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Hush Little Baby

By Dr. Scott Hamilton
December 6, 2019

It wasn’t the greatest vacation for our kids. We were at an all inclusive resort, and put our pre-school kids in the tots activity program. To sell it to them, we called it “Special School” as in “Yay, you get to go to Special School!” But after a few days of missing us, they began to tear up in the morning. “We don’t want to go to Special School” they’d wail. Compounding that misery, our two year-old son stopped sleeping through the night, waking to cry at 3 a.m. It was a bad time for the tough-love approach to get him back to sleep. Known as “cry it out,” the strategy is to let your child cry in the middle of the night, after one or two trials of comforting them, so they learn to fall back asleep themselves. Usually the kid cries the first night for about 45 minutes before falling asleep. The next night, 20 minutes, the next 5 minutes. By the fourth or fifth night, they’re sleeping all night again. Unfortunately for this vacation, he couldn’t forget us, being able to see us from his portable crib. And with the thin walls of the hotel, he kept other guests up as well.
There’s a tension as you raise children, between meeting their desires, versus meeting yours and your other kids’ needs. For example, they want cookies and candy, you want them to have good teeth and ache-free tummies. This applies to toddlers who in the middle of the night, or at bedtime, decide they’re lonely and want to sleep with you. You need your sleep, they want comfort. There’s two schools of thought on his issue. One is the “family bed” where children don’t sleep in a separate bed: everyone piles into one big bed. This is okay if your child doesn’t toss, turn and kick to keep you awake, or if you can afford a big enough bed to keep away. If you don’t mind the lack of privacy or sleep interruptions, then no problem. If, however, you want your kids to sleep in their own bed, in their own room, then you will eventually resort to some form of “cry it out.”

The ”cry it out” strategy for children waking in the middle of the night seems harsh to some. My mom, one of the most loving people I’ve known, said “two closed doors between you and baby is about right.” And “crying it out” works for toddlers who will stay in their beds. However, my oldest would come out of her room and stare at us if we left her in her bed. Thus, I installed a hook-and-eye lock on her bedroom door. After two attempts to comfort her when she’d wake up in the middle of the night and not go back to sleep, I’d lock the door. The first night she cried for 45 minutes, then fell asleep at the door. The next night she cried for 30 minutes, then slept next to her bed. The third night she cried for 10 minutes, and slept in her bed. After that, she slept all night.

This sounds cold-hearted but in some ways, so is not letting kids have snacks anytime they want, or timeouts for discipline (we had to buckle that oldest child in her timeout chair, lest she wander around). The advocates of the “family bed” strategy hold that kids should sleep with parents. Of the “cry it out” strategy, one family bed advocate writes that parents think that the kid has “learned to sleep alone. What the child has really learned is that their cries were not answered, their needs not met.” “Cry it out” advocates argue that their kids have no emotional scars, while the family bed kids tend to be brats.

There’s more than one way to raise children. If there was one right way, there’d be one book, one website, on how it’s done. Since there’s hundreds of ways, there’s hundreds of books. It comes down to what you can stand. If you don’t mind the loss of privacy with kids in your bed, if you don’t mind restless sleepers, the family bed is for you. If you want your children to sleep in their own beds, then use some version of “cry it out”. Everyone agrees on this: bedtime should be quiet, wind-down time. No TV, phones, or video games within two hours of bedtime. Then: bath, book, bed, prayers. Lights out.