Sometimes, having twins - my fraternal boys are 2-1/2 years old - feels like I'm conducting my own nature versus nurture experiment. I'm raising them with essentially the same parenting methods at the same time yet observing radically different outcomes. For instance, I was gung-ho on pacifiers from the second my boys issued their first cries. Now I have one tot who's a Binky addict and one who let us come near him with nary a Nuk and, instead, could be consoled only when held upside down (don't ask). I sleep trained them both at 6 months, but two years later I have one little guy who still pops awake three to four times a night - demanding milk or water or a kiss - and another who snores through it all like a sailor hitting the hay after a 16-hour deck shift.
My hypothesis so far: Those parenting decisions that you grapple with? You know, like some of the ones you've already made (whether to co-sleep or get a crib, nurse or bottle-feed)? The ones you fight with your partner about because you think your child's future depends on what the two of you choose? Eh, maybe not worth losing too much sleep over.
Of course, the choices you make during your baby's first year do matter - just not always in the ways you expect. Following, a cheat sheet for some of the biggest parenting-strategy face-offs, to help you make decisions you feel comfortable with.
Decision: Feed on Demand vs. Feed on a Schedule
During those bleary first weeks, many new moms end up feeding on demand by default. (Who has the mental energy to formulate a workable schedule?) Plus, most experts agree that on-cue feeding is best for newborns, who need frequent fill-ups anyway. But once your baby starts sleeping for longer stretches (four or five hours) at night, you'll probably notice that he's able to drink more less often, possibly creating his own eating schedule. What's typical at this point? A bottle or nursing session every three hours, for a total of eight or so feedings per 24-hour period. When he hits this stage, you can try to shift his natural schedule to times that work best for you, says Alan Greene, M.D., author of From First Kicks to First Steps and Feeding Baby Green. But if your tyke hangs on your boob for hours on end or nips from a bottle all day long, talk to your pediatrician about gradually increasing the time between feedings so that your baby will drink more at each one. Consider offering your little nipper a pacifier in between feedings, too; some babies simply need to suck - a lot.
Many moms, though, enjoy the round-the-clock closeness that demand feeding entails and believe that their babies benefit from their immediate responsiveness. If that's you, there's no need to change what you're doing. If you're formula-feeding, just be careful not to overfeed (it's easier for breastfed babies to self-regulate their intake); Dr. Greene's rule of thumb is to offer your baby two to three ounces of formula for every pound of his body weight, up to a maximum of 32 ounces daily.
Bottom line: If your baby is crying from hunger, of course you wouldn't deprive him. But if a schedule makes for a calmer, happier, more rested you, give it a try. Your baby needs you at your best.
Decision: Pacifier vs. No Pacifier
Your baby may make this decision for you: Some tykes just never enjoy a Binky. But if your newborn takes to a paci à la Maggie Simpson, we kinda think it's a win-win situation. Not only are infants soothed by the act of sucking, says Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, but pacifiers have been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) when used during naps and at bedtime. And contrary to popular belief, pacis do not cause nipple confusion and probably won't lead to orthodontia woes (unless your "baby" uses them past the age of 6 or so).
The catch? Giving a baby a paci means that, eventually, you'll have to wean her off it. If you take the Binky away around 6 months, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, your baby will likely forget about it in a day or so. But show us a mom who willingly gives up this convenient, safe comfort crutch at exactly 6 months and we'll show you a pig with wings. Once you've got a paci addict on your hands, you're probably not going to wean until 1 year or (much) later, at which point it can be more difficult. To make it easier, put limits on when she can use the plug - only in the crib or the car, for example, or only at night.
Bottom line: Binkies can be a mom's best friend and may help protect your child against SIDS.
Decision: Sleep Train vs. Soothe to Snooze
For the first four months, respond to your baby's cries right away and help him feel comfortable in his new world by rocking, feeding, singing, or swaddling him to sleep. "Newborns need help settling down," says Dr. Greene. But somewhere between 4 and 6 months, your child's nervous system unravels from its tangled newborn mass and organizes itself?and he may be ready to soothe himself to sleep. The problem is, your little guy now refuses to go down unless he's had a seemingly endless amount of your pre-sleep, soothing attention. And that's when many exhausted parents decide to sleep train. Popularized by Richard Ferber, M.D., author of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (who now believes his progressive-waiting technique was over- and misused), sleep training has many different forms. But the basic idea is this: Put your baby down drowsy but awake. If he cries, talk softly and rub his back to console him. Leave for a few minutes and then return to soothe him if he's still upset. Repeat until he falls asleep. Each night, lengthen the time you let him fuss by a few minutes, until it's no longer necessary. Though no one likes to hear her infant cry, proponents believe that a few tough nights are worth it if your child can get more uninterrupted snooze time.
William Sears, M.D., the father of the "attachment parenting" movement, however, believes that babies need, first and foremost, physical contact and affection. He posits that infants left to cry it out alone may not learn to trust their caregivers. Plus, you might enjoy those evening feeding or rocking sessions (this stage won't last forever, after all).
Bottom line: Do what works best for you. If bedtime battles leave both you and your baby stressed, you may want to consider sleep training. Just rule out other causes of night waking (fever, a dirty diaper, etc.) before letting your tyke cry for any period of time.
Decision: Naps on a Schedule vs. Wherever/Whenever Naps
Your baby will likely snooze every two hours or so for the first few months. If you're committed to putting her down in her crib every time, you may feel like you're trapped at home, but you'll probably also enjoy that downtime. Plus, your baby may settle more easily into a schedule of three regular naps a day (in the morning, afternoon, and early evening) around 4 months, and then two naps (morning and afternoon) around 9 months, than tykes who nap wherever, whenever. Some experts also believe that the sleep kids get in a crib or bed is more sound than the kind they get in a moving car, stroller, or swing.
But on-the-fly naps are a necessity sometimes, especially if you have older kids who need to be carted to and from school, ballet, and soccer. Parents who are more freewheeling with their babies' daytime sleep often attest that their kids are more adaptable, since they can fall asleep in different situations. One thing to watch out for: an overtired, cranky baby. Since your on-the-go napper could be awakened by any pothole, siren, or screaming sibling, she may not get as much shut-eye as she needs.
Bottom line: Your pediatrician may push strict at-home naps, but if your baby is happy and healthy, do what fits best with your whole family's schedule.
Decision: Starting Solids at 4 Months vs. 6 Months
"Even the experts don't agree on the best time to begin," says Marianne Neifert, M.D., author of Great Expectations: The Essential Guide to Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding advocates recommend exclusive nursing for the first 6 months, but plenty of moms will tell you their kids were ready for solid food sooner (and contrary to earlier findings, starting at 4 months does not up your baby's risk for allergies). "Follow your baby's cues," recommends Dr. Neifert. Signs he's ready: He watches longingly when you eat, holds his head steady when he sits upright, and no longer sticks his tongue out when you place food on it. "Just don't start early because you think it will make him sleep through the night." That's a myth, says Dr. Neifert.
Bottom line: Anytime within the 4- to 6-month window really is fine, though you may want to wait until closer to 6 months if you're breastfeeding exclusively.
Patty Onderko is a contributing editor.