I remember the exact moment I swore off ever being a regular subscriber and reader of any parenting forums.
My son, like many kids, has had his share of troubles sleeping through the night. Not the worst I’ve heard of, not the best. Average. I’d gotten through the worst of it, so I wasn’t really looking for advice so much as I was just browsing topics and gathering more information. In this particular instance I was reading a thread from someone having huge difficulty getting their child to sleep through the night. I don’t remember the specifics but one comment in particular stood out to me.
This person was an advocate for the “cry it out” method. Probably you have heard of it, but I’ll run it down for you in case you haven’t. It is the Holtian idea that if you do not respond to your child’s cries for you in the night, that the child will eventually stay sleeping through the night because their crying isn’t being rewarded by your response, or that you aren’t otherwise teaching the child to cry or that you are weaning the child from needing you at night. The strictness and explanation of the “cry it out” method can vary depending on who is offering the advice. Dr. Ferber and others have very specific guidelines on spacing out the timing of your response to the crying infant. However, your friends or family (or the denizens of the Internet) may offer less specific advice or even advise you to not respond at all. Sometimes touching and other reassurance is allowed, others advise not responding in any way.
The flip side of this is cosleeping, which can be done with careful bed arrangement or use of a special bassinet, or simply a bassinet carefully placed near the bed. Of course, one must be extremely careful of potential suffocation and injury risks which are not always immediately apparent and as usual there are a variety of experts ranging from PhDs to random Internet strangers who will be more than happy to give you conflicting advice on what the “true” risks are.
I would suspect, with no evidence to support me whatsoever, that most parents fall somewhere in the middle. I think just about everyone with a less-than-angelic sleeper has tried “cry it out”, and many have had moments of sleep or near sleep with a baby in their arms whether the cosleep was planned or not.
What got me in this particular forum post was that the commenter on this forum, told the OP to be persistent in the “cry it out” method, and to not give up… and, without any apparently introspection whatsoever stated it took 90 nights before the infant stopped crying at night. THREE MONTHS?! This person listened to their baby screaming throughout the night (the commenter was very specific that this was the case) for 90 nights straight. Every night, this baby was in its crib, screaming, until it reached that four-month mark and was able to sleep by itself.
A lot of parenting stuff is silly, there is a lot of woo, and fortunately a lot of it is still a matter of opinion. “Cry it out” and cosleeping don’t have to be enemies, but mere ends capping a continuum that each parent must navigate on their own. My own mother used the “cry it out” method on me, to great success. My son, however, has what some call “a button on the back” that activated the second I put him down, day or night, for the first 3-4 months. I was always accused of spoiling my child or otherwise not “getting” that my son would “learn” if I just learned to ignore him. That belief was squashed once I arranged the doubters to partake in a babysitting stint. Babies are individuals, and some methods work better than others.
And honestly? As tired as I got, that time I spent cuddling at night was priceless and limited. It only lasted for so long, it wasn’t forever, and once I accepted the reality of what I was willing and not willing to do (and I was not willing to hear my son scream all night for three months) I was much happier emotionally. Some people never seem to understand that. I’m happy, the child is happy, my spouse is happy………… so, what’s the problem?
Some people think there will be psychological repercussions of either method. That “cry it out” leads to depression because the baby cannot possibly know why it was abandoned alone (or some such similar idea), or that cosleeping leads to kids who are overdependent on their parents and will struggle emotionally later in life (or some such similar idea). Or on the flip side it will lead to greater independence and confidence later.
Amusingly, it can easily be translated to “cry it out” and cosleeping lead to depression and anxiety or “cry it out” and cosleeping” lead to greater independence and self-confidence. So, apparently they do the same thing if you believe the Internet.
But what is the research?
The research is all over the map. The problem is the same as many aspects of human psychology and behavior… it is difficult or impossible to test in an ethical matter and perhaps insurmountably difficult to tease out cause and effect from numerous other factors. To follow an infant until adulthood is not only time consuming but is filled with so many other questions to be resolved. For example, what kind of parent do you think the 90-night-wonder commentor is? A strict disciplinarian? A lazy one? Laissez-faire? Active? Overbearing? Distant? Warm? Even putting aside other issues such as single parent or couple, school environment, neighborhood, economic class, race, etc… how do you account for the differences between “cry it out” or cosleeping parents? Or even children that are easier or more difficult to put to bed right from the start? What if the method chosen isn’t even about the parent getting a good night sleep?
The lesson to take from all of this is, to take a breath. Reflect. Evaluate any advice or criticisms for merit, and do what works for you and your child. Be able to recognize if you’re stressing yourself or your child out, and why. Is whatever method you choose really working for you, or would you be happier adjusting it?
I knew I could never cosleep, because I have been known to have violent outbursts in my sleep, and everything was so hectic after the child arrived that I couldn’t trust myself to not smoosh my child. My bedroom situation was also in no way favorable, and my spouse also was lousy about noticing unfortunate thrashings of limbs or crushing rollovers. But I also found “cry it out” to be pure, insane torture… and it just didn’t work. Not that I tried a several-night marathon of it. That just wasn’t a direction I wanted to go. And I have no regrets. I don’t have a toddler who needs to sleep with me every night, and over time I came to recognize some of his cycles. For example, he has night terrors on a (strangely?) predictable cycle. When it happens, fighting it is something I don’t even think about. I get up, and spend a significant portion of the night soothing him or I take him down to the guest room and sleep with him there where it’s more favorable. It only lasts the night. His other pattern is every 4 months or so, he has a week of sleep trouble. At the end of it, he wakes up with some new skill, like walking, or an explosion of new vocabulary. That one seems to be fading. Or at least, he puts himself back to sleep at the end of it.
And don’t think I don’t know how lucky I am. I know I am very lucky.
Addendum: I am having trouble locating the forum post in question, since I wished to refresh my memory and be more precise. Now I will be filled with self-doubt and worries of self-invented false memories.
BONUS RELATED FUN FACT: Did you know that some people in Europe used to sleep in box beds? Box beds were a a cabinet that people used to sleep in and were quite the matter of pride as furniture. They were (probably) used to save space in the house, and reduce fuel needs to keep warm. Additionally, the box beds (probably) provided a means of separation from the chickens and other livestock kept in the house at night. It has also been said that the box beds also provided protection from wolves who might otherwise eat your baby. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “fact” since so many of the details are vague in the full knowing of them, but interesting none the less, and something to reflect on.