I am taking a deep breath and entering the controversial arena (second only to the hoo-ha made over breastfeeding…and maybe cell phone use) of the Ferber (cry it out) vs. Sears (no cry) debate. I am emboldened and empowered by a recent article sent to me entitled “Why I No Longer Believe Babies Should Cry Themselves to Sleep,” by family physician Gabor Maté of Vancouver, who, as a doctor and parent, now regrets that he practiced this method himself.
Dr. Maté writes that he has come to believe that the Ferber method is “harmful to infant development and to the child’s long-term emotional health” because of the “intrinsic memory” imprinted in the nervous system which “encodes emotional aspects of early experience.” The message the infant receives when left to “cry it out” is that the world is a hostile place, indifferent to her feelings. She experiences a sense of abandonment when her cries (the only way she has to communicate) are ignored and, rather than learning the “skill” of falling asleep as Ferber claims, her “brain, to escape the… pain of abandonment, shuts down. It’s an automatic neurological mechanism. In effect, the baby gives up. The short-term goal of the exhausted parent has been achieved, but at the price of harming the child’s long-term emotional vulnerability.”
When my kids were “Ferberizing” my grandchild, I told them straight out that I can not let a baby cry more than (tops) 45 seconds. It is unbearable to me and I could not accept the responsibility of doing that even for the baby’s nap. I didn’t get fired. (But then again, I work for free. They know a good deal when they see one.)
When I had my own babies, I generally nursed or cuddled them to sleep while I rocked them. When they got older, we had a long relaxing nighttime ritual while I snuggled with them in their beds. When they woke in the middle of the night and wanted to come in bed with us, I rolled over. When they got so big that their head was on my stomach and their feet were on my husband’s face, and no one got a good night’s rest, I put a special Mickey Mouse sleeping bag on the floor near my bed and told them they could come into the room any time and scoot into the bag. Dr. Maté quotes scientific studies which confirm what I, and other mothers, intuited. We would have emotionally healthy and secure children if we answered their cries, if we recognized that they were crying because they could not speak and if we believed that answering those cries was essential to their well-being and did not “spoil” them. (As, years ago, my mother-in-law insisted it would. I ignored her. Which is good advice for daughters-in-law everywhere, including mine.)
When an infant cries, she is trying to communicate something and we parents have to figure out what that is. When she cries when being put to bed, I believe it means- I need my mom or dad (or other caregiver) to hold me to make me feel safe and secure. As Maté writes, “The baby who cries for the parent… is expressing her deepest need—emotional and physical contact with the parent.”
Yes, I did have exhausting nights–we all have them no matter what we do. The occupational disease of parenthood is chronic fatigue. That’s just the way it is- pretty much for the rest of your life. If you’re not up because of crying or childhood illness, you’re up worrying about something. About anything. Forever.
And yes, there were nights when the kids were small that we all slept like refugees, several children in the bed lying between us, their parents. But it worked for us–for the baby, for us as a married couple, for our family.
Now that I am no longer perennially exhausted from the demands of young children, the feel and smell of a little body in bed next to me is a delicious treat. My grandchildren know that any time they sleep over, they can come and hop right in next to Savta.
They sleep well and my dreams are sweet.