By Wendy Wisner
Does your baby or child need you to fall asleep? Is nursing the only thing that does the trick? Rocking? Back patting? Cuddling? Holding hands? Just lying there silently in the dark? Have you been told you just need to leave the room at some point and let your child learn to self-soothe? Have you been told you are doing your child a disservice by not teaching him or her this very important life skill?
I remember when my first child was a newborn. Like most sleep deprived parents, I googled stuff about infant sleep. Was he getting enough sleep? When would he sleep longer stretches? Was there anything I needed to do to make things better? Basically, would I ever sleep again, and if so, when and how?
Every single website that came up said I was doing it all wrong. By nursing him to sleep (even at just a few weeks old) I was creating a bad habit. They said he would never learn how to “self-soothe,” fall asleep on his own, or sleep through the night (because I was — gasp — nursing him every time he stirred, to comfort him, not just to “feed” him). I was supposed to put him down “drowsy but awake” and then he was supposed to figure out how to fall asleep himself. This might involve some crying or fussing, but I was supposed to “tough it out” for the sake of fostering “good sleep habits” in my baby.
I spent about an hour freaking out about this. I knew I would never do any of it. I was brought up with a family bed, and parents who taught me that children need comfort at night as well as during the day. I had fond memories of falling asleep in the big bed with my mom and sister. But as a sleep deprived new mom, I was pretty concerned about this being the only solution out there for me to get some much needed sleep.
I somehow slogged through the first few months, listening to my instincts and continuing to nurse him on demand, both day and night. By six months or so, we had a good routine going. I would rock and nurse him in the rocking chair, and then bring him to bed. It often took him awhile, but usually he was asleep in thirty minutes.
Of course, some nights were really hard, hours of incessant rocking and nursing to get him to sleep. I would get that itchy, restless feeling in my body. I’d want to jump out of my skin. But my instincts told me that this was what he needed, so I did it.
The frustration was just as quickly replaced with joy: feeling his body give in and fall asleep in my arms, his deep sleep sighs, kissing his dreamy head. I realized (and I continue to realize every day of being a parent) that it was ok for me not to like every minute of it, that it was ok for frustration to exist with joy. Just because you sometimes experience negative feelings about parenting, doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong or need to change anything.
And as for my kid, was I doing harm by never teaching him to “self-soothe” or sleep without nursing? Would he be dependent on me for longer than he was supposed to? Well, it depends on what your definition of “supposed to” is.
I nursed him to sleep till he was about four years old, at which point, he would nurse, and then pop off to cuddle and talk. He weaned from breastfeeding completely at five years old. But even after he weaned, he still wanted me to cuddle with him as he fell asleep. And at seven years old, there’s much less cuddling, but he likes me to stay in the room with him until he’s all the way asleep.
I recently wrote a piece on my blog about lying with him until he falls asleep. I was surprised that this was a bit controversial to some people! Commenters and on and offline were concerned that perhaps he was a little too old for such “hand holding” and that the fact that I was expressing any mixed feelings about it meant that I should just cut myself a break and teach him to go to sleep on his own.
Well, it probably goes without saying that what I do with my kids is what works for me and my family and may not work for yours. Really, as long as you are giving love to your kids, whatever that looks like, you are awesome. I admire all kinds of parents, many of whom make different choices than I do.
But a seven year old who still wants mommy to put him to sleep? Crazy? Weird? Not quite right?
How about normal? Do you know that he’s not the only one out there? I know many, many two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, six-year-olds, and quite a few seven-year-olds who need their parents to put them to sleep sometimes or always. Like extended breastfeeding, it’s just not something readily discussed but it happens all over.
And you know what else? I used to be one! My husband used to be one! We both “weaned” from needing parent help at bedtime in our own time. We both eventually did sleepovers with our friends, went to sleep-away camp, went to college. We’re champion sleepers but we still both prefer to have another warm body to snuggle with as we drift off.
It’s interesting that writing about lying with my seven-year-old until he falls asleep is such a “confession,” because, when you think about it, is there anything more normal and natural sounding than that? We just lie there and talk. He falls asleep. I leave the room and eat a sandwich. It’s a funny world we live in.
Do you still parent your toddler or older child to sleep? What works for you and your family?
***Wendy Wisner is the author of two books of poems, Morph and Bloom (2013) and Epicenter (2004), as well as a chapbook, Another Place of Rocking (2010). Wendy is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and blogs about breastfeeding, motherhood, and writing at www.nursememama.com. She lives in New York with her husband and two sons.
You can find Wendy and her work at the following links: