The Sleep Wars, Round One

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | , , ,

Things have been a little contentious around our little apartment lately. Some nights I just can't help but feel that there is a pugilistic contest of epic proportions taking place on the squared circle inside our bedroom, the mat inside Juniper's crib. It's a wooden-doweled cage match to the death. No Holds Barred.

Over here in this corner, wearing the blue trunks with the full head of hair and the sizzling pecs is Dr. William Sears, attachment-parenting guru, virile father of eight children, and co-author of "The Baby Book." Many consider Dr. Sears to be this generation's Dr. Spock (some dare call him "America's pediatrician").

And in this corner, in the red trunks, with the steely-gaze of a Republican pundit and the paunch of a moderate beer drinker is Dr. Marc Weissbluth, Dr. Sears' mortal enemy, advocate of the "cry-it-out" or "extinction" sleep solution and author of Cindy Crawford's favorite childrearing book, "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child." Beloved by smug hoards of well-rested parents, Dr. Weissbluth thinks Dr. Sears is, to put it mildly, full of shit.

In our household, we were early enamored with the Sears method. We co-slept with the kid for six months. For those first few harrowing weeks she always slept our arms; she fell asleep with Wood on the couch or with me in the rocking chair. When she cried we did everything we could to stop the crying. I walked her around the block a thousand times. We danced in our living room to the stereo turned up loud. We were known to turn on the vacuum cleaner to distract her from the sound of her own sobbing. And we bounced. We bought a gigantic yoga ball and we bounced and we bounced and we bounced.

Eventually when she fell asleep, either through breastfeeding or through bouncing, we would lay her gently in her co-sleeper and pray we'd get a few hours where one of us didn't have a child in our arms. This rarely happened. More often than not, Wood would end up with a sleeping kid in her arms, on the couch. In the morning the baby would sleep on my chest, my hands keeping her arms from flailing while I tried to salvage some last moments of sleep.

In time she would sleep longer on her own in the early evening. Still, when she eventually woke screaming we would rush to comfort her, pick her up and start the bouncing or rocking all over again. She always wakes up a few times a night to eat. This has worked out for us okay, and we told ourselves over and over that it would get easier.

But it hasn't. It has only gotten worse.

She wakes up four or five times a night now, and it is getting harder and harder to put her back down. The 4:30 wakeup is the worse. We decided a few days ago that we were going to look at Dr. Weissbluth's book again. I had originally dismissed it as poorly-written and harsh. I looked to see what Dr. Sears had to say about Weissbluth and his method:

"The style of parenting called self-soothing, which is creeping into the "Let's have babies conveniently" mind-set, emphasizes techniques of teaching babies how to comfort themselves---by leaving them alone or setting them up to devise their own methods--- rather than allowing babies to rely on mother or father. On the surface this sounds so convenient and liberating, but watch out for shortcuts, especially in nighttime parenting. This school of thought ignores a basic principle of infant development: A need that is filled in early infancy goes away; a need that is not filled never completely goes away but recurs later in 'diseases of detachment' – aggression, anger, distancing or withdrawal, and discipline problems.” – William Sears, ‘The Baby Book’


Jesus, could we really take that risk? If we let her cry it out so we can start enjoying evenings with white russians and DVDs that we don't have to pause every half hour when she starts crying, would we be fating her to an adolescence spent smoking cigarettes out behind the alternative high school? Would it make her harsh and mean? Would it make her not-so-sweet?

Sears originally came out swinging. I have never been able to shake those words. They haunt me. But as time went on, I grew less than impressed with the results of his methods. So I went to Dr. Weissbluth to see what he had to say about attachment parenting:

"Some parents bend over backward to appease their child. 'I want to avoid the strict parenting I received.' This may lead to the absence of limits. Parents who are too sensitive to their child's needs risk enabling their child to become too dependent on their caretaker. These children do not learn to read their own signals and require an adult to do it for them. Children crave order, and setting limits is one way to that end. Harsh commands, physical punishment, or power assertion produces children who have higher levels of guilt and exhibit parent-pleasing behavior. It is even worse when, after becoming too harsh, spanking too hard, or letting your child cry too long, you quickly rush to hug your child. This sends a very mixed message to your child. Your child starts to think that crying is what you need to do to be hugged." Marc Weissbluth, 'Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.'


Motherfucker! Weissbluth comes out swinging. So what you're telling me is that if I don't let her cry it out, and I go to her and comfort her every time she cries, I'm actually teaching her that she needs to cry in order to get me to come to her and show her that I love her? And that over time this is going to create a myriad of social and emotional ills if not immediately rectified? So, Dr. Weissbluth, if I don't follow your advice, my little girl is going to turn into an emotionally-needy attention-starved drama queen? Does that mean I'm going to have to go to bad high school performances of Oklahoma! and Brigadoon in fifteen years? Cripes.

The choice is between that and a surly, withdrawn rebel? What kind of choice is that?

Dr. Sears started the round extremely strong, scoring lots of early points, keeping Weissbluth on the defensive until just a few days ago. Wood, exhausted, told me she was ready to start extinction. Sears will tire you out, man. I'm just waiting for my hair to start falling out and for powder-blue drawstring pants like my dad wears to start looking really comfortable. This baby is turning me into an old man. Extinction has been inconceivable for seven months. We've got an old lady who lives in the apartment above us who stomps on the floor every time we make any noise. There's nowhere we can go in our apartment to escape the crying. Wood's hormones can't take it, so she has been going out for long walks while I sit and listen to the baby choke and wail. It took almost an hour the first night before she finally gave up. It was about 40 minutes the next night. We have to swaddle her to keep her from banging a tin cup against the bars of her crib and throwing flaming pieces of paper at us. I'm alone tonight (Wood is at a retreat in Monterey, sleeping well, hopefully). Juniper went down while feeding so I haven't had to let her cry it out.

And I don't know what I'm going to do when she wakes up.

[Ding Ding] End of Round One.

Weissbluth is now on the offensive. We'll let you know how he's faring in a few days.