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Just Like Pulling Teeth

This week two momentous but unsurprising things happened at our house. My six-year-old lost a baby tooth. And my eleven-and-a-half-month-old drifted peacefully off to sleep without a tear and without nursing.

In other news, a sweet blog reader e-mailed and brought up the issue of sleep training babies. When I wrote back, I mentioned that helping your baby fall asleep without nursing is just like pulling teeth, baby teeth. It was just a brief and undeveloped analogy in my e-mail, but as I thought about it, I’ve seen a lot more parallels.

When people hear about the kind of mothering I do, the baby-wearing, cue-feeding, (safe!) co-sleeping, non-cry-it-out, happy-flower, earth-mama, I’d-be-so-crunchy-if-it-weren’t-for-the-Coke-slushies kind of mothering, after they get done inappropriately checking up on Mr. P’s and my assumed lack of marital intimacy (really funny now that we have more children than most of the people who ask us about this, so if results are any measure of health in this area, maybe we should be checking up on them), the biggest concern people usually have is, when is it going to end? Are you going to be nursing your nine-year-old to sleep every night? How do you ever get those children out of your bed? The answer is surprisingly simple.

I realize that there are as many ways to mother a baby as there are mothers out there, so if you’ve found something radically different that works well for your family, high fives. Figuring out what you and your baby both need is no small task. I didn’t write this post to beat you over the head. In fact, if you want to read something less controversial, here’s a post where I make everyone mad talking about birth control. Or, if you just wanted to laugh at me, you could read about the time I tried to take a shower in a campground with my kindergartner, my toddler, and my three-week-old baby. BUT if what works for you and your baby right now is sort of similar to the high-touch, extra-cuddly kind of thing I’m doing, and you’re worried about whether your child will be able to fall asleep in her own bed in her dorm room someday, then this post is for you.

So, getting back to teeth. I think it’s fair to assume that most of us want a full set of healthy adult teeth for our children. But the problem is, babies don’t come with two gleaming rows of full-size pearly whites. No. Babies get baby teeth. And those baby teeth have to come out to make room for the big grown-up teeth we want.

Now, imagine a world where people made a spiritual issue out of getting rid of those baby teeth to make room for grown-up teeth. Imagine people wrote books advising parents which teeth to pull at which age and imagine those books were full of dire pronouncements about how children who did not learn to sit patiently while their parents pull their teeth will think they are the center of the universe, never learn to submit to parental authority, and push other children off the swings at the playground. And direst of all, they say that children whose teeth aren’t pulled at the “right” time, “God’s” time, will never get adult teeth. Imagine that the first question everyone asked you when they heard you had a baby was about which teeth you had pulled, and imagine that the parents who cheerfully answered, “All of them!” were admired and seen as “good,” while the ones who hadn’t pulled any were “weak,” “unspiritual” push-overs who were being “controlled” by their babies.

This sounds kind of ridiculous because, as everyone knows, children loose their baby teeth on their own. Sometimes, there’s a little help from Mom and Dad, but if the roots have already dissolved, all it takes is a quick pop at the end, maybe just moment of pain, and the tooth is free. But pulling it early is so much harder and causes so much more misery. The tooth may come out, but if the roots weren’t dissolved, if the child wasn’t ready, it doesn’t happen without significant trauma.

Sleep training is exactly the same. Adults were made to fall asleep alone and stay asleep all night, and barring extreme circumstances, by the time our children reach adulthood, all of them will do just that. But babies don’t. Babies want to nurse and be cuddled, rock and snuggle, and feel safe and secure knowing mama is right there. How do we get from baby sleep to grown-up sleep? It happens pretty much on its own. Parents may recognize that the transition is happening and help provide the last little pop, but if it’s really traumatic, then the baby isn’t ready. For example, my oldest daughter at age one was a shaking, hysterical mess the first time I tried to night wean her. Shortly before she turned two, all it took was snuggling up with her for a conversation. From now on, there would be lots of hugs, but no more nursing. She was content. That part of her life was over.

Another similarity is that both losing baby teeth and learning to sleep alone for long periods of time are purely physical development issues with no spiritual import at all. Zero. Neither one really has anything to do with submission to parental authority despite what all the books say. There is not a single verse in the Bible that even hints at recommending sleep training (or tooth pulling :) ) as the key to child training. Sleeping alone, falling asleep without nursing or being rocked, and sleeping a long/prescribed amount of time are NEVER mentioned in Scripture. When we make these things into spiritual issues, we put other parents under horrible bondage that often leads to guilt, fear, and second-guessing their ability to know what’s best for their children.

And just as there are lots of ways to help your child transition from baby teeth to adult teeth, there are lots of ways to help your baby transition from baby sleep to more mature sleep. So far, four of my children have finished the process, and it was different for every single one of them. Sharing experiences can be great. (“I tied a string to a doorknob.” “I just grabbed that puppy and yanked.”) But prescribed, formulaic methods like “tug three times, wait five minutes, and tug twice more” are helpful ONLY as long as they are helpful. They are never the holy grail of perfect parenting, and they almost never work for everybody. As soon as something doesn’t feel right or isn’t working, we should be free to toss those systems out and never look back.

Where this analogy totally breaks down, of course, is that having a child with baby teeth is pretty painless for parents, while having a child who doesn’t sleep well means that you don’t sleep well, which is basically torture. And this is where the spiritualizing comes in. Clever marketers are all too ready to justify their sleep-training methods to tired, desperate parents. And if a baby is ready for longer solo sleep, and the method just provides the last little pop at the end, there’s not much real harm done. But when babies aren’t ready, when the methods are causing undue suffering, when the parents should be free to walk away, all those justifications become shackles of fear and judgment as parents are led to believe that if they don’t successfully control a natural process that it will never happen and that there will be long-term problems in their precious baby’s life.

Parents whose babies aren’t ready need to be free to call those arguments what they are: justification and marketing. Sleep training is not an essential part of parenting. Children will move from infant sleep to adult sleep when they’re ready, and if we try to push them too soon, we’ll find that it’s hard for everyone, as hard as pulling teeth.

21 comments to Just Like Pulling Teeth

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is so very true and so exactly what I’m dealing with right now with my little turning-one-tomorrow girl. Thank you so much for the encouragement!

  • Bethany

    This was great, Andrea! Thank you!

    It reminds me a lot of the potty training debates, too. Most people don’t realize that early training mainly came into existence to make life easier for daycare workers and preschool teachers. We have trained “late” with both of our children so far. Right around the third birthday, when they showed they were capable and eager. But you know what? It took a mere couple of days to be completely and painlessly accident free! My daughter even night trained by day four!

    God bless,
    Bethany

  • That’s such a good point Mrs. P (just because everyone else is calling you that).
    When I have kids (Lord willing) I’m going to have to go through your archives for tips and advice! If the government ever starts censoring the internet, please be sure to save these all!! ;)
    Paul

  • Adele

    I love your parenting posts. I can just picture your kids growing up safe and secure and healthy knowing without a doubt they are loved, but never being “spoiled”.

    Thanks!

    Adele

  • Oh Sweetie.. I remember the days.. when my life revolved around trying to discern if God had a perfect will about these kind of issues also. I think you are correct in your analysis of it all. It is not the HOLY GRAIL of parenting. (I laughed at that one) Because it is so true! I would just like to know WHAT IS the HOLY grail of parenting? Ah.. now I have you thinking, eh? And if I have missed it, don’t tell me. But people have such strong opinions on these things!

    It’s hard for me to remember what we did about sleeping issues. As far as I know, I’ve raised a cave of bats who stay up all night. I have no idea if they ever sleep. But at least they are quiet about it. LOL.

    Hugs.

  • Kathryn

    LOVE this! We just ended an unsuccessful bout of (very gentle) sleep training with Iris. But she’s still so little she jerks herself awake quite often and doesn’t like being swaddled, so it was a nightmare trying to get her to go down and stay down. She and I were both getting WAY overtired. We’re going to try again when she’s 5-6 months—when Carl can walk and share the parenting, and when she’s old enough to be in control of her motions better. For right now, it works best for us to keep her in the room with us. It was super freeing to make the mental switch between what’s “ideal” in a perfect world and what works best for our family, in this moment. It’s pretty obvious what’s best for our family, and even though I’m still not getting a whole lot of sleep the peace that comes from having the three of us on the same page is absolutely a deal-maker.

    Thanks for the insights!

  • Christy

    Andrea,
    What a brilliant analogy! Great thoughts to remind myself with, Adam and I are joyfully expecting our third child in October. After three years of prayer we’re both very excited and so are the girls. Lucy keeps sharing the joy with supermarket strangers.

  • Christy,

    A million congratulations! I’m so happy for you guys, and I can’t wait to meet the newest little Thomas!

  • Kathi

    All my kids were different, but the first was by far the hardest, and I wonder if part of it is just that we are social creatures who need the comfort and presence of other humans. I kept a little bassinet right next to my bed so that I could roll over and pick up the baby as needed but still have our bed free most of the time, although there were many nights where the baby ended up sleeping with us for part of the night. With later babies, I can remember many nights falling asleep rocking them. I think your bottom line is just right: it’s a personal decision based on the needs of each family and has nothing to do with “right” or “wrong,” although it has a lot to do with what’s loving, compassionate and reasonable for all.

  • SO much wisdom here. Thanks for the gentle-mothering encouragement!

  • Linda

    What do you mean sleep training is never mentioned in the scriptures??! What about that verse in 1. Thessalonians 2,7 where Paul talks about nursing his babies ?? Or don’t you remember that precious passage in ACTS 20,9 WHERE PAUL ROCKS EUTYCHUS TO SLEEP??! The dangers of not knowing your Bible!! ;-)

  • Linda,

    Thanks for setting me straight! I see have more studying to do. ;)

  • Love this article, and especially loved the statement: “As soon as something doesn’t feel right or isn’t working, we should be free to toss those systems out and never look back.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, as I responded to an article we were both linked to back in April (I didn’t see it until today.) It’s so easy to adopt someone else’s standard as our own and forget that what’s right for one person or family is not necessarily right for someone else. I know I, personally, often struggle with trying to adopt seemingly Godly parenting advice that JUST DOESN’T WORK FOR ME and then feeling guilty when I can’t do it. In our cases, I’m a little less “cue-feeding, co-sleeping, non-cry-it-out, happy-flower, earth-mama” than you are ;), and much MORE “cue-feeding, co-sleeping, non-cry-it-out, happy-flower, earth-mama” than a lot of people I know, and it’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I feel comfortable with a lot of the things we do, rather than adopting standards for myself that don’t come from God (not that I don’t still adopt other people’s standards, but I think I’m getting better about it!)
    A friend of mine recently said to me: “There are SO MANY opportunities for moms to feel guilt about so many things.” It’s so true! And I’m glad to be learning along with you that spiritualizing these issues puts parents – ourselves included! – “under horrible bondage that often leads to guilt, fear, and second-guessing their ability to know what’s best for their children.”
    So, so true.

  • Great timing! Really enjoyed this. I’ll definitely be combing through your mommy-ing archives as well over the next several months. :)

  • Mom2Five

    Stephanie.Nicole:

    Are you expecting?!!

  • Stephanie.Nicole

    @Mom2Five: Yes, and Lord willing we’ll meet our baby in January! (Shh! I’ll announce it on my blog after the next prenatal check-up.)
    :D

  • Mom2Five

    Stephanie.Nicole:
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!! YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! God is so good! Congratulations!!!! Do you have horrible all-day morning sickness? I am currently 16 weeks pregnant, still dealing with nausea and headaches, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of you and your struggle with infertility as I’ve been in my miserable first trimester. I keep thinking “I had better be grateful that I can conceive. My misery is still way more tolerable than the pain of not being able to have children.” But oh the joy when the pregnancy is over and a little bundle of joy is in our arms!

  • FirstTimeMom

    Andrea,

    Do you have any advice for a baby that will only nap in our arms? He requires us to rock him to sleep (which I’m ok with), but if we try and put him down…even in the deep part of his sleep…he usually wakes up immediately or shortly thereafter and we have to start all over again getting him to sleep. He’s also a single cycle napper so on the off chance that he does stay asleep after lay him down, he’ll wake up 20 minutes later after his 40 minute cycle is over because we weren’t holding him to help him transition to another cycle.

    Maybe we “spoiled” him by holding him so much, but he was in the hospital for a while after he was born due to health complications and we weren’t ok just letting him sit in a plastic tub while he screamed (because he felt sick) so that we wouldn’t “spoil” him. I’m not comfortable doing cry-it-out, but he’s a huge 4 month old and getting bigger by the minute. It’s not feasible for us to continue holding him for every single nap, not only because he’s getting so heavy, but because things need doing (like eating, for example)! Oh, and he won’t sleep in a carrier, swing, carseat, etc. I’ve tried them all. Odd thing is that he’ll sleep pretty well at night in his crib.

    This was a lot lengthier than I planned it being, but I’m getting to the end of my rope.

  • FirstTimeMom,

    First of all, I just want to encourage you that you did NOT spoil your baby. Holding him when he was hurting was exactly the right thing to do. You gave him a wonderful foundation for life and taught him that when he cries, someone is there; and when he hurts, someone cares. Those are truths that he will understand in his soul and one day, by the Lord’s grace, he’ll be able to transfer that kind of faith and confidence to the Lord.

    As for your current trouble, I have so much empathy for you! Out of my five babies so far, only one was not almost exactly like your baby sounds. With my first, it was really and truly mind-boggling. Truly. By number five, I had found carriers that work for us, and I just never even tried to put my baby down for naps.

    I wish I could tell you the perfect solution, but every baby is different, and you are the only expert on your baby. That being said, I’m happy to share what’s worked for mine in the hope that something here will give you an idea of something else to experiment with.

    I know you said you’ve tried carriers, but I do want to start by checking that the ones you’ve tried have done two things that I’ve found to be pretty crucial for my babies. 1. The carrier keeps your baby right up against you, just the same as if you were holding him. And 2. The carrier is similar to swaddling in that if your baby flails in his sleep, the movement is restricted and can’t wake him up. My babies’ absolute favorite carrier is a padded ring sling (I love the SlingEZee brand because they have so many sizes I can get a really good fit.) Another carrier that has worked really well for naps is a woven wrap (I have a Storchenwiege). We use the “rucksack carry.” It definitely takes practice to learn! And your baby will probably cry the first few times you bumble through trying to put him on your back, but once I learned, WOW was it easy to get work done. (And if these are out of your price range, you can make your own no-sew wrap following the instructions here.)

    Another important thing to know is that babies who aren’t used to carriers don’t usually like them right away. I find that it really helps to go outside immediately after I put a baby in a new carrier he isn’t used to so he has lots to look at. It’s also really helpful to keep moving. Going for a walk is a great way to get a baby used to a carrier. And you may want to start with having your baby fall asleep in the carrier if possible rather than in your arms and then trying to get him into it. Your baby may be highly sensitive to physical changes, and that may be part of why he wakes up.

    One other thing that has worked for me is to lie down with a baby and nurse them to sleep on a big bed. (You would have to make sure that the bed was safe-I recommend researching safe co-sleeping guidelines such as the ones I reference in this post.) Once the baby is deeply asleep, I can gently slide away. The baby stays warm and undisturbed and usually doesn’t wake up.

    Another option if you really, really can’t do anything else, is to order your life so you can hold your baby for his naps. I learned to type on my laptop while nursing and holding a sleeping baby, and with my first baby, I did nearly all my computer time durring her nap. You can also have your devotions, make phone calls (if your baby doesn’t mind your talking), read, etc. You can even eat if you learn to do it one-handed (quite a trick, but totally not impossible; I shared my learning to live one-handed story here).

    And most importantly, pray. Ask the Lord how He wants you to solve this. God is the One who knows exactly what your baby needs, exactly what’s waking Him up, and exactly how you are supposed to grow through figuring out how to care for him.

    By the Lord’s grace, you CAN do this. You are a wonderful mama. Loving and cuddling that baby is a very, very important job, and it sounds like you are doing it very well. Be sure that the tyranny of the urgent doesn’t make you feel any guilt about the eternal work of teaching a little soul that there is love and security in this universe.

  • FirstTimeMom

    Andrea,

    Thank you so so so much for your kind words. I shared them with my husband and we were both very encouraged. It often seems like we’re the only ones with a “difficult baby”. I know that’s not true, but it seems like all of our friends have “easy babies” and we’re looking at our lives asking ourselves “Does everyone struggle this much with parenthood?!” Ahh…what a thief of joy the sin of envy is!

    As far as the carriers…I have more than I can count…some, he hates, some, I don’t care for. He’s starting to like the sling, but he really can’t fall asleep in any of them. He used to sleep in my wrap, but he’s wayyy to interested in his surroundings to do that anymore. After your post, I tried nursing him lying down in bed. At night, it works about half the time in getting him back to sleep (which I’m thrilled to not have to get up and pace the house with him at 3 in the morning). During the day, there’s no hope of him falling asleep while nursing (hasn’t done that since he was a few weeks old). I’m lucky if I can get him to concentrate long enough to get a good feeding…he’s such a distracted little bugger.

    Anyway, thank you for your words of encouragement. We keep praying that he’ll lengthen his naps so we can put him down. In the meantime, I’m also praying for contentment and joy, and reminding myself that this is a season. One day, I’ll probably even miss having him sleep in my arms.

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