A couple of weeks ago, during the first day of our stay with my parents, I was reading the excellent Nigel Latta book ‘Politically incorrect parenting’ and came to the chapter about teaching babies how to develop good sleeping habits. After I read it, I started thinking about our own approach to Hattie and Joe’s sleeping habits (which could charitably be described as laissez-faire) and realised that it was high time that we stopped buggering around and started ensuring that our babies got a bit more sleep. Regular readers may recall that I’ve recently made a decision to follow a routine again, after our days had become increasing unstructured, so I figured that improving the babies’ sleep habits would probably make life even easier. In particular, I knew that Joe was still getting insufficient sleep, and that this was making him a grumpy boy. He’s just like his mother: I’m a bit of a nightmare when I’m overtired. Hattie, on the other hand, is like her father and gets grumpy when she’s hungry.
Knowing that you should do something is quite different from actually doing it, of course. As Nigel says in his book, “there is no way around the fact that the road to good sleep is paved with tears”. And I still had an issue with leaving my babies to cry. At this point regular readers will be remembering how I recently ‘discovered’ that babies cry without being irreparably harmed, but I’m afraid that I hadn’t fully taken on board the message (because I’m an idiot). I’d been infected by the insidious theories of attachment parents who told me that I’d actually harm my children by leaving them to cry. Even though I knew that my wise friends were right, I didn’t keep following their advice, and I kept picking up Hattie and Joe as soon as they made a sound. Like I said, I’m an idiot.
Thankfully for me, Nigel addressed this very issue:
I know that there is very vocal group of parenting enthusiasts who believe it actually is very bad for children to cry. I regularly get emails from some of them in fact. Often these people will quote the ‘attachment parenting research’ and explain very seriously the ‘damaging effect of cortisol on the developing brain’. They will say that crying babies show elevated levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol and that this can have far-ranging effects on the growing brain.
All of which sounds a bit scary really, doesn’t it?
Well, like most times when people start using ‘science’ to justify their position, you’ll find that almost all of these people have sourced their ‘science’ from the internet and haven’t read the actual science directly themselves. Instead, they’re relying on someone else’s reading of the science posted on some bulletin board, or they’ve read a book written by other like-minded people who have themselves selectively interpreted the science to back up their argument.
I’m not going to go into a long discourse on the science of crying and children here – I’ll save that for another time – but let me just say this: I have read the science directly myself, the actual science in actual scientific journals. My unreserved view after reading all of it is that crying, in and of itself, never hurt anyone. Children are undeniably hurt from chronic neglect – such as the children raised in the horrific conditions of Romanian orphanages, where babies were left in cots with no human interaction at all – but that’s not we’re talking about here. Neglect very clearly hurts children, but a few tears at bedtime are not quite on a par with growing up in a Romanian orphanage.
At this point I reflected that Joe had started crying on my shoulder for at least ten minutes every night, before settling down and being put to bed: in effect, he was ‘crying it out’ on me. Clearly, my presence made absolutely no difference to him, and didn’t comfort him or prevent his crying at all. However, his crying presence on my shoulder made a significant difference to me: it wound me up and made me stressed and upset, which coloured my whole evening. Much as I love Joe, it seemed bonkers that we were engaging with each other in this way.
Nigel’s paragraphs also made me ponder why I was paying attention to the views of a group of parents with which I held few common views. If you’re not familiar with the attachment parenting philosophy, let me enlighten you: in theory, attachment parenting involves an approach that values empathy and connection, aiming to raise children without recourse to violence, and with a great emphasis placed on dignity and respect. That all sounds fantastic, and I doubt that anybody would argue with it as a concept, but in practice it looks a little different. Those who practise attachment parenting have strong views on a number of issues:
- childbirth should be a natural, drug-free experience.
- children should be breast fed, and weaning should be child-led.
- co-sleeping should be practised, which either involves the family sleeping in the same room, or in the same bed.
- children should not be disciplined physically.
- children should always be treated with dignity and respect.
- modern medicine should be avoided, and natural remedies should be used wherever possible.
- childhood vaccinations should be avoided (the belief is that the possible after effects of the vaccinations themselves are too dangerous to mitigate the risk of the illnesses that they prevent).
- children should never be left to cry.
- children should benefit from constant, close contact with their primary caregiver (baby-wearing, in other words).
Now, I wholeheartedly embrace some of the attachment parenting principles – for example, we will not smack our children, and I’d hope that everybody would treat their children with dignity and respect. And I’m sure that many people agree about the benefits of breast feeding, and of the importance of close contact with their children.
However, the attachment parents lose me when they become too extreme with their views. For example, I don’t support breast feeding by telling people who choose to formula-feed their babies that formula is akin to poison. And I don’t think that somebody is a neglectful mother if they refuse to have their infant strapped to them 24/7. And I happily embrace the many wonders of modern medicine – unlike many attachment parenting supporters, I don’t believe that almost every ailment can be cured by either breast milk or coconut oil. And I think that the purpose of childbirth is to produce a healthy infant without damaging the mother – it’s not an ‘experience’, in my opinion; it’s a means to an end. And my opinion about vaccinations is fairly clear-cut: I believe that those who don’t vaccinate their children are careless about the welfare of their offspring, and are also terribly lacking in basic social responsibility. And I think that co-sleeping sounds hellish – it must do your sex life with your spouse no good at all, for starters (and attachment parenting people regularly tell would-be co-sleepers that, if Dad rolling on the little one is a worry, Dad could sleep on the sofa instead – never mind that most people quite like to sleep with their spouses), and I don’t think that I’d sleep well with three other people in the bed, all breathing funny and farting in the dead of the night.
And I’ve just realised that I have a deep-seated unease about attachment parenting as a concept because many of its elements – constant breast feeding, constant baby wearing, sleeping practices that prevent anybody from getting much rest – actively conspire to make the primary caregiver (the mother, in 99.99% of attachment parenting cases) entirely enslaved to her role as a parent, with absolutely no option of having a moment to herself, let alone combining motherhood with a fulfilling career. That doesn’t sit well with me.
Anyway, Nigel’s words made me reflect on how little I really agreed with attachment parenting as it is currently practised, and that made me realise that I didn’t have to believe their views that I would be torturing my children if they cried in their cots for a few minutes. It may sound a bit stupid, but letting go of this attitude was very liberating. With this new-found confidence in the merits of common sense over doctrine, I had a chat with Tristan about Nigel’s approach to sleep training. We decided to give it a go, right then and there, with bedtime that day. I mentioned this on Facebook and a friend wondered whether we might be better off delaying it until we were back home and the babies were in familiar surroundings, but I knew that the time was right to give it a go. There were three main reasons why:
- We were in a big house, so we could get some physical distance from the crying (because nobody likes to listen to their baby crying);
- We were both on holiday, so we could handle some disruption, and there was one of us per child for resettling purposes (I’m quite sure that our efforts would have failed early on if I’d had to apply the sleep training principles unaided); and
- I wanted Joe to get more sleep and for all of us to have a nice, relaxing holiday – Tristan and I included. After nearly 12 weeks of having our evenings totally dominated by ever-grizzly, over-tired children who wouldn’t settle, it was time to get things sorted.
This is the plan we followed, as recommended by Nigel and in his words, aside from my square bracket comments:
- Go through your normal bedtime routine. [Routine helps babies and small children to know that bedtime is fast approaching. Our bedtime routine is now set in stone: feed at 5.30ish, baths at 6ish, top-up feeds straight afterwards (if required), cuddles and bed.]
- Settle your wee one down into bed with much quiet cooing, soothing murmurs and the like.
- Quietly retreat.
- When the crying starts (and it will), wait five minutes before you go back. [When you’re listening to crying, one minute sounds like ten! We time these crying periods with our phones, so we don’t throw in the towel prematurely.]
- When you do go back into the room, do not make eye contact or talk. Simply pat or rock them until things settle, then exit again. [We’ve been using Sharlene Poole’s shush/pat settling technique when we resettle.]
- Wait for six minutes after the crying starts before you go back in.
- Repeat the cycle, gradually increasing the time between visits until sleep ensues.
- Collapse into a chair, emotionally exhausted, and worry about whether or not your child will grow up feeling unloved and neglected, then read step 9.
- No, they won’t.
Gentle reader, this sleep training malarkey works a treat. For our first couple of attempts we had to endure a few crying spells (during one memorable afternoon nap on the second day, Joe made it to a mighty ten minutes of crying, and when he was at nine minutes Hattie started up, so we were at five minutes with her… once again, twins make things immeasurably more complicated), but for the most part we had to resettle the babies no more than once or twice. Now, nearly two weeks later, Joe – always the less easy one to put to bed – will sometimes grizzle for a couple of minutes before drifting off to sleep, but as often as not a bit of immediate shushing and patting when put into his cot will enable him to settle straight away. Hattie took to it all very easily, particularly after we followed some more of Nigel’s advice and eliminated unnecessary ‘props’ – in her case, her dummy. She definitely didn’t need her dummy in order to sleep, but we were often giving it to her anyway, and then having her wake up and crying when it fell out. By not giving it to her in the first place she fell asleep just as easily, and stayed asleep.
The hardest part of the process was dealing with the sound of our babies crying. In the first couple of days we rewarded ourselves with chocolate every time we stuck to our guns and didn’t succumb to the urge to go into their room early and grab them when they were making a racket. We also made liberal use of the mute button on our baby monitor – we switch it to mute when we start timing a crying session, and then turn the sound back on to reassess the situation when the time is up. However, our monitor is very judgemental and likes to give us a bit of a hard time – if the crying reaches a certain pitch it will beep at us in a disapproving manner, as if to say “I know that you don’t want to hear them cry, but they’re really upset now!”
We’ve also followed some advice from other sleep experts and introduced a bedtime toy for each baby: Joe has Larry the lion, and Hattie has Betty the bear. The idea behind this that, as they both get older (Hattie and Joe, that is – Larry and Betty are ageless), they’ll associate their toys with snuggling down and going to sleep. Of course, they’re still swaddled at the moment and can’t really cuddle them, but we’ve had some sweet baby and lion/bear interaction during afternoon naps:
We use our sleeping technique at the start of every sleep now, including daytime naps. It’s meant that we now get the babies into bed by 7.30 each night, and often a bit earlier, and they don’t tend to wake up for their first feed until after midnight, which is wonderful. It’s doing wonders for us to have our evenings back, and the babies are so much happier and more settled now that they’re getting a lot of sleep. We’re also noticing that they can self-settle without our help now. While I’ve been writing this both babies have been asleep – Hattie on a cushion on the sofa, and Joe in his cot. I heard Joe stir about 90 minutes ago, but he gave a little grizzle for a couple of seconds and then obviously fell back to sleep for another hour, with no help from me. Clever little boy!