Why does my decision to sleep train my baby anger and upset so many people?
After two years of parenting and several months of blogging, I now have a pretty good idea about which parenting choices are hot button issues. And I understand some of it. For instance, I understand why vaccination is such a controversial and emotional topic. It’s ultimately a decision that could have real public consequences for all families.
But other topics, especially this particular one about how my child sleeps? I don’t get it.
I’ve been delighted by the reaction from readers to my piece (posted earlier this week on Scary Mommy) about deciding to have a second child. Among the hundreds of readers’ responses and their own stories, there were just a handful that expressed any criticism or harshness. Most everyone either described their own experiences or empathized with me. Although I haven’t made any decision, I felt like part of a larger, inclusive and supportive parenting community in all the best ways.
Today I’m not feeling so welcomed, validated or optimistic about our online community of American parents.
My writing friend and fellow Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting blogger Melinda Wenner Moyer of Slate wrote a balanced and fascinating piece yesterday about the research on sleep training. Her conclusion after a review of the research evidence and discussions with pediatric experts,
Crying-it-out is not for every parent, I know. But desperate parents—or parents who just want to be done with the 2 a.m. wake up— should feel fine trying the method. It’s not just that there’s no evidence of harm in crying-it-out—there is some solid evidence of no harm. When sleep training works, and research suggests it often does, it can provide long-term benefits for the entire family—giving babies the sleep they need to develop into healthy toddlers and giving parents the rest they need to be sensitive, confident, and happy caregivers.
Today I went to the parenting boards. And…yikes. A few Facebook boards that normally are balanced, intelligent forums for discussions of kids’ development, posted Melinda’s piece, and here are some adjectives that were used to describe the decision to use “cry it out” methods:
2. “Child abuse”
3. Parents as “tired, lazy, and uninformed”
4. “learned helplessness”
5. “horrid practice”
For me, the decision to try to have a second child and the issue of sleep are intimately related. Of course, there are other factors to consider, related to my professional future and marriage.
But I can still flash back to an image of myself when my son was five months old or so. We had just moved to a new city, boxes still scattered over our new house. My son was only sleeping an hour or two at a time and would only nap during the day if I were holding him, preferably standing up and rocking back and forth during the whole nap. I was so tired that I nearly hallucinating.
There’s a small mud room at the back of our house, and I would close both doors — to drown out the screams — and sit on the floor, crying, during many evenings when my husband was attending to one of his wake-ups. I’m not a big crier, but anything — dropping a piece of food on the floor, not being able to find a phone number — at that point might make me break down. My husband and I were shells of our former selves, walking zombies engaged in constant squabbles, usually about why the other person couldn’t get the baby to sleep or stop crying. We tried co-sleeping, we tried all the “gentler” approaches that I read in the sleep books that I accumulated from Amazon by the pile.
Even though the outrage from many of the mommies in my online birth group about the subject of “cry it out” shocked me, I was still willing to try it. Our present life — constant fighting, depressed parents, irritable baby — was not good for anyone. Except my son had severe reflux and milk protein allergies until he was several months old and we hadn’t figured the right combination of hypoallergenic formula and reflux medications to allow him to lie down or eat without some degree of pain.
So we waited until the reflux and allergies were under control. I have no doubt that I was gradually sinking into something close to postpartum depression. I couldn’t sleep, despite how tired I was. I felt sick to my stomach whenever I ate, and I lost all of my baby weight and then much more.
Finally, after one horrific weekend of hourly wakeups at my inlaws’ house, even my husband’s mother, now sleep-deprived from the screaming herself and an advocate of the gentlest approach to parenting that I know, said to me, as kindly as possible, “You’ve got to let him cry.”
So we got out our Ferber and our Weissbluth books, developed a plan, and we did it. My husband took charge. (I mostly hid in the attic with earplugs, sometimes sobbing myself.)
And our life changed immediately. We had our lives back. My son became a different baby, crying less, happier, healthier. Even his reflux improved. My son would go to sleep without a whimper by 7 p.m. after a relaxing bedtime routine. My husband and I could finally have a conversation together and eat a meal. I didn’t cry anymore, and we stopped fighting (mostly).
I wish I could say that it is the end of the story, but it’s not. My son developed chronic ear infections and lots of other random baby viruses. Each time he was sick or his routine was disrupted, we would often have to sleep train again. And that was exhausting too but always effective and always worth the effort to help him to fall asleep on his own again.
In my circle of Facebook friends, mommy groups, and online forums, I’ve become something of a sleep assistant to many moms. Whenever I see a friend in my Facebook feed or whenever I saw a mom in my moms’ group who looked the way that I looked — bags under her eyes, a glazed and hopeless expression — and who would talk about how her baby would not sleep after several months, I gently ask what she’s tried. She nearly always confesses to being afraid to let the baby cry it out. I offer to help if she wanted me to tell her what worked for us. I’ve “coached” several moms through the difficult process of sleep training, and they’ve all had the same experience that I did: relief mixed with a little fear of being judged.
Here’s my conclusion to this story:
- Stop judging other moms and stop using words like “abusive” or “neglect” for techniques that are fully supported by medical professionals and researchers. Yes, you may find a few “researchers” (I’m using the term loosely because I’ve read some of the criticisms of sleep training that are generally conducted with samples of children who have very little in common with healthy babies from loving homes) who have emotional responses to “cry it out.”
- The decision to sleep train is a personal choice. I have been that desperate mom, and I’ve spoken to many others, who cry when they read comments online, wondering if other parents will think that they’re abusive or selfish.
Finally, before you judge another mom for her choices, I ask you to learn about this pledge, The Mom Pledge, developed by fantastic writer Elizabeth Flora Ross. Here’s the pledge:
I am a proud to be a mom. I will conduct myself with integrity in all my online activities. I can lead by example.
I know my children learn from my attitudes and actions. I promise to model respectful, compassionate behavior. It starts with me.
I pledge to treat my fellow moms with respect. I will acknowledge that there is no one, “right” way to be a good mom. Each woman makes the choices best for her family.
I believe a healthy dialogue on important issues is a good thing. I will welcome differing opinions when offered in a respectful, non-judgmental manner. And will treat those who do so in kind.
I stand up against cyber bullying. My online space reflects who I am and what I believe in. I will not tolerate comments that are defamatory, hateful or threatening.
I refuse to give those who attack a platform. I will remove their remarks with no mention or response. I can take control.
I want to see moms work together to build one another up, not tear each other down. Words can be used as weapons. I will not engage in that behavior.
I affirm that we are a community. As a member, I will strive to foster goodwill among moms. Together, we can make a difference.
Will you take the Mom Pledge? Go to the site, commit yourself to the pledge, post it on your blog or Facebook and tell others about it. Let’s support moms, even those who make decisions that are different than ours.