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What Babies Need (And, a Video!)

A friend who doesn’t yet have children asked me recently what the most challenging part of parenting a baby is. My answer? Sleep deprivation. Hands down. Or, rather, hand-in-hand with making the adjustment to putting someone else’s needs before my own. But while it’s difficult to wake up throughout the night, and sometimes frustrating to repeatedly start and stop any number of other tasks or endeavors, I think that even this aspect of parenting is rewarding in that it’s sealed the deal on my being a more mature, broad-minded person than if I still got to do whatever I wanted to, whenever I want to do it. This isn’t to say that I neglect my own needs; I place a high priority on eating properly, engaging in adult relationships and making my way (however slowly and fitfully) toward professional and creative goals. Meanwhile, my little man has needs, too, lots of them, and it’s my job to see to it that his needs are met. So I wake up at three a.m., I start-and-stop, and my life is bigger and better for it. 


My friend nodded soberly at my tangential reflection (that went something like the above), thought for a moment and then said, “You know, my grandmother told me that parenting was a lot easier in her day.”


“Oh yeah?”


“She said that she used to just put earplugs in so she wouldn’t hear the babies crying. Then sleeping was no problem.”


Damn. Now there’s a different approach. I’d heard about those 1950s-era parenting techniques—about how doctors insisted that moms strictly feed their babies specific amounts at specific intervals (resulting in a lot of crying, and alternately barfing, babies). I’m familiar with the “children should be seen and not heard” line of thinking… but earplugs? Our parents and grandparents obviously survived the more outdated approaches to child-rearing that their own parents employed. Previous generations spawned high-functioning, happy people. But I guess that, as parents ourselves, we all try to improve upon the approaches we were raised with. What kind of people would those babies have grown into had their moms not used earplugs to ignore their cries? How do we best go about meeting our babies’ real needs, as people? How to we know which approaches are actually helpful in the long run, and which create problems down the road?


In my own late-night Google quests for more consecutive hours of sleep, I came across the “cry it out” method, also known as Ferberizing. You’ve heard of this, right? I suppose it’s better than the earplugs route, and I’ve certainly met caring parents (of happy, stable children) who swear by it, but I don’t have what it takes; I don’t actually want to send the message to Kaspar that I am off duty and reachable only by email or cell from midnight until 7 a.m. On the contrary, I want him to internalize that when he needs me, I am there. (Proponents of Ferberizing insist that regular parental appearances in the midst of the “crying it out” sustain the baby’s need to feel secure.)  I might feel more open to experimenting with this if our nights were in fact more fraught with tears and misery, but they’re not. Kaspar’s not really a crier. He just shuffles around a lot—he’s on a real milestone kick by day, which I hear disrupts sleep to some extent—and needs an occasional “shhh”, or warm touch, to go back to sleep… and he consistently wakes up hungry around three. Not fun, but certainly manageable. And not really the stuff that Ferberizing is made of.


I came across another interesting approach to parenting (and crying) popularized by Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D., that intrigues me. Solter suggests that crying is a healthy, positive action that helps babies to process and shed the stresses that accumulate in their brains and bodies throughout the day. They cry with their parents because they feel safe to do so (assuming their physical needs are all met), and they naturally want to cry before bed to let all of their ‘stuff’ go. Many of us associate crying with something negative, so we reflexively try to stop our children from doing it, thinking we’re helping them, but Solter proposes that in doing so we teach them to suppress their emotions instead of releasing them. The key is staying physically and emotionally present with the baby/child as she cries, and holding her for the duration (as opposed to the Ferber method, in which the baby is left alone to cry for portions of time). The promise is a full night’s sleep for mom and dad, and better healing from stress and trauma, boosted attention spans and intelligence, and reduced violent behavior for babies and kids. Solter is advocating a very different approach than most others, but in reading her book (and if you’re going to do this, do read the book first), I think there’s probably something to it. Kaspar’s bedtime is currently pretty peaceful and anticlimactic, but I do think that as he grows and cries about this thing or that, I’ll try Solter’s method of letting him cry while I stay right there with him, empathizing. (PS on Solter: she writes that laughter has the same positive effects as crying. We like that approach: Watch our video!). 


Still, as much as Solter’s reasoning makes sense to me, a crying baby is pretty distressing. What if I go ahead and follow her lead, and then, two generations down the road, it’s regarded as barbaric? How do I really know what’s right for my kid? I guess the answer that pops up most instinctively is to follow my own gut on this stuff. Exploring and reading about how babies’ and children’s minds work, and what their experiences are like, certainly can’t hurt, and might help me develop the hybridized techniques to Kaspar-care that meet his needs and mine in a way that’s healthy for everyone.


Did you employ the “cry it out” method? Any Solter fans out there? Did you follow a technique like Ferberizing to a T, or develop a system of your own? What about other obscure baby-raising trends (heard of “elimination communication”)? Earplugs? What do you do differently than your parents did? What are your favorite resources (books/websites) for learning about ways to raise healthy, happy kids?