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.