As a writer, blogger, and mouthy Jewish Mama, I’ve done my fair share of jumping on to the third rails of motherhood, including breastfeeding, vaccinations, and, yes, sleep training. Yes, I have opinions about all of these issues, but I also respect that every child is different, every family is different, and my opinions are not necessarily relevant for anyone else.
Which is precisely why I can’t stay quiet in response to Renee’s recent piece against letting babies cry it out. I don’t know Renee, but from what I have read, she seems to be a thoughtful, concerned, and loving grandparent. I respect her opinions, but I don’t necessarily agree with them.
Yes, some doctors believe that crying it out is harmful to babies. In some cases, they may be right. But there are other doctors who disagree, and they’re right too. There are studies in support of both perspectives, and there are so many different factors to consider, that I don’t see how there can be one best answer for every family. The truth is that anytime anyone tells me that there is one right (or wrong) way to raise a baby (short of blatant abuse or neglect), my little red flag goes up and my cynic light starts flashing.
I have a few concerns with Renee’s piece. First, sleep training is not an all-or-nothing practice. The phrase “crying-it-out” triggers images of babies wailing and screaming for hours on end, and that is rarely what actually happens. In my house, I will let my daughters cry for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, because I have learned through trial and error that going into their rooms agitates them even more. I would rather have them cry for 10 minutes and get a good night’s sleep then go into their rooms and spend the next hour (or longer) trying to soothe them back to sleep (which rarely works with my girls–they really prefer to put themselves to sleep). The point is, there are gradations of letting your babies cry, and for many families, if some amount of crying results in more and better sleep for everyone, it may well be worth it.
Furthermore, the idea that we should never let our babies cry because chronic fatigue is all part of the parenting job is a rather privileged view. The soul-crushing exhaustion that all parents have experienced at one point or another is a lot more tolerable if one is home during the day and can nap for a few minutes when the baby is asleep. (As a part-time SAHM, I can attest to this.) But for those parents (especially single parents!) who have to work out of the home, who have to get up, go to the office, and be functional in their interactions with other adults, well, that level of continued fatigue just isn’t an option.
Next, ongoing lack of sleep and fatigue are highly correlated with depression, which many mothers of young babies may already be at risk of developing. There are few of us who are not familiar with the long-term negative effects of maternal depression on a baby’s development. If you really want to take care of your baby, take care of yourself too. The two are not incompatible.
Finally, let’s talk about those instances when babies are allowed to cry it out for hours. I have never met a family who has chosen this option without trying everything else first. These parents are desperate for sleep. Their babies are exhausted and they are overwhelmed. I don’t think any of us doubt that. But does that make sleep training OK?
Absolutely. First, the end result of thoughtful, well-executed sleep training is that the BABY SLEEPS. This is not just good for the parents; it’s great for the baby’s mood, appetite, and cognitive and physical development. Most importantly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, but babies are incredibly resilient (and thank God for that!). It’s going to take a lot more than one night, or even two, or four, of crying in safe, familiar environment, to break a baby. Think of this: a range of studies have shown that colicky babies (who, by definition, cry for hours at a time every day) suffer no long-term damage.
I’m not trying to convince you to let your baby cry it out. I have no right to tell you that, just as I have absolutely no right to tell you not to. I’ll say it again – every parent is different, every family is different, and babies are tough little cookies. But I am tired of parents judging each other, and making generalizations about parenting choices when the reality is that there is no one right answer. Most of the choices we as parents make are good enough. Really. So, let’s lay off each other, lay off ourselves, and all try to get as much sleep as possible, in whatever way we choose.