Several parents of young babies were having a discussion about sleep issues. The main controversy seemed to be about “letting babies cry,” whether or not it is a good idea, whether or not it is damaging to infants and whether or not it really works.
It is understandable that sleep-deprived parents may start to feel desperate about night-time wakening, and the need to have their babies sleeping through the night. Such feelings may lead to a search for a “method” that will hasten the process. The insecurity of being a new parent adds to the hope that there is some right method out there that will work. This often leads to a focus on the method, rather than on one’s baby.
This question of whether to focus on the baby’s needs or on our own need for sleep raises a question that occurs all through child-rearing. How do we balance the needs of our children with our own needs as adults, when those needs conflict?
Infants, especially newborns, are completely dependent. As parents, we are responsible for their survival, which makes eating and sleeping a central focus. Do their cries mean they are hungry? Should we feed them whenever they cry? If they cry when put down do we pick them up or let them cry?
Earlier, picking babies up when they cried was considered a sure-fire method of spoiling them. Also, there was a belief in strict feeding schedules: you did not pick babies up to hold or be fed except at appointed scheduled times. Dr. Spock, an early child-rearing guru, helped introduce demand feeding, which meant feeding babies whenever they were hungry, and which in practice became whenever they cried.
That approach to feeding became part of a larger philosophy of following a child’s lead in everything. Unhappily, demand feeding later turned into giving children whatever they demanded. In its most extreme form, conflicts between parents and children can become a matter of children demanding that parents do what they, the children, want, or parents demanding that children do what they, the parents, want.
The idea that it is a matter either of “giving in” to the baby, or somehow imposing what we want on the baby, is one that often arises at various stages in a child’s development. A later issue that raises a similar question is that of separation: a parent going out and leaving a child at home – or at school. If the child protests, or cries, should a parent yield to the child’s cries, or leave a crying child?
A group of mothers, whose children were starting nursery school, thought teachers were too quick to have mothers stay because their children were crying. The idea was not to give in immediately to children’s cries. Asked how long it was OK to let children cry, the mothers found that difficult to answer. They were in agreement that some crying was OK and that some was too much, but each mother could only answer the question in terms of her own child.
Page 2 of 2 - As parents we make such judgments in terms of our knowledge of our own children. Part of what influences that judgment is a child’s tolerance for frustration, and part is a parent’s tolerance for a child’s protest or seeming unhappiness.
Judging the seriousness of children’s protests can be difficult, whether they protest because they find something too hard, or want something too much. Undoubtedly, we will make mistakes along the way as we learn to read our own child. But in the process we will know our child better.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.