When I started this blog, I didn’t envision parenting being a primary topic. The description at the top of the page says “habit cultivation, body positivity, olympic style weightlifting, seasonal vegetable cooking, and an occasional side of parenting.” If the last couple months have been indicative, I should probably switch the last two topics. The description should read “an occasional side of vegetable cooking.”
Yesterday I read a post by Everyday Battles, and it struck a chord with me. I could relate to a lot of what she wrote.
I spent my entire pregnancy surrounding myself with empowering messages, images, resources, etc. I believed I was fit, strong, healthy, level headed, supported, etc. I was the “perfect candidate” for pregnancy, labor, delivery, mindset and motherhood. It was natural! Why should I be concerned? I’ll bounce back because of how healthy and educated I am about this process. This woman did it! That woman looks amazing! My head was filled with powerful affirmations and expectations. I was confident to a fault.
Well, fuck me. That mentality failed me big time…
I, too, spent my entire pregnancy surrounding myself with empowering messages, images, resources, etc. I, too, believed I was fit, strong, healthy, level headed, supported, etc. I, too, was the “perfect candidate” for pregnancy, labor, delivery, mindset and motherhood. My head, too, was filled with powerful affirmations and expectations. I, too, was confident to a fault. And like Brianna writes, that mentality failed me too, big time.
When faced with a very long, drawn out, prodromal labor, I was not unprepared for my mounting levels of fear and exhaustion. My birth was very different from the way I had envisioned it. The first few weeks of my son’s life were the darkest weeks of mine. I have never in my life doubted myself as much as I did then.
But birth expectations were not the only way in which I feel the natural parenting community fails parents and kids.
During my pregnancy, I was also immersing myself in beliefs that were not helpful to me at all about crying babies.
My beliefs about crying babies began years before I seriously considered pregnancy. I listened to an impassioned talk about how babies are terrified when left alone to cry. It struck a chord with me and I was a believer in attachment parenting years before I started my family.
While I was pregnant, I read many books and blogs about breastfeeding and parenting. I was going to be prepared! Some of the common messages in what I was reading included “don’t watch the clock, watch your baby,” and “if your baby is crying, he needs something.” To be fair, these messages were often balanced with descriptions of colicky babies, and “reassurances” that even if you don’t know WHY your baby is crying, holding your baby is better than ignoring them. But they also seemed to come with a high expectation that the mother was responsible for being everything to the baby. I believed this, however silly it seems now.
Well, my baby cried all. the. time. In the early days, he cried a lot more than any other baby I knew. It wasn’t just a matter of meeting short-term needs, like hunger and cleanliness and soothing. He had feeding issues caused by a structural defect that at least ten medical, birth, and lactation professionals missed in his first two months of his life. He likely also had some aches and pains from labor and delivery, because for the first few months of his life, he was so tense. He was holding his head up at one month, and I had no idea that wasn’t normal. After his first chiropractic visit at two months old, he was a different baby. He no longer screamed when put down or when held in certain positions. My point is – he had issues beyond just “crying because his immediate needs weren’t met.” It was not simply a matter of ” if his needs are met, he won’t cry.” To put it more accurately, there were hidden obstacles to meeting his needs, and it required a lot of detective work and outside help to identify and remove those obstacles. The fact that he was crying all the time was not a reflection on me as a mother.
After we identified and removed the obstacles to meeting his needs (with the help of several professionals), I still carried the fear of my son’s crying for a few more months. I hadn’t internalized yet that there are reasons babies cry other than not having needs met by mom. That some babies cry when they are tired because they don’t know how to relax into sleep. That babies (and children) cry when they have big feelings to express, just like adults do. That, just like in adults, it isn’t always helpful to suppress crying when they are having big feelings. I hadn’t yet made these connections. I believe they are under-emphasized in a lot of natural parenting advice (at least for the baby stage).
So, I was still scooping my son up the second he whimpered (even though now I know that babies often wake up briefly between sleep cycles and then cry a bit before they fall back asleep. I probably didn’t help him develop healthy sleep patterns by doing this, and set myself up for many sleepless nights). His naps were short – no longer than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. I didn’t know how to interpret his changing cues around sleep. For example, I would breastfeed him to sleep in bed at night, and until he learned to crawl, this worked fine. Once he learned to crawl though, he was itching to practice all the time. He would breastfeed, and then stop and crawl away. I assumed this meant he wasn’t tired enough. Look at me, I’m responding to my baby’s cues! We let him play for a while and tried again later, when the same thing happened. Bedtime got really late, and naps disappeared. But I was responding to my baby’s cues, not the clock, which is what many natural parenting advocates said was best, right?
Wrong. Turns out I was clueless and inexperienced and misled. Within a couple weeks, both kiddo and I were exhausted and at our wits end. I had a seven month old baby who wouldn’t nap more than 20 minutes at a time. We tried nursing to sleep, we tried the swing, we tried walking him around in a baby carrier, but none of the things that used to work were working. At the recommendation of a trusted professional, we read The No Cry Sleep Solution and made changes to our bedtime routine to make it more predictable and soothing. Bedtime felt a lot calmer from doing this, but it still didn’t seem to be helping him go to sleep. He was melting down everywhere from exhaustion, but I didn’t know how to get him to sleep. One day, we left a library storytime after a meltdown, and he fell asleep in the car. I said to myself “this is his first nap in 3 days. I am not stopping this car.” I drove to a town almost two hours away, did my grocery shopping there, and then drove home.
Later that week he and I were at the chiropractor for adjustments. This chiropractor specializes in women and children so when she asked how we were doing, I told her honestly: we were exhausted. I told her about our problems getting kiddo to sleep. She reached for a book on her shelf and I shut her down right away: “No! Please don’t give me The No Cry Sleep Solution! I don’t want The No Cry Sleep Solution! We’ve read it and are trying it and it’s making me feel so guilty for not being able to get him the sleep he needs, and it’s just stressing me out.” She said “It shouldn’t. It should bring you more ease.” She and her receptionist asked me more about what was going on. When I told them about the fact that he doesn’t nurse to sleep anymore and just crawls away, they said “so don’t let him.”
Well, that was probably the last response I was expecting to hear. “Don’t let him? You mean, pin him down?”
“Yes,” they said.
I was aghast. “Even if he cries?”
“Yes.” She elaborated: “I wouldn’t let him cry alone; that just teaches him isolation. But if he is crying because he doesn’t like what’s going on, and you are there with him, that is okay.”
Still processing this, I asked “even if he cries for an hour?” I seriously thought he would, and that this would mean I was a bad mom.
“Yes. You both need sleep.”
Okay then. This was the first time that someone in the natural parenting community was telling me that this was okay.
That day, naptime came, and I told myself I was going to do what they suggested. I didn’t feel great about letting my son cry, but I knew that even if he was crying, NOTHING I could do was going to make him feel better than helping him get some sleep. He didn’t need more snuggles and to know I was there for him. He needed to go the fuck to sleep. Period.
So, we nursed in bed. After a few minutes, he rolled away to start crawling. I pulled him back towards me and told him it was time to sleep now. He cried.
For about 50 seconds.
Then he stopped crying, latched on to nurse, and passed out.
REALLY?! This was what I was so afraid of? 50 seconds of crying?!
He slept for 45 minutes for the first time in weeks. And I realized that the natural parenting dogma around never letting your kid cry did not help us at all.
So, that was the moment when I became open to the idea that maybe one parenting style didn’t know everything and wasn’t right for all situations. Maybe crying wasn’t the worst thing in the world. We used a lot of the advice about routines from The No Cry Sleep Solution, which is a little ironic, since the missing piece was being okay with some tears. But we were on the road to repairing our sleep.
Later that month, I started babysitting my friend’s toddler once a week. She had sleep trained her son when he was younger, through some form of Cry it Out. Over the next year and a half, she and I became very good friends, and I got to know her son well. She babysat my son a couple times a week when I first went back to work.
And you know what? I learned that, for some families, sleep training isn’t the disaster that the natural parenting community makes it out to be. Or at least, if it is, that kids are resilient.
I have never seen a toddler who loves sleep as much as her kid does. Most days he took a lengthy nap in the middle of the day. If he was cranky, sometimes NOTHING would comfort him like putting him in his crib would. He made a beeline for his room as soon as you suggested sleep to him. One time he and his mother were at my house, and they were having car trouble so they couldn’t leave right away. It was the end of the day and this kiddo was tired and cranky and crying inconsolably. The only thing that calmed him down? Putting him in his pack and play in my guest room and shutting the lights and the door. Really. This kid didn’t want connection and love and comfort. He wanted to go the fuck to sleep.
Even seeing this, I still don’t think sleep training resonates for me and my family (at least not with my kiddo – but if I ever have another kiddo with a different personality, I know it might be different). But….I got to see firsthand that, maybe, just maybe, Cry it Out methods of sleep training isn’t always the disaster that natural parenting advocates make it out to be. In natural parenting circles, you hear plenty of disaster stories (which, to me, shows that many people are desperate enough to try it, and what does that say about the alternative advice being given?). But witnessing a success story first hand has given me a more balanced perspective on sleep training, even if I don’t think it’s right for me.
This has been something that has been on my mind to write about for over a year, and when I saw the post on Everyday Battles, I felt inspired to get it done. There is indeed a lot of dogma in the natural parenting community, not only about childbirth, but about many aspects of parenting. I bought into it, until I was forced to realize that it wasn’t working for me or my kiddo, and that my job was to do what my son needed, even if it didn’t fit in with what the natural parenting community emphasizes or teaches. For our family, developing a new attitude towards crying as my son got older helped me relax as a parent and do what was best for us, without fear that I am failing if my kid cries.
If you have a similar experience to share, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment :).