New parents face many challenges, among them getting a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep. An even greater challenge for some is deciding which advice to follow when well-meaning relatives and friends chime in with their theories about infants and sleep.
Picking Up a Baby
The question of when and if you should pick up a baby is surprisingly controversial. I say “surprisingly” because to me it has always seemed perfectly natural that you would pick up and try to comfort a crying baby. After I had my first child, I quickly discovered that my opinion is not universally shared. Some people believe that constantly picking up fussy or crying babies is the same as rewarding bad behavior and that babies who are given attention when they cry will become spoiled, dependent children.
There is little evidence to support this belief, but it persists. There is also little hope of finding a “right” answer since both sides argue with equal fervor the merits of their respective positions. Those in favor of picking up babies cite studies proving that physical contact is an important factor in the mental development of babies. Further, they state, babies were held and picked up for millennia and it is only in recent times and in certain cultures (read: North American) that people have begun leaving babies to cry for fear of spoiling them.
On the other side of this argument, those against picking up crying babies will tell you that babies need to learn how to deal with frustration and be taught that they cannot get everything they want. They will also tell you that crying does not hurt a baby. If the people you are arguing with are your parents, they may say that you were left to cry as a baby and suffered no ill effects.
Of course, context is critical here. No one on either side of the discussion would advocate leaving a very young, sick, hurt or scared baby to cry. The idea of teaching a baby that he cannot always get what he wants depends on age. It is pretty tough to claim that an infant is trying to manipulate her parents by crying, but an older child may be guilty of such an offence. If the baby in question is crying instead of sleeping, take a deep breath. With this issue you have entered the difficult terrain of “cry it out” versus “attachment parenting”.
Rocking a Baby to Sleep – Is it Okay?
Sleep and babies do not always go together. There are endless resources about how to get a baby to sleep but they all seem to come down to the Ferber Method, also referred to by some as the “cry it out” method, and attachment parenting.
The Ferber Method shows parents how to teach their child to soothe himself to sleep from the age of 5 or 6 months. It is often misunderstood as a somewhat cold method that leaves babies to cry it out until they fall asleep. In fact, Dr. Ferber does not call his method by the “cry it out” name, nor does he advocate leaving babies alone in the dark. His method focuses on small interventions by parents with the ultimate goal of having babies learn to fall asleep on their own. Dr. Ferber advises parents not to pick up a baby crying in her crib and not to rock a baby to sleep. His idea of parental intervention includes a few soothing words and some pats on the back, but nothing more than that.
Attachment parenting involves a variety of interventions by parents and also encompasses the idea of the family bed, or co-sleeping. With this approach, parents are encouraged to rock their babies to sleep, cuddle them, play soothing music, and lay down or sleep with their babies.
As with the issue of picking up a baby, both methods of getting babies to sleep seem to have equal numbers of supporters and detractors.
What is a Parent To Do?
With people on both sides of these issues having drawn up a list of pros and cons, it is hard for parents to know what to do. In my admittedly unscientific poll of friends with children, I have found that most go with what their instincts tell them. They will pick up a baby who needs comforting, but may, at another time, leave him to cry for a few minutes until he falls asleep. They may have their baby nap in a crib but bring her into bed with them at night. Depending on how Baby is feeling, they may just place him in his crib and let him fall asleep sucking his thumb, or they may rock him to sleep with soft music playing in the background.
The “right” answer to both of these dilemmas includes a combination of instinct and judgment of what the situation requires and what your family can bear. In short, be flexible, be adaptable and do what works best for you.