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Ask Dr. Sears: Letting Baby Cry

Q  My son is 8 months old and has now started sleeping in his crib (he used to sleep with us, or would fall asleep in our arms). I've just tried letting him cry himself to sleep - did I break our connection?
A The very fact that you're worried about breaking the connection with your son means that you are well connected to him in the first place. You've spent the first eight months giving your infant a high-touch style of parenting in which you sensitively respond to his needs, creating such a strong connection with your baby that it's very, very unlikely that one episode of letting him cry a while would severely weaken your attachment.

Many parents like you wrestle with the "cry it out" advice while trying to teach their baby to sleep on their own. The reason we generally discourage letting babies cry is because some parents may take this advice to the extreme, by not responding to an infant who has a real need for nighttime comforting or who may have a medical problem that's causing the night waking. (For an in-depth discussion on this, you may want to read my previous [XREF {/parenting/experts/sears/index_0118.html} {Q&A on night waking

.)

 

While I don't know the particulars of your situation, I'll assume that you were desperate for sleep and needed to get Baby out of your bed. You'd tried everything to get him to sleep and letting him cry was the last resort. If that's true, and you need to let your baby cry, you can do so sensitively. If your baby continues to cry and your mother's intuition tells you it's right to go in and comfort him, do so. If Dad can do the nighttime comforting, certainly encourage him to participate, so that Baby gets used to night "nursing" from someone other than you. The most powerful parenting tool you have is your built-in maternal sensitivity to your baby's cries, which, at this time in his life, are his only language. It's only by letting him cry too often and too long and to an extent that it goes against your gut feeling that you run the risk of losing some of that valuable sensitivity. That's why I never give parents hard and fast rules such as "Let him cry one hour the first night, 45 minutes the second night, etc." I believe this advice is unfair to both mothers and their babies.

While weaning your son from one form of attachment (in this case, co-sleeping), do your best to increase the other tools you use to connect to him, such as holding him more and "wearing" him around in a baby carrier for several hours each day. In other words, as you decrease the connection at night increase it during the day. If you feel guilty for letting your baby cry so he can learn to fall asleep on his own, consider that guilt can be a healthy thing, especially when it acts as an inner voice that prompts us to reevaluate our decisions. Sensitive parents like you who've practiced months of high-response parenting have built-in sensors that tell them what feels right and what doesn't - listen to these.

There is, of course, unhealthy guilt, too. This includes dwelling on so-called mistakes, especially those you can't do anything about. You'll learn as your child gets older that even as your parenting skills mature, you will continue to make some mistakes. Every parent does - that's life. Martha and I learned many of our parenting skills by correcting things we'd done wrong. But rest assured that these errors will not damage your parent-child connection. What matters most is the overall impression your child gets - the daily messages he receives that he is loved and valued and that his signals to you and your husband are sensitively and appropriately heeded.}]

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