There is a misconception in 'infant sleep land', and it is this. That parents have only two choices when it comes to addressing sleep challenges with their infant or young child: be the tough mama (Cry It Out) or sacrifice it all (ignore your needs and meet 100% of a baby's needs 100% of the time). Where does this misconception come from? Perhaps we like the simplicity of opposites (good versus evil, day versus night, right versus wrong). Perhaps we need simplicity as we navigate the muddy waters of parenting decisions. Decisions are not so easy when things aren't clear to us.
Regardless of why we think we only have two choices, this dichotomy fails to give mothers a sense of the real options for supporting their infants and children. In almost any aspect of parenting there is rarely an 'either or'. Parenting is all about nuances, flexibility, individual circumstances, and shades of grey. These nuances apply to babies too and are rarely black and white:
- Babies cry. But they don't need to cry alone.
- Children develop. But development is not in a straight line.
- Babies are similar. But they are also individual (so are their families): their needs, and how best to meet those needs are individual, too.
I would like to share my thoughts on these two choices (cry it out, and being a martyr) and describe a third choice (meeting the need) that, in my opinion, isn't understood well enough for many parents to take it on.
The Cry It Out Approach
The cry-it-out approach, or various forms of it (Ferber, controlled crying, extinction) involves, as the name implies, crying (and sometimes vomiting). It also involves, for many mothers, a lot of heart ache and conflicted feelings about how to care for their babies. There may be distress and sleep deprivation leading up to the decision to use cry it out, making it feel to some like this is their only option in order to get much needed sleep. There may be stories from other mothers who have 'cried it out' and it 'worked', leaving mothers confused about how it can work if it feels so contradictory to our instincts. The emotions of guilt in ignoring an infant's cry can bump into efforts to be resolute -- that we must be tough and not give in, and not change our course.
This choice is often based on some assumptions that are worth questioning.
1. That infants and children are manipulating us.
Manipulation sounds really awful. But we manipulate all the time. We manipulate objects in our hands every time we pick up a block or lego. We manipulate a group decision by asserting our opinion. If we take the true nature of manipulation, rather than one based on a desire to bend the will of another person, it is about learning how to have control over one's environment.
There are many ways we exert control over our environment. We use words to communicate our needs, thereby leading others, should they wish, to meet those needs. We use facial expressions to communicate our emotions, thereby leading others, should they wish, to support us or empathize with us. We use actions to communicate as well, thereby leading others, should they wish, to respond. And babies do too.
Imagine for a moment if that skill were not developing in our children? If they should realize that their actions, their sounds, their gestures, and their words did not affect the world around them at all? This line of thinking doesn't solve your sleep woes, but it may be a shift in thinking that sets you on a trajectory of meeting everyone's needs.
2. That if we do not "do something" our children will be destined to be poor sleepers for the rest of our lives.
This kind of thinking is 'slippery slope' fallacy; it is the assumption that an action (or inaction) will inevitably lead to a series of events that cannot be undone. Speak to almost any adult with grown children and it's pretty likely that the child is no longer taking a bottle, breastfeeding, sleeping in the same bed as the parents, or sitting on a parent's lap when they are upset. At some point during childhood, the child no longer needed these things from the parent. But this shift is usually gradual, with lots of ebb and flow. A child who is given what they need feels no need to grasp onto whatever they can have. And if, at any point, these things are not working for a parent, they can be changed with care.
3. That poor infant sleep is created by poor parenting. (And likewise, a 'good' sleeper is because of good parenting).
Although creating routines, nighttime rituals, and appropriate conditions for sleep are all important for establishing healthy sleep, there are so many more factors such as temperament, health and medical issues, trauma and security, and developmental readiness that impact sleep. Creating good conditions for sleep paves the way for sleep, but it does not 'cause' good sleep. No one can 'make' someone sleep.
Seeing how each of my boys were so different in their sleep habits really highlighted this for me. I was not a drastically different mother, and yet my second was a 'textbook sleeper' (despite the noise of a toddler in the background, and more errands and ill-timed outings during the day).
Sleep is a biological need. And it is a biological;y- and environmentally-influenced skill. We cannot change the basic needs of infants for support from us anymore than we can change the need for sleep.
MARTYRDOM: The 'Sacrifice everything' approach
This choice is also based on assumptions that don't pan out in reality (though martyrs may be too exhausted to realize!):
1. That if we do not respond unequivocally and immediately to our children's cries, we are damaging their attachment to us. Meeting their needs is non-negotiable.
It is clear that a young child's needs need to be met. But there are different ways to meet them (grandma can snuggle, big sister can bottle feed, a mother's helper can take babe for a walk to fall asleep in the stroller), and there are different intensities of need. Some needs (arguably all for a new born or a child with health challenges or trauma) ought to be met quickly. Others, especially as a child grows older, can be responded with more contemplation and approached differently (talking calmly to a well-regulated older child, rather than necessarily gathering them up in an embrace and cuddle on the couch, depending on their need and their capabilities).
2. That if we want to meet our children's needs we must abandon our own needs. Our needs are irrelevant.
This misconception applies across so many areas of a mama's life: from career aspirations and schooling, to spending time with old friends, to putting hobbies on hold. The challenge is that at certain times in a baby's life, and most intensely during the first two years, baby's needs do come front and centre. It is an intense period of time in parenting because of just how dependent babies are. Perhaps our focus as mamas is so turned towards our infants that we may not even see the ways that we can maintain our richness as a person who is also a mama, rather than a person who is only a mama. Our roles change so dramatically when we become mothers that it can feel that the brick house of who we are gets torn down and needs to be built back up again, with our whole selves, not solely our mothering selves, considered.
3. That if we are not willing to sacrifice everything for our children we are not compassionate parents. That we must be mother martyrs.
Babies have needs. And it is our job to meet those needs. But to feel that we are less worthy of parenthood because we ensure our own needs are met is unfair to ourselves. Believing that meeting a baby's needs requires no thought or consideration about how to meet our own needs leaves a mama short on sleep, patience, and compassion. Fill your own cup up so you have enough to fill your baby's.
THE THIRD CHOICE:
Balance the biological and emotional needs of our infants with our own needs, so that everyone in the family is feeling nurtured, cared for, and ready to meet the challenges of the day.
This third choice doesn't have a quippy title. Maybe that's why it gets forgotten! This choice is more flexible, highly individual and focuses on an ever-changing situation (babe's skills and needs change, our wellness and patience fluctuate). It requires more active parenting in terms of ongoing decisions on how to handle challenges that arise. It doesn't follow a 'protocol'. However, ultimately, if we intend to nurture secure attachment in our babies, then we still have a template to guide us. If we use attachment as the foundation of our parenting, and if we intend to give ourselves permission to change our minds about how we approach a problem in order to find a solution that fits with our hearts and our practical situation, then every choice we make will be based on a strong (but a more balanced, and nurturing) framework.
Here are some things to consider:
1. Babies' cries mean different things.
Taking a moment to listen to my baby's cries was probably among the best advice I have been given as a parent. It allowed me to get to know my infant better, to identify what was a cry of distress versus a cry of irritation, disappointment, or anger. If I did not give myself a chance to take a deep breath and deeply listen, I was far less able to answer my baby's cries effectively. One cannot go wrong nurturing an upset child with closeness and a soothing voice. However, appreciating that my nine month old was irritated, rather than scared, allowed me to respond to him in much more effective ways.
2. Babies needs ought to be met..
In another time and in more traditional cultures, meeting the needs of a baby was/is arguably easier. In such cultures, there is a greater expectation that a baby's needs ought to be met and therefore there is less need for a parent to make a decision about whether to respond or not, whether they are developing bad habits or not, or to feel guilty for making one decision over another. There also may be greater support within extended families and communities either in terms of alternative attached caregivers or in terms of giving mothers time to focus on the role of mothering.
3. Mothers have needs too that ought to be met.
Insisting that a baby's needs are the only needs worth nurturing puts a lot of unrealistic (and unhealthy) pressure on families. We ALL have needs, and if those needs are not met in the long term, we cannot be our best selves.
There have been a few times where I have taken the keys to the car and said to my husband, who is still taking off his dress shoes after work, that "I need a breather or I will lose my temper. Give me 45 minutes.". The children may 'need' me, but they will have their needs met much better by a patient and fresh-on-the-scene spouse, or by me when I return after a country drive or a tea at Tim Horton's.
Our needs, perhaps, are for balance, being acknowledged, having team work from a spouse, close friend, or babysitter, having someone listen to us, and having a wise person in our lives tell us how they got through these intense early days of parenting. And sleep. We need sleep too! Meeting our own needs does not have to be dramatic, time consuming or expensive. It may involve boundaries (I will sleep next to you on a floor bed, but I will not sleep in the crib!) . They may involve intention (I will take my coffee out on the porch for some quiet time and when I am done drinking it I will get your breakfast ready). They may involve flexibility (grandma can't babysit, so I'm setting you up with a recurring loop of Paw Patrol and I'm taking a nap).
4. Be compassionate and gentle with yourself.
You will inevitably have times when you cannot meet the needs of your baby the way you intend to, or envision. Perhaps you have had a c-section. You have the flu. You are experiencing loss of a relationship or illness of a loved one. Perhaps you're simply grumpy and snappy, feeling burned out, and simply need to take a break. Perhaps you just need to go pee. By yourself.
Whatever the reason, we need to appreciate that being a nurturing, loving parent does not mean being a perfect one. Be gentle with yourself! Know that your vision of yourself as a parent is worthwhile, but that it is not a manifesto of motherhood. It is a living malleable 'template' for growing your family.
5. Don't judge other moms for prioritizing themselves.
Instead, look at what they do, see if it fits you, or find something similar that works for you. Another family's priorities and needs will be different than yours, and there is no need to resent them for making decisions that are different than yours . Remember: no one needs to be a martyr. Focus on you and, if you feel compelled to resent the strategies of others, double down on what is important to you, personally, and focus on that. The best modellers of nurturing parenting are the ones who do it for themselves, not for others.
6. There really isn't a fork in the road at all.
Not all parenting decisions are 'one way'. They are more of a roundabout, where we have multiple opportunities to evaluate our choices, tweak them, take another turn, or go back and try something again. The idea that decisions (e.g. the decision to bedshare) create unchangeable and undesirable outcomes ("your child will never leave your bed") is rather absurd, unless you are sleep deprived and not able to judge your options as well!
7. Sleep is a developmental skill and a biological need.
In a lot of ways it is like walking. With the exception of babies with significant barriers to sleep such as reflux or colic or trauma, if you give babies appropriate support, and an appropriate environment, they will sleep. Maybe not when you want them to, or for as long. But they will sleep. There is little need to teach a child to walk (again, with the exception of particular barriers to walking), and there is little need to teach a child to sleep. Support them, yes. Train them? No.
I've poured a lot out onto this page. But there is so much more to talk about. How does it look to meet the needs of a baby and your own needs? How do you figure out what to change to get more sleep? What about all the moms who tell you that cry-it-out led to their child sleeping soundly through the night? You used to use cry it out and it worked, but you don't want to do it again: what do you do now? How can you get more sleep right now because you are exhausted and feel like you can't cope?
If you want to continue the discussion, consider attending my next sleep seminar or booking a time to talk with me. This parenting thing is tricky. We were never meant to go it alone.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and need support right now, reach out to your family physician, social worker, psychologist, counsellor or help line, including the many local 'support and information' lines such as 211. You do not need to do this alone.