Orthomom linked to this parenting advice column in her “Mommy-Blog Roundup” on Jewess. I didn’t expect to like the answers, but it was the questions that floored me in the end. If this column is indicative, American parents are obsessed about how much their children sleep (admittedly the column grew out of the responses to an interview with a sleep expert). Here’s a sample of a relatively mild question:
Laura: My daughter has never slept through the night. She is twenty-one months and wakes every 2-2½ hrs. I have tried earlier bed time, consistent naps, bedtime routine, cry-it-out method, etc. . . nothing is working. She was diagnosed with silent reflux at two weeks old and it has been a struggle since. She does however fall asleep without a problem for naps and bedtime. The night wakings are taking a terrible toll. I generally end up crying next to her crib at night wishing she would just go back to sleep. The only way we get peace is if I nurse her to sleep, but that lasts only for a couple of hours.
My husband and I are at the end of our rope. I cannot get through the day without a breakdown. I don’t know what else to do?
Readers, this is a no-brainer. All of the “scientific” methods haven’t helped. Only nursing her back to sleep works and “that only lasts for a couple of hours.” I want to tell you a secret. If you nurse your baby when s/he wakes up at night until he is three or even four years old, he will still grow up to be a happy, healthy adult who sleeps through the night. Laura is describing completely normal behavior for a 21-month-old. Let the mother nurse her at night, as mothers have done throughout the centuries. If the mother is willing to have the toddler sleep in bed with her, everyone will get even more rest. Either way the toddler will outgrow this eventually.
If a mother can’t cope with nighttime wakings, I suggest Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution. It’s a breastfeeding-friendly method of gently changing the baby’s sleep routines. Older babies and toddlers can be taught new sleep routines gently.
Here is the “expert’s” reply (emphasis mine):
My guess is that that you’ve tried too many different strategies. You need to stick with one and be consistent. I know how hard that is. We are all softies, and no one likes to hear their baby scream. But I promise you that it would only take a few days before your baby gets the message that you mean business. So, when you’re really ready, you and your husband should first agree on a plan (who is going to get up when she cries, what you’re going to say). Probably the hardest thing will be to stop nursing her during the night, especially when you know it puts her to sleep. But she is going to keep waking up if she knows she’ll have that bonding time with you. Who wouldn’t?! When you go into her room, you need to be as unemotional as you can. Speak in a monotone. Go into her room and say something like, “Everyone is sleeping. The birds are sleeping, daddy is sleeping,” etc. Pat her on the back and walk out. If she continues, give her a few minutes before you go in, and then do the same thing. Remain unemotional and detached. It will be exhausting, but not worse than it is now, and if you are consistent, she will start to get the message.
Are our babies robots? Or dogs that we need to train? No, they are very small people who can’t understand why everyone ignores them once the sun goes down, even when they cry hard enough to throw up (mentioned in a later question). A baby’s cry is intended to be disturbing. If we train ourselves to ignore it, we lose our instinctive rachmanut (compassion). And a baby whose cries are ignored learns that his feelings don’t count for much. Eventually he will give up and go to sleep, but pay a steep price.
I don’t agree that night nursing reinforces night waking. If a baby knows he will bond in the evening and in the morning, he won’t continue to rouse himself up in the middle of the night for the rest of his life to get it. Many working mothers relish the nighttime bonding that makes up for the hours apart. Even active babies and toddlers whose mothers care for them full-time don’t always manage to get enough cuddling during the day. Babies wake for many reasons, including teething, bad dreams, loneliness, fear, hunger, thirst, and other physical discomforts. Some babies wake up when they need to urinate. In extreme cases, a doctor should see the baby to rule out health issues. One mother noticed that when her toddler woke in the night, he passed lots of gas. She suspected a food sensitivity, and he slept through the night after the first day he avoided the offending food.
Who are we to say that our need for a solid eight hours (which we usually don’t get anyway for all kinds of trivial reasons) trumps the baby’s needs? Adults can learn to cope with less sleep and babies need concern and sympathy no matter when they are in distress. Trust your baby; she will tell you when s/he is developmentally ready to fall asleep without your help.