Emily Gould | Longreads | May 2017 | 13 minutes (3,370 words)
During my son’s first two months on earth, I read 25 books about taking care of babies and children. I read them on my phone while breastfeeding and on the subway in stolen moments of solitude while my baby napped in his carrier, his fuzzy head an inch from the pages. Brain-damaged by love and exhaustion, I could not make sense of any other kind of book. For someone who has been partway through at least one novel since learning how to read, this was akin to a psychotic break. But when I opened any novel in those early weeks, the words swam on the page. I would stare till they came into focus, force down a few pages and then give up. Where was the baby in this story? Were the people in the story parents? They couldn’t matter to me otherwise.
The only thing worse was when the people in the story were parents, and there was a baby, but it was in some kind of danger. When my son was about 8 weeks old I picked up a novel which has both a stillbirth and the rape of a 6-year-old in its first 30 pages. Half an hour later my husband found me clutching the baby to my chest, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure it’s a great book but I’ll never know. I threw it in the garbage can and heaped trash on top so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back in for it, as though it was some kind of enticing yet poisonous cake.
But my appetite for parenting books was infinite; they were the one thing I wanted besides sleep and icy beverages. My addiction, like most addictions, fed on itself. Because the information in each book was both redundant in some of its particulars and wildly contradictory in others, each dose of information required an antidote in the form of the next book.
All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.
The question of how to get your child to sleep provided the starkest, most dramatic dichotomy. There were two schools of thought: Either you could let your child cry himself to sleep, or you could comfort him, for hours if necessary, until he finally dozed off. Each camp promised a happy, healthy baby and family if you followed their advice, and ruin—of your health and your marriage on the one hand, and of your baby’s nascent trust in the world on the other—if you didn’t. Are you thinking, as I naively did, “Oh, I’ll just split the difference between these two obviously crazy extremes?” According to these books, avoiding a decision is the only thing worse than choosing the wrong path; intermittent reinforcement will confuse and madden your baby, likely making him even more demanding and teaching him that the world, and you, are not to be trusted.
Beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when male obstetricians and pediatricians first sought to establish their superiority over midwives by publishing books, an unending slew of medical specialists of varying stripes—behaviorists, eugenicists, psychologists, and sleep researchers—have offered up their tips to an eager, captive audience. It’s revealing to observe how the advice fluctuates from one generation to the next. The older a book is, the likelier it is that not “spoiling” babies by holding or feeding them too much is one of its themes. “Handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone,” counseled one 1916 childrearing manual cited in an entertaining Atlantic article from 2013 headlined “’Don’t Think of Ugly People’: How Parenting Advice Has Changed.” In an era when families were large and between 10% and 30% of babies died before their first birthdays, that advice made a certain kind of heartrending sense. But variations on this “hard” or “parent-centered” approach persisted, even as the 20th century wore on and babies’ lives lengthened. Each generation’s “hard” expert was countered by a “soft” or “child-centered” approach; far from evolving towards consensus, the pendulum is still swinging back and forth today.
In the enormously profitable parenting-book industry, a few texts remain perennial category killers. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock came to prominence by advising parents to follow their instincts—then helpfully informing them about what those instincts might be. Compared to all earlier comers, he was remarkably permissive, counseling mothers to make their own choices and to see their children as individuals. Combined editions of his first book, Baby and Child Care, have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. And What To Expect When You’re Expecting—the brilliantly named book of advice about what to eat and how to behave when you’re pregnant, first published in 1984 and last revised in 2008—sold 249,000 copies in 2014, many more than all but a tiny percentage of newly published books. More recently, a more discursive, memoiristic, media-driven type of parenting text, like Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, and various spinoffs and copycats, have gained market share, perhaps because most of the information contained in the dryer, more straightforward manuals is also available online.
All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.
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Dr. Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, originally published in 1985 and last revised in 2006, remains one of Amazon’s bestsellers in the baby and toddler parenting category. In it, he provides a series of case studies from his sleep clinic. These people all have it much, much worse than you do. They have failed to ever let their babies cry, and now their babies can’t figure out how to fall or stay asleep and it’s ruining their lives. One baby wakes each time the pacifier falls out of his mouth, leading his desperate parents to sprinkle his crib with pacifiers in the hopes that he’ll randomly grab one and find his way back to sleep. (This doesn’t work). Another child is still waking and requiring new bottles several times a night—at 18 months. The solution is always the same: the parents must let their children cry, for however long it takes—and the reader is encouraged to do this as early as possible in order to avoid these nightmare scenarios. Ferber claims his research shows that feeding your baby at night (which is the fastest, easiest way to get him, and by extension yourself, back to sleep) can lead to more frequent waking, delayed development, crankiness during the daytime, and even obesity. He presents readers with a stark choice: You can lie awake, trying to ignore a tiny baby’s cries of hunger for as long as it takes for him to give up, or you can give in, feed your baby, and watch him grow up fat and stupid.
I first read Ferber’s book when my barely 4-month-old son was just beginning to sleep in his own crib at night, and letting him cry alone there, even for a few minutes, was almost too difficult to be physically borne. How could abandoning him like that be okay? As he got older and more able to communicate, though, and as I got tougher and more selfish, I did experiment with letting him figure out how to fall asleep on his own, which sometimes required letting him cry. I still fed him back to sleep if he woke up in the middle of the night, though. Even if Ferber was right—and, while reading the book, I was always pretty convinced that he was—I wasn’t going to stop feeding my baby. Instead, I was going to find another book—a perfect book that would tell me what I wanted to hear, which was that I was doing things right, or at least right enough, and my baby would be okay.
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If Ferber is the modern-day standard-bearer for the “hard” or “parent-centered” approach to sleep training, “attachment” parenting inventor Dr. William Sears is the opposing camp’s champion. Sears thinks you should go to your baby when he cries and comfort him to sleep. This teaches him to trust the world and also makes him feel secure enough to fall asleep on his own when he’s ready. There was a time, in the mid-to-late aughts, when it seemed like the “attachment” parents were winning, or at least that their approach was more visible. (“Dangers of Crying It Out: Damaging children and their relationships for the longterm” was a Psychology Today headline in 2011.) Because Sears’ advice includes a lot of things—constant baby-wearing, extended breastfeeding—that are only possible for parents (which almost always means mothers) with a lot of financial security and time to spend with their young children, it attracts celebrity adherents, like Alanis Morrisette and Alicia Silverstone. Sears’ approach to sleep, which he calls “nighttime parenting,” favors “creating a secure environment that allows sleep to overtake your baby.” He also favors the “family bed,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of “Rowan, please sit back down!” Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with “attachment” parenting.
There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early “sleep training” paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.
I read (parts of) Sears’ The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two. Though the commonsensical approach to childhood illnesses was good, I was put off by the assertion that co-sleeping helps to prevent SIDS, based on “research” that Sears, a pediatrician, did by studying his own large family. And there were other aspects of the book that, rather than loosey-goosey and hippie, struck me as paternalistic, maybe even misogynistic. Who was this man to lecture me about how I ought to offer my baby unfettered access to my breast-milk for as long as he wanted it? Had he ever pumped in a public bathroom while someone took a shit in the next stall? The idea that children who’ve been allowed to wean themselves gradually between their second and third birthdays “radiate trust” also made me recoil—not because I think there’s anything wrong with extended breastfeeding, but because it seems cruel to make mothers who can’t manage the enormous sacrifices required by breastfeeding feel guilty if their children don’t “radiate trust,” whatever that means. I think I had been expecting something more like the parenting equivalent of Ina May Gaskin, the seasoned midwife whose bestselling books about childbirth have a groovy, somewhat permissive vibe. Instead, I got this old Christian guy chiding me for not allowing my child to suck the marrow from my bones.
There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early “sleep training” paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.But I read on, still trying to split the difference. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child author Dr. Marc Weissbluth out-Ferbers Ferber. Where Ferber actually advocates a slightly more humane—if not terribly humane-sounding—“graduated extinction” approach to crying that permits some very brief comforting between gradually increasing intervals of weeping, Weissbluth would have you never so much as peek inside the room when your baby cries in the crib. He also thinks that naps in car-seats, strollers or swings don’t “count” the way crib naps do because your child won’t sleep as deeply, which leads him to advocate keeping to a fairly ironclad nap schedule i.e. basically never leaving the house. This book also contains the line, in bold: “Perfect timing produces no crying.” When I came to this I put the book down; I know a troll when I see one.
In the early 2010s, the French pediatrician Dr. Michel Cohen, founder of the popular Tribeca Pediatrics chain in New York, became America’s most prominent advocate for a sophisticated Continental approach to parenting. Cohen’s book, The New Basics: A-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent, provides a handy alphabetical guide to the diseases and concerns of early childhood, and I appreciated his wry, often funny tone and general tendency to quash hypochondria. My husband and I would sometimes read his advice aloud in a bad French accent and say “don’t worry about it, you stupid Americans!” He actively disdains attachment parenting and says that he has encountered many parents who “literally drove themselves and their baby crazy with guilt and frustration” when their attempts to prevent crying at all costs didn’t work. He is, in some ways, even “harder” than Ferber in that he advocates sleep training your four-month-old by putting him to bed at 7 p.m. and not opening the door of his bedroom again until 7 a.m., no matter what. Like his magical-thinking approach to breastfeeding, which includes advising mothers to pump only as much as they need for the day (because obviously your breasts are a faucet that can be turned on and off at will) and the wishful assertion that once your baby wakes less at night, your breasts will start producing less milk (a memo my breasts definitely missed), the Gallic approach to sleep seems great, on paper.
By the time I turned to American-born, Paris-dwelling journalist Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé I had noticed that the field of baby advice was almost as dominated by men as it had been in the 19th century. There are manuals by wise nannies and midwives, but no big authoritative bestseller by a female pediatrician or obstetrician. (The authors of What To Expect When You’re Expecting are, notably, not doctors.) Druckerman’s 2012 bestselling memoir of raising her children in Paris did not fill this gap, but in its defense, it didn’t really aim to; it’s an amusing and only slightly maddening look at a fantasyland where free, state-sponsored crèches on every block serve tiny children three-course meals that include many delicious-sounding cheeses.
In this paradise, a baby tends to faire ses nuits (sleep through the night) at three months, just in time for his chic, slender mother to clip-clop back to work in her fashionable high heels. Babies and children sit at the table with their parents in restaurants, waiting patiently to be served while making polite conversation. How are these miracles possible? Druckerman credits something called le pause, which is where, instead of rushing to your baby at her first peep, you take le pause and determine whether she might calm herself without your help.
Apparently some babies do fall asleep in that crucial little interval. For me, knowing about le pause was approximately as useful as knowing the menus of Parisian daycare facilities. My son may have been new to this planet, but he was no dummy; he knew that protracted crying would bring the boob to him and he never, ever stopped crying on his own, not once, not une seule fois during that crucial eight-week window.
At the very beginning, keeping my baby alive seemed like something I was doing with the power of my mind by exerting a constant conscious effort of will. This was a sleep-deprived, hormone-addled delusion, but it felt frighteningly real. For the first three days of our lives together, I couldn’t bear to have him out of my sight. I couldn’t sleep, even though I was physically exhausted. His cries sent adrenaline pumping through my entire body; when he was uncomfortable or upset, I was, too. This felt more like self-pity than empathy. We had, until so recently, been part of the same body. The first time I walked to the end of our block alone, I cried because I missed him.
As the days and weeks passed, my ability to discern where he ended and I began gradually improved. Soon, I could even tolerate being separated from him by several feet, and then I let him get even further away—first into a cosleeper next to my side of the bed, and then, at four months, into a crib in a little anteroom alcove off the bedroom, not more than five feet from where I slept but with a door between us. Only a few months later, it became hard to remember how wrenching this felt, and how terrifying. Even though I no longer felt that I was constantly willing him into being, when I closed the door, I still felt—sometimes still do feel—as though by closing the door I am allowing the possibility that he would cease to exist. The reality, which my stack of books served as talisman against, is that all of us eventually do cease, and babies are no exception. I had always known of the looming threat of death, of course, but until I gave birth, I hadn’t believed it applied to me.
The moment you walk away from your crying baby, believing it to be for your own good and his, is the first moment in your parenting career that not giving him whatever he wants means that you are doing the right thing. Figuring out when to give children what they want and when not to turns out to be much harder than it ever seemed from the sidelines; overcoming the innate desire to make your most beloved person in the world happy at whatever cost doesn’t come “naturally,” or easily.
Controlling what you can in the life of your helpless infant makes you feel, or at least made me feel, that you have control over his life, which you absolutely do not. Lurking at the borders of the new parent’s mind at all times is the thought that your baby could die. For no reason. Other babies have. Learning as much as possible about all the different approaches to taking care of his tiny life is a great distraction from this thought.
Now my son is almost two and I’ve gone back to reading novels, mostly. After a fraught weekend of desperate marathon crying about a year ago, I no longer feed my son at night—mostly. I make exceptions when he’s sick or teething or if he has a bad dream, in which case I am powerless to resist his cries of “MAMA! I NEED TO CUDDLE!” But even that is coming to an end soon, as I prepare to phase out what he calls the “boof” once and for all—beginning with a short trip I’ll take by myself. I leave the morning after Mother’s Day.
I still haven’t found the book that endorses or encompasses my motley approach, and I’ve given up on the idea that it might exist. But I’ve also now had many, many more opportunities to talk to actual living, breathing parents, whose experiences and advice are much more interesting than anything in the parenting literature. There have been doctrinaire Ferberites among them, and I envy their certitude and their uninterrupted nights (while secretly suspecting that their children were destined to be good sleepers regardless of what their parents did or didn’t do). The majority of the parents I encounter are like me: They’ve read the books, believed them, and then selectively forgotten parts of them, responding instead to the specifics of the particular situation—the particular human being—they’ve been put in charge of.
The truth is that in spite of, or because of whatever we do, our babies are fine. (Mostly. For now. We hope. Please, god.) They sleep, or they don’t. They get bigger every day. Meanwhile, the books go back for another printing, and another. New parents will search their pages the way I did, hoping to come across the one sentence that will show them how to game the system, how to keep their children from harm forever, how to make it through the night.
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Emily Gould is one-half of Emily Books, an imprint of Coffee House Press, which publishes books by women and gender nonconforming writers. She is the author of the novel Friendship, the essay collection The Heart Says Whatever, and many blog posts.
Editor: Sari Botton