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Parenting Advice Is Total BS

Photograph by Twenty20

For the last few weeks, our 14-month-old daughter Evy has had problems sleeping. It's a fight to get her to sleep at bedtime and, at some point during the night, she wakes up, crawls around her crib, stands up and calls for us. If we try to put her back down and leave, she cries like we just took away her favorite toy.

This is all pretty normal behavior for someone Evy's age, even for someone who used to sleep like a log through the night like she did. There's so much development going on in her brain that getting her settled is difficult. And when she wakes up at night and sees herself in a dark room by herself, her separation anxiety kicks in and she freaks out.

Hopefully, this is a phase she's going through that will end soon.

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However, it doesn't mean that we're not tired and frustrated. Those nights when she wakes up and yells for us, we eventually bring her into our bed, where she tends to fall asleep immediately. But that's not before we cuddle her and try to put her back into her crib, often standing there to make sure to reposition her if she starts to turn to get up. Every single time, she flips over, gets up and cries all over again—often even louder because she's now annoyed along with being scared and tired.

While we don't want to set a precedent—our nightmare is the vision of her sleeping between us every night when she's 6—we felt like we were getting nowhere by trying to keep her in her crib. I even got to the point where I was rubbing her belly and telling her that everything was OK.

Why did we do all of this, then? Well, partially it was advice we got from a particularly popular parenting magazine, whose newsletter about routines for toddlers somehow found its way into our e-mail inbox as we were at our most frazzled.

Desperate, I gave the article about sleep routines a read.

Where's the happy acknowledgement that she's about to go to bed? All we get is resistance and a wrestling match.

The story, a reprint from 2007, was written in the easy, breezy tone that anyone who has read a women's magazine is familiar with. The writer (a colleague I know and respect, by the way … more on this in a bit) gives a personal example before moving on to a formatted list that contained "Why he/she does it" and the "Winning strategy" for each toddler sleep problem.

Of course, each example was buffeted by expert testimony, making my internal "I'm a baaaaaddd parent" alarm go off repeatedly. For instance, in the section about trying to get your toddler back to sleep in the middle of the night, the "winning strategy" went like this:

"Avoid picking her up, singing to her, or offering to read a book, which will only stimulate her. Instead, say, 'Everything's fine, honey,' and leave the room quickly."

I tried it that night, when Evy woke up at some ungodly hour (I refuse to look at the clock anymore when she wakes, just so I don't get more depressed). All I got was screaming and kicking. That section goes on to say to give your toddler a "lovey" for comfort. Evy's got plenty of loveys, and they're all in bed with her. All she does is whip them around and throw them when she's overtired and doesn't want to go to sleep. She hasn't embraced a lovey to sleep since she was 6 months old.

When I brought her into our room, I said to my wife Rachel, "All those magazine articles are horsebleep," only what came out of my mouth was much harsher than "bleep."

Another article in that newsletter, about establishing general toddler routines, also written by a colleague I know and respect, made me queasy. Not only did it make me feel guilty about not having a routine for Evy during the days I'm home with her, but a particular example of one toddler's bedtime routine made me see red, mainly because the girl being mentioned was the same age as Evy:

"'She smiles and waves to me and goes upstairs, which tells me she understands that the bedtime routine is starting.'"

Kids can feel your frustration, and it translates into more stressful reactions from them.

Here's what my adorable daughter does for her bedtime routine: she rubs her eyes, then complains when we put her on the changing table, often climbing the wall or turning over while we try to get on her overnight diaper. Then we take her into the bedroom to put on her PJs and read to her. Most nights, she crawls around the bed while we try to get some moisturizer on her. Once she realizes the PJs are going on and her day is about to end, she complains again. We read the same books to her, and she either grabs them and puts them in her mouth or she looks like she's about to fall asleep while sitting. Then I bring her into her room, turn off the light, turn on white noise and hug her. Sometimes she takes out her pacifier and drops it on the floor, sometimes she drools on my shoulder. It's rare that she falls asleep the first time I put her down.

And we consider Evy to be a relatively easy toddler so far.

Where's the smile and wave? Where's the happy acknowledgement that she's about to go to bed? All we get is resistance and a wrestling match.

But I bet that's what most parents get. And there's the rub: just like women's magazine articles that declare they have "7 ways to thinner thighs," parenting service articles don't acknowledge that every kid is different and that the methods they tout as being can't-miss only have a moderate shot at really working.

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I know the writers who wrote these articles know better, but they also know that the tone of these pieces need to be light and airy and provide solutions, not more realistic "maybes." They know where their bread is buttered. In the meantime, the absolutist tone makes the reader feel immense guilt when it doesn't work or they're not doing what the article says. None of that helps either you or your child. Kids can feel your frustration, and it translates into more stressful reactions from them.

Which is why we're now listening to a mother of two who works with my wife, Rachel.

"You've got to do what's best for them and for you," she tells my wife.

Trying to get Evy back into her crib, or into the crib to begin with, just makes us exhausted and interrupts her sleep way too much. Bringing her into our bed lets all of us sleep much longer and without all the stress. This is what works for us right now, advice be damned. Check back with me, though, when she's still sleeping with us in kindergarten.

Then we may need some help.

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