Monday, April 23, 2012

Mom Advice: Why "Baby Wise" Isn't

When I was anticipating the birth of my first child I felt pretty well prepared. I had read books on childbirth and breastfeeding and parenting philosophies. I had the gadgets that other parents relied on to soothe babies: swings, bouncers, and baby carriers. I knew that some people get extra-fussy babies to love, and that it would be difficult for a few weeks if we were blessed with a screamer, but we'd get through it OK, my doting husband and I. I would gently train my darling to sleep through the night by feeding her in a dark, quiet room, and laying her back in her bed when she was sleepy, but awake so she could get used to drifting off to sleep in her own bed. At first she might wake every two to three hours, but eventually she would drop those middle of the night snacks and we'd all be sleeping soundly again in three or four months.

I didn't have a clue. Maybe the first week went according to plan. Later I learned that most newborns are sleepy and docile for the first week or two: then they come to life. I tried laying my daughter in her bassinet after a full feeding and she screamed as if I'd laid her on a bed of nails. I patiently tried again and again at 1:00am, 2:00am, 3:00am. Eventually I decided that laying her down "sleepy but awake" wasn't going over well with this chick. I tried letting her nurse until she was in a deep sleep, all limp and floppy, then moving ever so slowly, inch by inch to gently sneak her into her bassinet. This was extremely taxing and painful, you cannot imagine how many hours I spent hunched over a bassinet, lowering my daughter by one millimeter per minute so she wouldn't detect the motion and slipping her oh-so-gently out of my arms and into her bed. I would carefully tuck her in and inch back away, drunk with giddiness at the prospect of two hours of uninterrupted sleep. I would sink into the comfort of my bed, close my eyes and savor the sweet respite to come. And then she would stir, whimpering at first, but I knew it was over. It didn't matter if I held my breath and prayed, or if I sprang from the bed to hold her hand, or jiggle the bassinet, or even nurse her again, she refused to sleep anywhere except in my arms, preferably attached to my breast.

How can you prepare for the physical and psychological torture that can occur when you live on a few 20 minute naps per night, night after night after night? By the time my daughter was six weeks old my body had depleted all of its reserves of stress hormones, energy, and patience. I felt like a different person, irritable, angry, unstable. I begged Matt to help me. He did try, but he was working full-time and trying to complete schooling as well. When he held Naomi in another room, nothing he did soothed her. I would hear her cries and be unable to sleep anyway, so eventually he gave up trying. "She just wants to scream," he concluded, "and she can scream just as well in her bed as she can in my arms." I called my mom and cried, but she lived a six-hour drive away and had a job of her own to work. I remember once finally losing control and (gently) throwing my baby into her crib, running to the kitchen and pounding both fists on the counter as I screamed, "Why won't she sleep!"

I was losing my sanity alongside of my marriage--something had to give. One friend in particular saw my frail state and pitied me. She came to my house and cooked me soup, she brought movies for me to watch while I nursed my daughter (or rather let her sleep attached to the breast) just so I could take my mind off of my miserable existence. And then one day she offered me a book called "On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep" by Gary Ezzo. Her sister had used this book with her three children and loved it. It was a system of scheduling the baby's feedings and naps, and letting the baby cry herself to sleep in her own bed for every nap so that she would become accustomed to falling asleep without the use of "sleep props" such as pacifiers, nursing, and motion. The book convincingly argued that this was in the best interest of the babies, who needed sleep to grow well, and parents who needed sleep to parent well and to maintain their marriages.

The book didn't sit well with me. It grated against every maternal instinct I had, but I was desperate, more desperate than I have ever been before or since that day. Baby Wise dangled the tantalizing carrot of uninterrupted, peaceful sleep just in front of me: a few weeks of scheduling and "sleep training" and I would be human again, my marriage would be happy again, and my baby would transform into the smiling, cooing baby I knew she could be after she'd had a few good nights of sleep. She would thank me later. And so I began.

Step one: give the baby a full feeding. This was difficult since she was so sleep deprived that she fell instantly to sleep every time I put her to the breast. I undressed her and wiped her with cold wet cloths to keep her awake and sucking until I was sure she could hold no more.

Step two: give the baby some awake, play time. Play? This guy had obviously never met my baby. Since I had to detach her from the breast for this step this translated into "Let your baby scream like hell's bells for an hour while you sing her songs and pretend like she's playing."

Step three: put your baby down for a nap. This meant dropping her in her crib and walking away while she ramped up the crescendo of wails three notches above ear-splitting and mind-numbing. I tried to relax, tried to reassure myself: the author said most babies only cry for five minutes, but some might go as long as forty. I wasn't supposed to check on her or let her see me or hear my voice, that would only encourage her screaming. So I sat, enduring the nails scraping against the chalkboard of my heart and waiting for her to give in, but she didn't: ever.

This cycle was supposed to repeat itself nicely every three hours (about 30 mins for feeding, 60 mins for play time, and 90 mins for nap). But three hours after my daughter's last feeding began she was still screaming like a fire-alarm in her crib: no nap had been taken, not even for one minute. I scanned the book for advice on what to do if your baby cries the entire 90-minute "nap" period and is still wailing when it's time for the next feeding: sorry, no advice there. So I decided that she wouldn't learn anything if I "rewarded" this "fit" with a feeding , and I let her keep on crying. I know, I cringe even admitting that now, but remember how desperate I was? We do unimaginable things at the depths of desperation.

My heart grew calloused to her cries. I was going to win this war. To my dismay my  baby continued to cry for two more hours. Five hours after her last feeding and her last nap she was red as a beet, drenched in sweat, and pleading with all her might as if her life depended on it. I stood over her crib and cried: was I a good mother or a bad one for letting this go on? I finally decided that this could be dangerous to her health and I picked her up, calmed her down, and nursed her. But I continued to reason that the scheduling would work, I just had to give it more time. So, utterly drained as she was, I didn't let my daughter sleep. Out came the cold cloths to keep her awake for a "full" feeding. Then came the struggle to keep her awake for "play" time. And at the appointed time, I dropped her in her crib for a "nap" and felt very satisfied. This time I knew she was too tired to cry, she would have to give in and sleep. But I had seriously underestimated her.

She did cry herself to sleep: for about five minutes. Then she startled awake and picked right back up bellowing for the rest of her "nap". Again I nursed her, "played" with her, and put her down to scream. That night she just nursed and screamed: dusk 'till dawn, with two to five minute snatches of sleep here and there. We kept this up for an entire week. Finally, at the end of the week in Hades, with no one any closer to being on a "schedule" or learning to "soothe herself" to sleep, I came to my senses. I thought, "I don't know who this book was written for, but it wasn't written for my daughter!" I unearthed my heart, dusted off my maternal instincts, and cuddled my baby. I responded to her cries and comforted her the best way I knew how, and at least we got more rest than we had the week before.

From then on I cared for her like a unique human being instead of attempting to program her like a robot. I sought the source of her cries, and attempted to remedy them. I asked doctors, friends, and relatives for advice. I read books and articles. I eliminated foods from my diet and tried every foolish old wives tale out there from gas drops to bottles of formula with rice cereal in them. Nothing really helped, but at least my daughter was comforted in her mothers' arms throughout this ordeal.

When she was four months old, I found a book called "The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night" by Elizabeth Pantley. This wasn't a magic ticket to dreamland for us, but it did educate me more about babies and sleep, and it gave me some good tips on lessening my baby's dependency on my presence for sleep. When she was five months old I finally gave in to letting my daughter sleep beside me in bed, and after waking from a relatively decent night's sleep, I thought, "Why in the world didn't I do this five months ago?" At ten months of age, I was able to transition her to sleeping in her crib with a sippy cup of water in her crib available to her at night. This did involve some crying on her part, but there is a world of difference between allowing a ten month old with access to a water cup to cry with a loving parent in the room, and leaving a helpless six week old to scream alone in the dark for hours. We didn't exactly "sleep through the night," but we slept pretty well, with two or three wakings to refill the water cup and change her diaper.

Later, when she was three years old, we learned what I had long suspected, that my daughter had a rare kidney problem that included a total inability to concentrate her urine. This meant that her kidneys pumped out a maximum volume of urine whether or not she drank anything. If she didn't drink huge volumes of liquid to compensate, she would quickly become dehydrated. Going three hours without liquid during the day would be very uncomfortable for her, and expecting her to go all night without drinking was tantamount to torture for her, not to mention dangerous. When I learned this, I was more ashamed than ever that I had ever tried to schedule her feedings, but more proud than ever that I had eventually let my maternal instincts take over. We also learned that she had a host of neurological sensitivities, including extreme reactions to foods and drugs that were probably in my breast milk at the time, and oversensitivity to light, sound, smell, and touch. In the course of a day she had hundreds of things that would upset her and no ability at all to calm herself. She needed help, and that is what a mother is for.

Why isn't "Baby Wise" wise?
  • It does not allow for babies to be individuals with unique physical and emotional challenges. The book did not once address the possibility that a baby may physically need to be fed more often, or may have neurological sensitivities that would not allow her to calm herself through crying. The American Academy of Pediatrics denounces Baby Wise because countless babies have turned up at ERs dehydrated and failing to thrive from this program, yet after being indoctrinated against it, parents are unwilling to feed their baby more often even when advised by doctors to do so.
  • It does not allow for treating our babies with the same kindness with which we treat older children and adults. We serve donuts and coffee at church in between breakfast and lunch because even as adults we enjoy a snack, yet Baby Wise warns against the dangers of giving your baby snacks in between the rigidly scheduled full feedings. We comfort our preschoolers who come to us at night crying because they are afraid of the dark, yet Baby Wise doesn't allow us to comfort our babies at night who may be scared, confused, or lonely, because they might grow accustomed to being comforted and ask for it again the next time they are upset. If a toddler is fed, changed, and then locked in a dark closet by themselves for the night while they scream in fear we call it child abuse, but Baby Wise insists that good parents feed and change their babies and then leave them to scream in cribs by themselves.
  • It teaches parents to ignore every natural impulse and interferes with bonding. I visited a zoo once and saw a gorilla mother holding a three-week old baby to the breast. She looked tired, but she never set that baby down. She held him and nursed him and carried him in one arm when she moved. Something in her told her that was best for her baby, so she did it. Whether you believe in intelligent design or evolution, you have to admit that there is a reason that babies demand constant contact, it is best for them.
I do know families who have "successfully" used this program or one similar to it. I can allow that this may work well for the personalities of some parents and babies, but I wish that they would allow that Baby Wise may be insensitive and dangerous to other babies' unique personalities and physical needs. I wish that they would not look down on the exhausted parents who choose to respond to their baby's cries, or brag about how well their baby sleeps because they worked hard to train their baby. Can we please allow that our babies are people to be nurtured and not machines to be programmed?

When I had my second daughter I was blessed with another baby who wanted to be near her mommy. One day I was cuddling her to sleep in a sling at a women's Bible study when an older mom looked at me with sad eyes. "She looks so happy in there," the woman said, "She always looks so happy...I taught my babies to sleep in cribs with Baby Wise, and they did learn to sleep well...but I don't have one single memory like that. Not one memory of rocking or cuddling my baby to sleep." I didn't know how to comfort her. It seems that even for families who "successfully" use Baby Wise, there is a high price to pay.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully put.. Both of my children were nursing and cuddling kids.. Did not sleep in there own beds till at least 6 months and then still woke frequently for feedings.. I wish Baby Wise could be taken of the market forever..