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On Putting Children to Bed: Advice from ‘A’ to ‘Zzzzzzz’

I’ve heard it said that the travail of nine months of pregnancy is God’s way of making the prospect of labor more manageable for a woman: by the time you’re ready to give birth, you really don’t care how the doctor reduces your load…you’ll ‘do what it takes’ to have ownership of your body again.

It’s not long, however, before you realize you’re still ‘owned’ by your newborn.  He needs to be cuddled and fed and rocked and changed and…well, he’s just plain totally dependent on you.  And he’s likely to be terribly disrespectful of working within your framework of your time schedule.

Which means he invariably awakes just as you’re drifting off to sleep.  Or he protests loudly when you lay him down in his crib.  Many parents know the agony of being torn between rescuing the sad little angel and letting him learn the lesson of going to sleep on his own.  It’s a classic struggle between head and heart. I admit I’ve changed my position on the matter over the years; I used to be a staunch supporter of “Ferberization,” a term used to describe the latter approach.  This method, named for America’s most well-known infant sleep expert, Richard Ferber, involves specific tactics parents use to train their infant to develop nocturnal independence.  Some refer to it as “boot camp for babies.”

Having had their baby in the crib, parents are encouraged to ignore his cries, though they may enter the room at gradually increasing intervals to pat (but not pick up) their infant.

As you might imagine, Ferberization seldom fails, if parents follow the specific guidelines and are persistent.  Eventually, the baby learns that his cries are for naught, and he gives up and goes to sleep.

While I no longer favor Ferberization, neither do I see it as a bad option for those who choose to use it.  What does concern me is what I call “Ferber Fervor,” where proponents of the approach become almost evangelical in preaching The Word to others.  The less-than-subtle implication is that non-Ferberizers are sub-average in their parenting.  In their zeal to set forth their agenda, Ferber and his disciples take “leap of faith” assertions.  For instance, Ferber claims that a baby needs to fall asleep on his own so he can “see himself as an independent individual.”

To this assumption critic Robert Wright replies:  “I’m puzzled.  It isn’t obvious to me how a baby would develop a robust sense of autonomy while being confined to a small cubicle with bars on the side and rendered powerless to influence its environment.”

Indeed, research in this area of infant sleep is slim to slender.  Statements by Ferber disciples, like child-care expert T. Berry Brazelton, often go unchallenged.  Brazelton has said, for instance, that when a child wakes up at night and a parent refuses to heed her cries by picking her up, “she won’t like it, but she’ll understand.”  Because of his status, Brazelton can get away with such sweeping declarations, even though there’s no research to back up his claim.

Personally, I prefer the Laissez-faire approach to infant sleep, as it maximizes benefits for both mother and child.  For instance, many mothers report developing an almost reflexive nursing of their baby (without ever waking up).  Thus, mom gets her sleep and the baby procures both physical and emotional nurturance.  The other benefit is that regular feedings help prevent painful engorgement or breast infections in the mother.

Many critics charge that infants who aren’t ‘self-sleepers’ will have to do so at some point in time.  And they do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a traumatic time. There are things parents can do to ease into the transition.  And (perish the thought) some children continue to sleep in close proximity to their parents for quite some time; as long as it doesn’t create problems for the parents, I wouldn’t get too fussed about it.

I know of no research showing that a child whose parents choose a ‘family bed’ approach is more likely to develop fearful, clingy, insecure behaviors later on, just as I know of no research suggestive of emotional scarring in Ferberized children.  While Ferber claims that his approach allows babies a chance to learn how to manage their nighttime anxieties and develop self-reliance, I prefer parental responsivity to infant distress, since I value comfort, nurturance, and reassurance over autonomy at this age.

But I won’t begrudge or judge others who choose otherwise…sleep and let sleep.

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