Several parents of very young children were having a discussion about sleep issues in infants.  This question seems to be of greater concern to new parents than almost any other, and this particular discussion involved the relative merits of various approaches with reference to some of the popular books of advice on the subject.  The main point of controversy seems to be that of “letting babies cry”, whether or not it is a good idea, whether or not it is damaging to infants, and whether or not it really works.

It is understandable that sleep deprived parents may start to feel desperate about night time wakening, and the need to have their babies sleeping through the night – or at least a significant portion of it.  Such feelings may lead to a search for a “method” that will hasten the process.  The insecurity of being a new parent adds to the belief (hope) that there is some right method out there that will work.  Unfortunately, this often leads to a focus on the method, rather than on one’s baby.

In a very real way, this question of whether to focus on the baby’s needs or on our own need for sleep is the initial encounter with a question that is central to all of child-rearing as children continue to develop.  How do we balance the needs of our children with our own needs as adults, or those of the family, when those needs conflict?  How do we measure which are the more compelling needs in any given situation?

In infants, especially with newborns, we have the most extreme point of dependency.  As parents, we are responsible for their survival, which makes eating and sleeping a central focus.  Do their cries mean they are hungry?  Should we feed them whenever they cry?  If they cry when put down for sleep, do we pick them up or let them cry?  The history of child-rearing has given opposing answers to those questions. 

In an earlier time picking babies up when they cried was considered a sure fire method of spoiling them.  In addition, there was a great preoccupation with germs, so the less contact between adults and babies the better.  At the same time, there was a belief in strict feeding schedules, so you did not pick babies up to hold or be fed except at the appointed scheduled time.  Dr. Spock, one of the early child-rearing gurus, explained that he himself had been exposed to such rearing and he made it his mission to change all that.  He helped usher in an era of demand feeding which meant feeding babies whenever they were hungry, and which in practice became whenever they cried. 

That approach to feeding became part of a larger philosophy of following a child’s lead in everything.  Unhappily, demand feeding later turned into giving children whatever they demanded.  In its most extreme form, conflicts between parents and children can become a matter of children demanding that parents do what they, the children, want, or parents demanding that children do what they, the parents, want.

The problem is that the prescriptive nature of these approaches does not help parents use and trust their own judgment as they get to know their own babies. The idea is reinforced that it is a matter either of “giving in” to the baby, or somehow imposing what we want on the baby.  That same problem arises, often with the same approach to the solution, at various stages in a child’s development.

A later issue that often leads to a similar set of questions is that of separation: a parent going out and leaving a child at home – or at school.  If the child protests, or cries, should a parent yield to the child’s cries, or leave a crying child?  Some parents find it too difficult to leave a child who is crying, while others solve the problem by not letting the child know they are leaving and “sneaking out.”

In a discussion with a group of mothers whose children were starting nursery school, some mothers felt the teachers were too quick to have mothers stay because their children were crying.  The idea was not to give in immediately to children’s cries.  Asked how long it was alright to let children cry, the mothers found that difficult to answer.  They were in agreement that some crying was okay and that some was too much, but each mother could only answer the question in terms of her own child.

In reality, the challenge of being a parent is to make such a judgment in terms of your knowledge of your own child.  Part of what influences that judgment is a child’s tolerance for frustration, and part is a parent’s tolerance for a child’s protest or seeming unhappiness.  One set of parents I knew were aware that their child was a stoic, who rarely complained, which made it hard for them to judge how difficult something was for her.  Other parents say their child fusses and complains about everything, which makes it hard for them to judge what is really important.

Yes, judging the seriousness of children’s protests can be difficult, whether they protest because they find something too hard, or want something too much.  It is understandable that as parents we want some definitive answer.  Undoubtedly, we will make mistakes along the way, learning to read our own child.  But in the process we will know our child better.

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