Another Facebook inspired post. The mother of a nursing toddler whose nighttime waking is pushing the family to the limit was asking for suggestions on improving her son’s nighttime sleep. One of the suggestions was to move him out of the family bed, where he nurses constantly, and into a crib. Since the toddler in question had vehemently protested the crib in the past, the mother knew that some crying would be involved. This mother is strongly opposed to any method of sleep training involving letting a baby cry it out (CIO) but at this point, CIO is the only thing she and her husband have not tried. In considering moving her son to a crib, she mentioned that it would make him angry, even if she was nearby to soothe him. She asked if letting a child cry next to you in a crib while you lay on a bed or mattress would constitute “cry it out” sleep training. I started answering her question on Facebook but as you will see by the size of this post, it was a little much for a Facebook comment.
My answer is “It all depends on how you define CIO”. To some parents, any crying that goes unsolved is CIO. My position is more nuanced, informed by my experience as a mother of 8 and my understanding of attachment theory and maturation. This is my opinion and not the Gospel: it is no substitute for your judgement as a parent.
Attachment is a primary need that has to be fulfilled before children can grow and mature. As infants, their physical needs and their emotional needs are not only closely linked, they are expressed in very similar ways, by crying and seeking warmth, comfort and sustenance. When we decide that a baby should cry it out because he is fed and dry, we overlook that being fed and dry are not the only primary needs that are addressed by seeking a parent’s presence. Denying our child’s need to attach backfires because attachment frees children from having to work for our love: in other words, we foster independence by first inviting dependence and letting our child rest in it. When we decide to “wait it out”—the opposite approach to “cry it out” — what we are essentially deciding is to wait for the child to mature, to naturally get to a point of independence where he is able to tolerate the temporary separation imposed by sleep, daycare etc.
That’s where the question of “What constitutes CIO?” becomes a little more subtle. As the infant grows into a toddler, his needs and his wants are no longer so straightforwardly linked. We all know toddlers who have major flip-outs for completely irrational reasons. We once had guests over and I served fresh waffles. My waffle iron makes square waffles. The toddler had a major meltdown because the waffles were not round. Such a meltdown that my oldest daughter, now 17 but who was 6 at the time, still remembers. She reminded me that our friend painstakingly cut her son’s waffles into circles to appease him. Had she not cut the waffles, she would have let him cry it out. Would that have been acceptable? What about the toddler (or baby for that matter) who hates to be buckled-up in a car seat? Baby feels strongly that he should be held while you drive. Unless you stop driving anywhere (which some people have done), you are essentially letting your baby cry it out in her car seat. Is that acceptable? Why or why not? Reflecting on these scenarios highlights the fact that when we are confident that our child is ok, we can usually let some crying happen with no long-lasting effect on our attachment relationship.
These scenarios also highlight the two-pronged aspect of maturation: first comes attachment, then comes letting go. We are wired for contact and closeness but a healthy emotional circuitry also involves knowing when to let go: whether because our attachment hunger is fulfilled or because we understand that our desire for contact and closeness is futile. Letting go is difficult for everybody, even adults, but learning how to experience disappointment and sadness and move-on, learning to accept the futility of a desire, is the second door to maturation. As Gordon Neufeld writes in “Hold on to your kids: why parents must matter more than peers”:
“Futility is a vulnerable feeling, bringing us face-to-face with the limits of our control and with what we cannot change. (…) … the inability to go from frustration to futility, from “mad to sad”, is a major source of aggression and violence.”
Responding to our children’s attachment needs is, in other words, as important as helping them through the experience of frustration and disappointment. When we twist ourselves into a pretzel to avoid the experience of futility, expressed through tears of frustration then sadness (crying), we are in fact stunting our child’s ability to mature and reach that healthy state of attached individuality and independence.
Coming back to the question of what constitutes “crying it out” when it comes to the night time parenting of toddlers, that’s where the work we put in fostering a healthy attachment during infancy comes to roost. You need to question whether your toddler is experimenting unfulfilled attachment needs, in which case your best bet is to work harder to satiate this hunger, or if your toddler is experimenting frustration at his inability to control a futile situation. This is the part where parenting books and blog posts are no substitute for your own loving parenting judgement. In our case, when we moved our nursing toddler into a crib because bed-sharing was no longer compatible with sleeping (and not sleeping was incompatible with being a calm and patient parent to his 7 siblings), he did experience frustration. He did cry but he was never alone. We were confident that his attachment was secure and that he was forcefully protesting a change in routine that he did not comprehend.
Anyone who ever had to impose a significant change in the workplace knows that resistance to change is not exclusive to toddlers. Imposing change on our toddlers is not incompatible with fostering attachment, just as crying and experimenting frustration is not incompatible with a healthy attachment relationship. However, attachment and maturation happen on a continuum and it is preposterous for any “sleep consultant”, “parenting expert” or “well-meaning stranger/family member/colleague” to assume that every child is at the point of needing to let go, usually framed in terms of “learning to self-soothe” or “learning to fall asleep”. The parents should be encouraged to foster a strong attachment and follow the cues that will inevitably arise from a strong, connected, relationship with their baby or toddler. Reading your child’s cues with confidence and some accuracy takes practice, first time parents should err on the side of nurturing attachment rather than rush independence.
In the end, my friend decided that imposing a drastic change in her toddler’s sleep routine was not desirable at this time. I am proud of the fact that she is parenting with confidence and patience despite the obvious challenges of her situation. Children are not robots and shouldn’t be expected to conform to rigid expectations when it comes to their maturation anymore than they should be expected to look exactly the same. As adults, we cherish our individuality. We should extend the same courtesy to our children.
They didn’t come with a manual for a reason.