Thursday, 22 April 2010

Cry baby

To cry or not to cry? That is the question that vexes most mothers of newborn babies. Should we leave our infants to bawl their heads off in order to teach them to go to sleep by themselves, or should we rush and tend to their every squeak in order to salve their tender souls? Childcare expert, Penelope Leach has gone so far as to say those hard hearted mothers who leave their babes to scream are putting them at risk of brain damage in the future.

Penelope Leach is not a woman for whom I have a soft spot after her preachings put me under immense pressure when I had my first son. Her book, Your Baby and Child, The essential guide for every parent was recommended to me by my NCT teacher. As I was entirely clueless as to the process of caring for a baby I promptly went out and bought it and treated it as my bible, only problem was on every page I discovered I was doing something wrong.

The most memorable misdemeanour I recall was reading that I must smile at my baby at all times, lest he feel unloved. This at a time in my life when the moments tears weren't flowing down my cheeks were few and far between. I was a raging mess of hormones, guilt and suffering from a nasty bout of postnatal depression. I would gurn at the poor boy in a terrifying approximation of a smile, and all because this old witch had told me he would grow up feeling unloved if I didn't.

She is a psychologist whose theories are entirely child-centric and the latest is that you must rush to your baby as soon as he cries or else his poor little brain will be flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, which could cause brain damage in the long run. I stress the word could and that this expert finding is at odds with recent research from Australia's Murdoch Children's Research Institute which suggests that controlled crying has no detrimental effect on babies.

I am no expert, but I do know that controlled crying is the only thing that got me through with my four boys. Each one of them learnt to sleep through the night by being left to wail for a few moments before a parent rushed in to comfort them. At first they wailed a little more, but invariably they went off to sleep within a few moments. But the real point of this is that I couldn't have coped if they hadn't learned how to sleep.

No mother can function on no sleep, and caring for small children is hard graft. If leaving your baby to cry for short bursts enables you to create a sleep pattern that allows you to rest, you will be a better mother at the end of it. Of course I would never say that babies should be left to shriek endlessly, but to rush to comfort a child at every squeak is just setting yourself up for trouble.

I suppose I am falling into the trap of all these so called experts and laying down the law over what is wrong or right when it comes to parenting. Perhaps there are tougher mums who can cope on no sleep and if this is the case then there is no harm to leaping every time your baby squeals. But for most mums creating a sleep routine that allows us to rest makes us better mothers, and the last thing we need is another expert weighing in and making us feel guilty about just trying to get through as best we can.

1 comment:

  1. Aaargh the great divide.

    My first child wailed for 15 mins for 2 nights, then slept perfectly for years. Definitely worth it. My second child wailed and wailed for night upon night, and we kept going because a health visitor told us to, for weeks. Didn't work. Make us all miserable. My third child was naturally a good sleeper.

    So I say, do what works. I don't think crying causes psychological damage, because then at least half the world would be psychologically damaged. What about all those babies with colic, for a start?

    And when we did controlled crying with #1, we replaced a whole evening's grumpiness and over-tiredness with 15 mins crying (going in every 2 mins to reassure). Which is more psychologically damaging? A short dose of crying, or a whole evening being whiny and grumpy and being entertained and distracted ad infinitum by two inexperienced parents who didn't recognise over-tiredness when they saw it?

    Horses for courses, is what I say.