Q. I've heard that if I nurse my 4-month-old to sleep, he'll never learn to fall asleep on his own. But it seems weird for me to wake him before I put him in the crib. What should I do?
A. New-Parent Rule Number 5 (we'll cover them all in time): When advice seems weird, it usually is, and you should follow your own instincts. But that's easy for me to say: Sleep is the only part of child-rearing that has been relatively easy for me. I followed my instincts, and things worked out (or I just got lucky).
When Madeline and Ellie were newborns, they fell asleep breastfeeding at least half the time, but I didn't worry about it because there was that other 50 percent of the time they went into the crib fully conscious. Once they were 6 or 7 months old, I figured it was a good idea to start adding bedtime rituals. So first we'd read a book, then nurse, then, whether they were awake or asleep, I'd sing, talk, and kiss them goodnight before I put them in the crib. I'd sing the same song (an old favorite from Jefferson Starship, "The Baby Tree" -- be sure to pick a song you really like) and say the same thing (goodnight blessings), always in the same order. These rituals roused them a bit -- so they were awake enough to know they could go into the crib and fall asleep on their own -- and gave them healthy crutches (you may need your half hour of Letterman; your baby may need a book or a song).
No matter what advice you get as a parent, don't be afraid to give your infant what he needs now -- especially one as young as 4 months, stresses Marianne Neifert, M.D., author of Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding. If your baby were significantly older and couldn't go to sleep on his own, she says, her advice might be different. But for right now, "I'd try putting him down when he's drowsy, but not yet asleep, though I'd hate to see parents worrying about or cutting short what can be precious twilight hours with their infant." The point being that you have to take whatever advice you receive and balance it against your baby's needs -- and yours too. And very often, giving people what they need is precisely what makes the need go away.
Contributing editor Trisha Thompson, a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine, writes often on health and family.