I’ve been paying close attention to you lately. Trying to decide what I wanted to write about next. I told myself when I started writing that I would let you decide what I wrote about. But I don’t believe in coincidences. And a particular parenting topic that has plagued many, including your very own Mama, keeps rearing its ugly head. I’m going to take it as a sign. Because not only did it deeply impact me for one very terrible night several months ago; but it dramatically shaped my parenting style and most importantly my trust in myself as a parent.
So here’s the deal. It’s not always that easy to get babies to sleep. And it’s incredibly difficult for some parents to figure out how best to help their babies learn. Hhmm……I just reread that sentence and “incredibly difficult” doesn’t even come close to capturing how I felt about this decision. Agonizing? Better. Excruciating? Not bad. Heartbreaking? Yep. That does it. Literally, heart breaking. And let me tell you Aiden, everyone has an opinion. And I mean EVERYONE. And they’re all different. And most have some aspect that makes sense. Especially when you’re deliriously exhausted and desperate.
To get to the point, I’ll offer an unsophisticated pared down version of the extreme ends of the continuum. At one end, parents who have allowed their babies to “cry it out” and on the other, those who consider any amount of crying without responding to be cruel and abusive. And then there’s everyone else in the middle. Exhausted parents who are desperate to do the right thing, terrified of doing the wrong thing and potentially, one night away from going over to the “dark side.” (A reminder here that this is my perspective. Aiden, there are many people who fully support the “cry it out” method. The decision regarding the evaluative nature of the issue socially is of little importance to me here. Just so you know, you can rest assured that there are people out there who feel like some of the parenting decisions that I have made would be their dark side. It’s all relative. And that’s part of the lesson here).
And I got there one night. I went over to the dark side. I was desperate. Worn out. Weary. And probably most importantly, in a state of parental doubt. I knew how I wanted to parent you through the night. I really did. I was as certain about that as I was certain that you were my son. I. Wanted. To. Respond. Simple as that. And I did. I responded every time. When you cried, I could barely stand it. My responses were not only emotional but physical. My heart would race, my stomach would hurt, my shoulders would tense. I wrestled with balancing what I wanted to do with what I felt like I should do or maybe more accurately, what I felt that others felt I should do. Slowly, messages of not being so quick to respond started to permeate my sleep deprived brain. Messages from people who I really love and respect. Couple that with the fact that I had no reliable objective data to back up my method (in that, what I was doing wasn’t working!) and well, I humbly accepted defeat and decided to let you “cry it out.”
You were about 6 months old (Uugh. It’s truly only in retrospect that I can appreciate how young you were and how crazy this all sounds now…..Hindsight….You know?). We had had a few weeks of you waking up every hour and a half, sometimes staying awake for an hour and a half at a time. I always responded. I would shhhh to you, rock you, swaddle you, nurse you, carry you around for literally hours. I was wiped.
So, we put you to bed. And when you woke up at your very predictable 45 minute mark, I didn’t come in. And you cried (and by cried, I mean screamed) for two straight hours. Saying that out loud still makes me feel incredibly guilty. And I cried for two hours as well. I ached for you. I thought, how can this possibly be better than what I’ve been doing? It dawned on me that, you may very well eventually fall asleep if I do not respond but at what cost? And let me be clear that you didn’t fall asleep at the two hour mark. I went in. I scooped you up with more purpose and resolve than I had ever had. I thought, screw this. This is NOT how I want to parent. This does NOT work for me. And I know that this does not work for my son.
About a month later, still exhausted and uncertain about how to support and teach you about how to fall asleep on your own and how to get yourself back to sleep if you woke up, I called a sleep doula (thank God for Google). Andrea took an extensive history and then offered up a plan that worked with my parenting philosophy.
The plan was easy. I put you to bed but stayed in the room with you. If you started to cry, I would begin to shhhh. I’d say things like “You’re ok baby. Mama’s here” or “Time for sleepies. You’re safe.” The plan was to support you emotionally unless you became overwhelmed with crying (at which time I would go over and pick you up and support you physically). The first night, you cried off and on for 45 minutes. You never screamed, so I never picked you up. On the second night, you cried off and on for 25 minutes. Again, no need for me to intervene physically. And on the third night, you were out in 10 minutes. And not only were you falling asleep on your own, but you were staying asleep. If you woke up or cried, we had a 10 minute rule. Any intense crying of over 10 minutes and we would go in and remind you that we were here for you and to ensure that there wasn’t anything else wrong. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times that we’ve done that. And well, you’ve been a great sleeper ever since! Three nights. That’s all it took. Three nights.
So, why the big long story? What was the lesson? The whole experience confirmed for me my need to trust my gut when it comes to parenting you. I firmly believe that the plan worked so quickly and effectively because of the many months that came before. You knew I was there for you. You knew that you could count on me. You knew you could trust me. You tested me throughout those first several months and I had passed your test. And I believe because of that, you were more open to learning to fall asleep on your own. I didn’t know how or why or when my need to be so immediately and consistently responsive to you would ultimately benefit you, I just knew it would.
I knew “cry it out” wasn’t right for me. And yet I did it anyway. It is still truly one of the most agonizing memories that I have. The good news is that I have learned my lesson. I have been a different and better parent since then. It’s probably one of the greatest gifts that I can give to you: I trust myself. I rarely doubt. If you could have seen me those first several months!! Is he eating enough? Too much? Sleeping enough? Too much? Pooping enough? Too much? Well, you get the picture. Now, I listen to my gut and know that my body will tell me if I’m on the right track or not.
The beauty of being your parent is that all I have to do is do what’s right for you and our family. I do not need to worry about whether or not my decisions will be popular or acceptable to anyone else. For they won’t always be. The “cry it out” controversy is evidence of that and only just the beginning of what will be a lifetime of parenting comparisons, options and perspectives. Whether to circumcise you or not, whether to breastfeed or not and for how long, whether to use cloth or reusable diapers, what to feed you, how to dress you, when to potty train, what behaviours to accept or not, how long of a metaphorical leash to provide you or not, and the list goes on and on. What I’ve learned from our “cry it out” night is that I really do have a solid understanding in my heart and soul about what is right for you. That is entirely reassuring and comforting. And to be frank, is a level of certainty that I have had only a handful of times in my life.
I hope you will forgive me one day for leaving you alone to scream that night. And I thank you for the humbling opportunity to connect to a level of parenting self confidence that will serve us both well as we navigate this world together.