Sleep training methods, parenting styles, establishing routines, and maintaining schedules pretty much make up the bulk of our dinner conversations these days. I’m pretty sure the same goes for other new parent households. As if bringing home a new infant and learning to take care of him isn’t work enough. Parents of this new generation use what little free time they have to read books on sleep training and parenting, they fill up their phones with apps that monitor sleep patterns, eating times, doctors visits, and who-knows-what-else, they read online articles on all things related to babies, they troll online forums to see how other babies size up to theirs – it’s almost obsessive, and absolutely compulsive. Admittedly, I’m no exception to this. It feels like we’re so consumed with “doing the right things” that we’re, well, completely consumed. And just what are those “right things,” and who’s telling us what they are?
Since I joined the parenthood club, I’ve noticed an increasing number of new parents (myself included) turning to (what I call) mass market methods to care for their babies. There are countless books written about methods like sleep training, co-sleeping, dreamfeeding (that’s when you nurse a baby while they’re asleep at night so they don’t wake up later in the night crying to be nursed — the goal is to help babies sleep through the night), etc., and free articles saturate the web. We study these books extensively, subscribing to every word, we read websites that tell us why the methods are necessary for our babies, and when things don’t go the way we’ve learned that they should, some parents will go as far as hiring special consultants to help them. Now I’ve always lived by the “to each her own” way of thought, so I’m not judging. But I can’t help but feel that the focus of many new parents is somewhat misplaced. Too focused on making these methods work, and seemingly willing to do whatever it takes, making it all too easy to lose sight of the big picture — the wellness of their baby.
For the sake of this article and because it’s so hotly debated, let me use sleep training, specifically, the Cry It Out (CIO) method as an example. Recently, I read an online post by a mom who was asking if she should start sleep training her 4-month-old. Her post received a myriad of replies but one that stood out was from (who I can only assume) a father that said something along the lines of – if you don’t sleep train your baby, then you are (and I quote) “DOOMED” — in all caps. I was aghast by the response. “Doomed.” Really? According to Mirriam-Webster, the definition of “doom” is: 1. very bad events or situations that cannot be avoided 2. death or ruin. Last time I checked, if your child isn’t sleep trained, it’s not going to be the death of you, and it won’t be the end of the world. Not yours, nor mine. Sure, it may very well feel like the end, especially on the fourth consecutive night when your baby wakes up for the fifth time before 5 am, but trust me, everyone, albeit perhaps a little bleary-eyed, lives to see the sun rise.
There’s no doubt that the man should’ve used better word choices to express his viewpoint. Above all, you should NEVER say the word “doomed” to a new mom in reference to her child. And I’m sure that this mom had her reasons for wanting her baby to sleep through the night. Again, to each her own. I’m not judging. But for argument’s sake, don’t all babies wake up several times at night because they’re trying to figure out this whole sleep thing? We all did it (just ask our parents). When they’re only a few months old – I think it’s quite natural, and expected. Perhaps they’re hungry, perhaps they have a wet diaper, perhaps they have gas or colic or perhaps they just need to be cuddled and held. (Don’t forget, this little being was kept warm and cozy inside a tight, dark space for nine months). I understand that when babies sleep through the night, it’s beneficial to both babies and parents. But especially when it comes to the CIO method, where babies are left to cry it out for a certain amount of time before a parent soothes them, is that really good for babies? I’m just not fully convinced that sleep training for the sake of “helping” a baby sleep through the night is reason enough to let them “cry it out.” The “no pain, no gain” mentality just doesn’t work for me in this case.
I have no doubt that I might have just opened a Pandora’s box and there are many, many sleep training/CIO supporters who will want to argue this point with me – that’s ok. I’m not arguing whether sleep training works or not. Nor am I criticizing the parents who choose to sleep train and use the CIO method. I’m just pondering if mainstream child rearing methods, such as CIO sleep training, put unnecessary stress on our babies. As if coming home and learning all the ways of a brand new world isn’t stressful enough for an infant. Is it fair to expect our babies, just a few months old, to be successfully “trained” at sleeping? Heck, is it fair for us to expect them to be trained at anything at that age? Sure, some babies pick things up right away. Some don’t. It’s challenging enough to train adults – let alone an infant who’s just beginning to get to know this great big world. Why let a baby cry it out when clearly they’re crying for you? Whatever happened to just letting babies develop (their sleep pattern) naturally? Sure, waiting it out might be tough on the parents, what with sleepless nights and a crying baby, in the face of a workday, but forcing behaviors on babies also feels unnatural. Especially when it’s at the baby’s expense.
And it’s not just stressful on babies. Conversely, if parents fail, they question themselves, asking if they did something wrong, or worse yet, they wonder if something is wrong with their baby. (“Why won’t my baby do what they’re supposed to at this age?”) Surely such mental anguish is as unhealthy for new parents as is imposing such expectations on babies. And in case sleepless nights don’t already make for complete exhaustion… If their infant isn’t doing, feeding, or behaving according to how a book, website, forum dictates their baby should, tired parents are googling to see what they’re doing wrong. (Which by the way, they’ve done nothing wrong). Parents are losing more sleep looking up ways to help their infants sleep better so they can get more sleep. See the vicious cycle?
Whatever happened to the good old fashioned child rearing that our parents and grandparents used? I’m sure that the notion of CIO has been around for centuries. My point is that now, these methods have been marketed for profitability and methods like sleep training have been over-sensationalized to the point where its hard to distinguish if parents are doing it because they truly believe in it, or they’re doing it because everyone else is. And this leads to potentially having unfair expectations of our babies. I’m pretty certain that neither of my parents read books on how they should let me “cry it out” and I don’t think books on co-sleeping even existed at that time. They did what was natural to them, and used what they learned from their parents. Most importantly, they didn’t have any expectations of me. All the literature out there makes these methods feel artificial. Very prescribed. How would you feel about books written to teach you how to properly wipe your behind? Unnatural, right? I don’t know about you but I know how to wipe; I don’t need a book telling me how long I should wipe for and what kinds of toilet paper I should be using to yield best wiping results. Did you know that these days, you can even hire sleep consultants that will “write up” a sleep plan for your baby? (Sleep consultants are to babies sleeping what lactation consultants are to babies breastfeeding).
Babies and children have been successfully raised by parents for thousands of years, without literature and the availability of extensive knowledge. I think that the age we live in — one filled with advanced technology and a plethora of information — is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes knowing too much can inadvertently have negative effects. So parents, before you jump on the next trend, take heed and ask yourself the following:
1 – Am I doing this because I believe in it? Or am I doing this because its the talk of the town and everyone else is doing it?
2 – Is it reasonable, or might it set too high expectations of our infant?
3 – Will this put excess stress on our baby?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you be the judge. And remember, even if all your parent friends do it, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best thing for your own. Do what works best for you and your baby. Let’s make sure that we’re not expecting too much of them. They are so little, after all.