The New York Times reported today on a study of sleep interventions for babies. The study’s lead author concluded that the method you choose to trick your child into giving up those ever-so-entertaining middle of the night play sessions is less important than your capacity to follow through with it in a consistent manner.
This is as profound a piece of parenting advice as a no-brainer can be.
Eighteen long years ago, Oldest was six months old and happily waking once or twice a night to see if anything interesting was happening. Dr. Jim, our pediatrician, said it was time for him to sleep through the night. I believed him. He also said we should not, under any circumstances, go in to visit the tyke when he woke up. "Just let him cry," he blithely said, and I, no less blithely, believed him. The first night, Mate and I clutched each other (oh, all right, I clutched) as Oldest yelled and sobbed for 45 excruciatingly long minutes. The next night, he yelled and sobbed for 20 excruciatingly long minutes. The next night he slept right through and, I swear, I don’t remember him ever crying at night again. He became, and remains, a champion sleeper. Throughout high school, he came home every day from school and took a nap. If there is the slightest window of opportunity, he will nap. He loves to sleep so much that he told me today that he thought he had gone to have a physical so he could be cleared to play volleyball, but he might have dreamt it. Exhibit A.
Three years later, Middle was six months old and cheerily waking up in the middle of the night to catch up on the day’s events. Dr. Jim’s advice remained the same, but by this time, I had changed. I had a stack of parenting books on my bedside table and I had read enough to develop a sizable level of ambivalence and fear. Specifically, I became afraid that crying for forty-five minutes in the night would somehow damage my child. How? It seemed to me, in my state of newly acquired knowledge, that "Ferberizing" him, as we so quaintly called it back in the day, would engender in Middle a life-long feeling of abandonment. I probably shouldn’t blame this entire fiasco on the parenting books I read. Therapy may have had something to do with it too.
In any case, I was not so swayed by the reading/therapy that I was totally converted to the co-sleeping, sling-wearing camp. No, I had just enough ambivalence to really mess things up.
This time around, I just couldn’t stand the crying. After twenty minutes of skyrocketing anxiety, I gave in. And in. And in. For weeks and months this chaos went on. I have no idea how long it took or why he eventually slept through the night. It is all lost in a fog of sleeplessness and guilt, fear and fury. And while I was a mess, Middle was crystal clear. He figured out that all he had to do was keep on crying and eventually I would break. He may not have become a biped yet, but this he could do.
Though I do it on a regular basis, I sort of hate to compare bringing up kids with training dogs, but in this case I am quite sure The Dog Whisperer would say I had failed completely as a pack leader.
By the time Youngest came around three years later, I think I had learned my lesson but, well, I don’t actually remember what happened with him. I asked Mate and he couldn’t remember either. It’s not that we Ferberized him or had him join us in our bed, it was just that by the time he was six months old we had picked our plan. We had figured out the two most important tricks to getting your baby to sleep through the night. One, be really, really boring if and when you visit him or her in the middle of the night, and two, know deep down in every tiny fiber of your being that, absent real illness, the best thing for every person in the house is to sleep blissfully through the dark night.