does now. Buyer Beware, my oldest sleeps hard like her daddy. So maybe my theory is all for not :0) But I am hopeful.

I am trying to ease off now. I try to sit by her bed and hold her hand instead of crawling in like she wants, but I admit I am inconsistent and give in many times. But the hand holding seems to work some of the time. But last night she coughed much from a cold and eventually came to my bed and asked to get in with me. So we still co sleep on some nights and that makes both of us happy, at least for a little while, until when I get up later and put her back to bed so I can snuggle with my honey.

I just want to say that I really appreciate this article and that you shared your feelings/struggle with us! My husband and I were from opposite camps... I was not totally AP (I really did like a lot of the practices you had described in your previous articles) but leaning towards that while my husband is very much CIO. We had a lot of discussions after our daughter was born and I am very happy to say we found a very good compromise. Because I was taking a course we decided that it would be best for me to have our daughter learn to sleep on her own, as I needed my rest in order to be able to take care of her, our household, and do well in my course. But I never held myself back from going to her when she cried, if only to check that she was okay, no matter what time of day or night. Our daughter did not (and still is not!) react well to teething, so much of the time when she cries at night it is because of teething pain.

I read your first article (we're researching some methods for our 2nd child) and it was VERY anti-CIO and VERY AP. And that's fine for some people, but it was very black and white, AP is the only way.
I'm glad I happened to come across the 2nd article and it was very refreshing that you admitted some naivety with your first article and you adjusted your views after having been through the ringer with your first child.

We did Ferber with our first child at 7 months. I took 3 weeks off to spend with the family, and I did the training. It was one of the hardest things I did for my daughter but I truly believe it was a good thing. Once she learned to sleep after a couple days, she was happier, my wife was happier, we weren't as exhausted, and it built better sleep habits for the child as she got older. We're very much "hover" parents, very attentive and give lots of attention to her. I think that helps make up for the few nights of crying. She's almost 4 now and shows no signs of ADHD (she's advanced in school), is outgoing (early school and socialization helped). None of the pitfalls that are warned about with CIO.

But when is too early? 7 months was a good age, but now we're considering 5 months for our 2nd. I'd wait another month if possible, but schedules don't work out for it. Tough decisions.