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I’m Not a Monster

Photograph by Twenty20

I’ve been watching my 13-month-old daughter fuss for ten minutes on the monitor. Her favorite pacifier has fallen out of the crib and she won’t go for her thumb until she’s sure I’m not coming in to rescue her. Even though I rarely ever go in, she’s upping the volume, thrashing her arms about and testing my last inkling of patience.

“Mom-mom-mom-mom-ma-ma-ma-ma …”

While hearing these words fills me with joy most of the time, at this exact moment it makes me want to cry. My guilt is palpable. Just as I’m about to rush in to be by her side and let her know Mommy loves her, my daughter rolls over, sticks her thumb in her mouth and falls asleep.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have ice-cold blood running through my veins. In fact, when I first started this mama journey, I was committed to the attachment parenting style. I knew I wanted to breastfeed exclusively for as long as she wanted, wear my baby all day and co-sleep all night.

For six months, I practiced attachment parenting as if it was a religion and self-sacrifice was the eighth heavenly virtue.

So many of the mommy boards backed me up. Attachment parenting seemed the most compassionate and enriching approach. The thought of hurting my baby’s feelings (and damaging her for life!) plagued my mind constantly and it seemed to plague other moms, too. I needed to do everything right or I could churn out a serial killer or a reality TV star.

Throughout my pregnancy—and for the first few months after my daughter was born—I Googled everything baby, constantly. Things like, "Can my baby taste spicy food through amniotic fluid?" And later, "Can my baby taste spicy food through breastmilk?" Sometimes the mommy boards were comforting: "Poop comes in all different colors!" Sometimes they caused me anxiety: "Beware of dry drowning!" And while the mommy boards sometimes offered conflicting advice, there was consistency about one thing for almost all of the attachment parents: Cry-it-out (or CIO) hurts babies.

I tried to keep my daughter from crying at all times. There were several nights during those first few weeks where my husband and I took turns rocking, shushing, swaddling, singing, playing with noise machine settings and sometimes calling emergency hotlines to figure out why she would sometimes cry after we’d already fed her, changed her and checked her temperature. She never cried for too long, making colic unlikely, but it still worried me.

“Maybe babies just need to cry sometimes,” my husband offered one night when I was settling in to breastfeed her yet again. She was nearly two months old and I still wasn’t used to how often babies need to nurse.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped at him. “Babies always cry for a reason.”

I wasn’t sure about this, but it seemed logical. Plus the pit in my stomach and lump in my throat had to mean something, right?

“You’ll never understand” was my favorite retort, as well as my favorite justification for being so tightly wound as a new mother, so paranoid and so tuned in to my daughter’s cries and vigilant about appeasing them. My husband quickly learned not to intervene.

For six months, I practiced attachment parenting as if it was a religion and self-sacrifice was the eighth heavenly virtue. My daughter was nowhere near sleeping through the night and her naps were short and inconsistent. If I somehow managed to get three solid hours of sleep at night, it was a miracle. I turned into a grouchy mess during the day and so did my clingy, sleepy daughter. Time alone seemed like a faraway dream.

Then one day, sitting at the kitchen table, my daughter slipped from my arms and bumped her head against the edge, and we entered new territory. Her howl snapped me from my sleepy trance while self-disgust flooded my body.

I’d been accepting of many of the downsides that came with sleep deprivation until then. My husband and I were sleeping in separate rooms and, while I didn’t like that, I told myself that the situation was temporary and worth it in the long run. I felt assured that my daughter would grow up knowing she was loved and listened to and I’d sacrifice sleeping with my husband for years for that kind of assurance.

When I shared with what had happened with my husband, he suggested the notion I’d been dreading for the past few weeks.

“Maybe it’s time we start sleep training.”

But what about our bond? What about my baby’s feelings? I confided all my guilt-laced fears with her. How much it hurt to hear my daughter cry. How could that not damage her?

I already knew his feelings around sleep training—particularly the cry-it-out method. His sister had done it. His mother had done it. His mother’s friends had all done it. My husband is from Australia and so I naively considered it “an Australian thing,” just like shortening “sunglasses” to “sunnies” and quoting lines from “The Castle.”

He’d brought it up before, briefly, right around the time he started sleeping in a separate room, but I’d been adamant about my feelings. I’d read in the mommy boards that cry-it-out caused brain damage. And what if it broke our bond? What if she thought I abandoned her for good?

“What if it’s not as bad as you think?” my husband asked. “You can’t keep carrying on like this.”

I hated to admit it, but he was right. And while I was willing to sacrifice my sanity for the greater good, I now felt like I was sacrificing my daughter’s safety. Maybe a bump on the kitchen table was just the beginning? My synapses fired off a montage of all the things that could go wrong to a Morrissey soundtrack of tragedy. No double decker bus was going to get us, damn it. I needed to be awake and aware—and some reinforcements.

We called around a few different sleep trainers until we decided on one based in Los Angeles where we live, who also happened to have the best reviews. Jenni June came to us on a Tuesday evening, a bubbly, bright-eyed, radiant mom of four. I thought about how exhausted I felt with one child—how could anyone look that full of life with four?!

Right away, Jenni put my mind at ease about all the worries I had previously associated with sleep training. She talked us through all the benefits of sleep hygiene and the importance of having a routine. She even toured our nursery (which we didn’t use yet) and pointed out all the changes we needed to make to ensure the most effective (and safest) sleeping environment, from blackout shades to ideal room temperature to sleep sacks. Her solutions were bolstered by research and stats on sleep science and sleep training studies. She showed us that the “cry-it-out causes brain damage” narrative was a false and misleading one.

In fact, a 2016 study at Flinders University in Australia showed that children whose parents used the cry-it-out method did not have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, during the treatment, and a year later there were no significant signs of behavior or parental attachment issues. This echoed a similar 2012 study of 326 children, which found that children whose parents allowed them to cry it out did not have any long-term negative impacts five years later.

Jenni told us that what it came down to was learning how to self-soothe. Despite my best intentions, I was not allowing my daughter to learn this important life skill. How could she know that it was possible and better for her to fall asleep on her own without help from her mom’s milk or some butt patting? In her limited view of the world, it was all she knew to be true.

“And this could go on for years,” Jenni told us as a dire warning. “Believe me, I have clients in much tougher spots. It gets harder the longer you wait. Eventually, your child will need to learn this skill. We all do.”

But what about our bond? What about my baby’s feelings? I confided all my guilt-laced fears with her. How much it hurt to hear my daughter cry. How could that not damage her?

“It feels cruel to listen to her and not do something,” I told her.

“Well, answer me this: If you’re driving somewhere, just the two of you, and your daughter starts having a fit because she wants out of her car seat, would you reach back there and set her free?”

“No,” I said, imagining the stupidity of doing something like that.

“But what if she was crying? Better yet, what if she was screaming? Would you let her then?”

“No, of course not,” I replied.

“Right,” she said. “Of course you wouldn’t do that. No mother would. Yet, we don’t hear about the brain damage that kind of crying would cause. There’s no narrative around that to make you feel bad.”

The analogy made enough sense to me that I was willing to give Jenni’s plan a try. We spent the first couple of weeks with a more flexible approach, getting our daughter used to new nap times and a strict feeding schedule before we actually started the training. And when we did start the training, we learned something about our daughter. While it was challenging to hear her cry for fifteen torturous minutes after we left her room, she did know how to sleep beyond three hours. All we had to do was get out of her way.

That first night she slept a total of ten hours with only a few brief middle-of-night wakings and my husband and I returned to sharing a bed like old times. Going forward, the process improved every night. She cried less and fell asleep sooner until she stopped crying altogether and slept more than twelve hours without any middle-of-night wakings.

Nearly six months later, my daughter sleeps through the night like a champion and only occasionally resists naps when she’d rather be hanging out with her mom or dad or playing outside. She eats well, laughs often and loves her routine.

Recently, I came across a rant on Facebook about the dangers of cry-it-out method. The post had all the usual suspects—guilt-flinging, talk of brain damage, judgment of not only the method but of moms who use this method and, most importantly, obvious exhaustion on the part of the poster, whose stress and agitation was evident in her exclamation points and use of all-caps: "DON’T THESE MOMS KNOW THE DAMAGE THEY’RE CAUSING THEIR INNOCENT CHILDREN!??! I COULD NEVER DO THAT!!"

And, who knows. Maybe I am causing some irrevocable damage. Maybe my daughter will grow up to resent me for the choices I’m making on her behalf. Maybe she’ll have a better bond with her dad. Whatever happens, at least I know she’ll be well rested. Should she march in, years from now, stressed out or overwhelmed with life, I’ll have enough sense to offer her some wise, motherly advice, “Darling, maybe you just need a nap.”

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