A Guide to Childcare, Part I: Sleep Issues

Since the dawn of time and the first yawn of the first mother, there has been question as to whether or not parents should let their children cry themselves to sleep. As with all theories, there is not one that works perfectly for every child, though some of them do seem to work better than others.

The parents who are stricter with their children’s schedules often have slightly less content (although also less spoiled) children, but boy, do those kids go to sleep when told. Those who started at three months or so with a firm sleep schedule and no coddling find themselves years later putting a child to bed without hearing a peep of complaint. The bedtime books have been read, the bath has been taken, the lights have gone off. It’s time for bed: that’s it.

It is a trade-off, however, if you want to be firmer with your kids. Some children do not respond well to being left to cry. In my experience, the negative reaction of some children is less that they feel abandoned and more that they feel angry. I recall a doctor telling one of the families I work for a hypothetical story regarding their nine-month-old daughter.

“If the baby wants a chef’s knife from the counter, you won’t give it to her, no matter how much she whines about it,” he said. “You won’t give it to her because you know what is best for her and she does not. She sees no difference in you not giving her the chef’s knife and you leaving her alone in her bedroom at night. Either way, she’s not getting what she wants.”

The parents took the doctor’s advice and Ferberized, or followed a system of rules that encouraged letting the child cry for periods of up to fifteen minutes at a time. The baby was sleeping soundly through the night within the week.

You do have those children, old and young, who will milk their bedtime rituals, complain until the first hint of a dream kicks in and scream bloody murder all night long. In those situations, if you’ve tried everything and your 18-month-old is still not sleeping through the night, you may consider talking to a professional. There may be something else that is bothering your child; perhaps a fear they cannot vocalize (especially if they are pre-verbal), an attachment to some specific ritual you no longer repeat or even a deeper emotional issue. Regardless, it is important to remember that you are probably not at fault as the parent. Mothers in particular are so often are blamed for their children’s sleep problems, but most are just trying to do what they instinctively feel is best for their child.

Beyond what any book will tell you, whatever you decide to do with your child’s sleep routine, be consistent. Without consistency, you will have a bleary-eyed zombie of a child because they have no idea what it means to go to bed, sleep or prepare for either. Any nanny will tell you that consistency is the cornerstone of a happy, well-rested child. Whether you take the utmost conservative approach to schedules or you sleep with your child until he is three, consistency will keep everyone happy.

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