I’m sorry to say that I am a person who indulges in regret. I regret leaving the cantaloupe on the counter to ripen a day too long, I regret undertaking a PhD for dubious reasons, I regret many things which I do not plan on reflecting upon in a public space. During my pregnancy I was given the book On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep, and I tried their tactics because I desperate for sleep.* The book promises your baby will be sleeping through the night by eight weeks. Eights weeks. To achieve this miracle, you are supposed to let your very young infant cry herself to sleep. I tried it. For about 5 minutes. And I still regret it.
But I don’t regret it too much because ever since then, Claire has had pretty much unlimited access to me at any time of day or night. I know that this is in many ways a luxury. I’m in a new moms’ group and after a sleep consultant visited our group, some of the moms have started sleep training; unlike me, most of them have jobs to go back to, and nursing all hours of the day and night is not an option. One close friend and supermom toughed it out with a baby who never slept more than 3 hours a night for the first ten months of his life (this was before Claire and I remember being both horrified and in awe). She only started sleep training when she and her partner noticed the baby had bags under his eyes and was as tired as they were. We do what we have to for the health of our babies, and for our own mental and physical health. That sometimes means letting a baby cry it out. (So far we’re lucky because Claire has given us the gift of the occasional 8 hour stretch of sleep, and 4-6 hour chunks most nights; I would probably be writing a much different post if I had not slept more than 2-3 hours at a time in months, with no end in sight).
I asked our pediatrician about the sleep issue recently and she seemed concerned about my habit of nursing Claire back to sleep when she wakes in the night. “You need to teach her how to sleep,” she advised. Like most experts, she feels that “sleep crutches” like nursing, rocking, and snuggling don’t teach a baby to sleep on his or her own. I wonder, though, if the “experts” are setting a few of us up for regrets with this assumption that putting a baby to sleep in the gentlest way possible is not teaching them to sleep. When I was pregnant, a good friend advised against sleep training and told me how her husband sang and played guitar to get their boys to sleep. Her sons are some of the most creative, independent, smart teenagers I’ve ever met — and they somehow learned to sleep. Is it possible to teach a baby that falling asleep does not have to be lonely experience? Is it possible to teach a baby that waking in the night can be a pleasurable and soothing experience? When I wake in the night fretting, often the only thing that gets me back to sleep is waking my husband and getting him to put his arms around me. Or sometimes I don’t even wake him, I just wrap around him like starfish and take comfort in closeness. Why would I deprive my baby of the same comfort and pleasure?
My mom tells me that she nursed us to sleep when we were infants and rocked us to sleep as we got older. When we were even as old as 5 or six, she would read to all three of us in a hideous 1970s upholstered rocking chair; we would all fall asleep, and then my dad would peel us off one by one and put us in bed. She tells how she hated losing the warmth as each sleeping child was lifted away, leaving a cold spot behind. We may not really remember that time as she does, but I feel like the warmth of those moments is with us somewhere, as it still is so vibrantly for her.
I often fall asleep while nursing Claire to sleep and there is really nothing sweeter than sleeping with a tiny person warm in your arms, the small weight of her body on your body. I often read out loud while she falls asleep and I love to think about all the lovely words moving in her little subconscious while she drifts off.
When she wakes in the early hours of the morning and I bring her into bed to nurse, the sight of her big eyes tightly closed, and small mouth wide open and searching for my body is possibly the most delicately beautiful moment of need and vulnerability I will even see in another human being. And while I’ll never regret missing a little (or a lot of) sleep, I would regret more than anything missing these moments.
*I know some lovely people who are very wonderful parents who have used Baby Wise and swear by it. But this website exposes not only the author Gary Ezzo’s lack of credentials, but also the American Pediatric Association’s and other pediatricians’ warnings about the dangers of this approach. I had just joined the mom’s network around the time of reading this book, and one of the moms, who had a 2-year old as well as an infant, advised us to enjoy the middle of the night wake-ups because they would be over too soon. I thought she was crazy at the time, but it was in fact much better advice than anything I would read in that book. Thanks, Alison!