Let’s face it, no one can make you feel more terribly about your choices as a parent than other parents. There is a culture of junior-high-esque shaming that goes on with so many decisions, philosophies, and lifestyle choices that it seems safer to just hide as much of it as we can…or defend our choices valiantly by (you got it) shaming the choices of others. We whisper quietly behind our hands at mommy groups or not so quietly all over social media, all with the intent of making our choices “the best” and everyone else’s “not good enough” or worse, damaging in some way. When really, the damage we are doing is to each other, this beautiful net of collective wisdom we should be proud to have access to.
Let’s see…some of the subliminal messages about parenting choices that I’ve noticed just in the last year:
- If you choose natural childbirth with a doula or midwife, you are hippy-dippy.
- If you choose an epidural, you’re not very tough.
- If you went with a C-section, something is wrong with your body.
- If you breastfeed in public, you are immodest.
- If you prefer to breastfeed in private, you are ashamed of your body or of the natural process that is feeding an infant.
- If you choose not to breastfeed, you are malnourishing your child and ruining any chance of a bond with him.
- If you choose to breastfeed your child into toddlerhood/young childhood, you are stunting your child’s social growth.
- If you are a mom who works out of the home, you are letting other people raise your kids because you’re too busy trying to ‘do it all’.
- If you are a mom who works in the home, you are not contributing enough to your family or your household because you are too lazy to ‘do it all’.
Sound about right? Enough of this.
I could go on and on…everything from how we choose to diaper to how we choose to discipline our kids seems up for the forum of public judgment, subtly (yet snootily) phrased as, “I don’t know how any parent could _____________________.” Is this what it’s come to? Are we really so insecure in ourselves, our abilities, and our instincts that we cower in fear of what the collective “moms” will say about us behind our backs if we let it slip that—gasp—our child ate a cupcake before she turned one!?
One type of shaming that has recently caught my attention for obvious reasons is something I’m dubbing “Sleep Shaming:” The not-so-subtle way we judge another parent for the way they choose to help their baby learn how to sleep. Sleep shaming and the subsequent fear of judgment from the mommy-peer group can be enough to paralyze any parent into doing nothing at all, condemning them to a too-long period of terrible sleep for themselves and their child, simply because they want to do what is “right” and have no idea what that might be. The plethora of opinions pull us every which way until we simply have no direction. Lost and alone is not how anyone should feel as a parent.
Some examples of sleep-shaming in particular that I’ve picked up on:
- If you choose guided extinction (sometimes referred to as Cry It Out—but so are some methods that are not the same thing as guided extinction) you are heartless and have no feelings for your baby or any reaction to hearing her cry.
- If you choose pick-up-put-down, you are confusing your child and will only cause them repeated pain and suffering.
- If you choose to co-sleep or attachment parent, you are coddling, putting your child in harm’s way, and avoiding the inevitable.
A mom at the gym I go to was talking to me about her 11-month old and sleep. “We tried everything,” she said, then lowered her voice as she glanced around to be sure no one could hear her, “Eventually, the only thing that worked was letting him cry… a little…for a few nights.” Then she looked at me fearfully, as though I would dial Child Protective Services and rat her out. Instead I said, “But it worked for you, right?” Her response, “It was so hard. But, the turnaround in his mood during the day was immediate and made it so worth it.”
Similarly, when I talk to parents who choose to co-sleep, they often start by saying, “I know I need to think about getting her into her own bed. It’s silly. She’s ready. But…” As though they have to make excuses to me as to why they have chosen this philosophy of sleeping. Again, I say, “Does this work for your family right now? Is everyone getting adequate rest?” Those are the questions we need to care most about. “How could you?” is not.
Neither of these moms is dosing their children with Benadryl to get them to sleep. Neither of them are shaking their children to a state unconsciousness, as so unfortunately happens all too often. Both children are in loving, healthy homes. Both families are getting a full night’s sleep for the most part, because what they are doing is working for them.
As someone who has read every book available and continues to research major academic publications about pediatric sleep, including the biological and developmental repercussions of every method there is to teach a child to sleep, I’ve deduced what is dangerous and unhealthy for babies and children in regards to sleep, and the list isn’t long:
- Constant exhaustion
- Inconsistency from parents
- Trying lots of sleep methods in a short period of time
- Sleeping for long periods of time in a car seat or stroller
- Not providing a safe or healthy environment for sleep.
- Chronically under-rested parents behind the wheel of a vehicle in which a child is riding.
There are far more dangerous, developmentally hindering, mind altering chemicals being released during a constant overtired state than will be released in any method you choose to get your child (and you) needed rest, even if that method involves crying. So really, doing nothing at all to help your child get the rest he or she needs is the most harmful thing you can do.
Most sleep methods do involve at least little bit of protest, crying and upset from a child, because changing the routine in big and small ways causes discomfort. It’s very natural and will happen throughout a child’s life. I have never met a parent who is unaffected by their child’s cry, whether that cry is coming at bedtime or that cry is coming all day because of exhaustion, and I challenge you to find a parent who is. I have never met a child who co-slept who continues to do so long into adulthood. I have met parents who are at a point where they know that what is happening with their child is no longer working, and something needs to change, and they need help in making that change. But they also need support of the parenting community, the love of their mom-friends, and the reassurance that they are helping their child be healthy.
Empathy and understanding that choices originate in so many different places can go a long ways in calling a cease-fire in the Sleep-Shaming front of the Mommy-Wars. Sleep methods are generally chosen based on what the parent needs or can handle—all variables considered. For example, I knew that I would not be able to be consistent with certain methods, so those were off the table because consistency is such a key to success. Some parents can handle some crying if the method is guided and they know that it is crying in the short term. These same parents may not be able to cope with one more day of their child crying all day because he is so tired, or may have other factors affecting their decision. It’s hardly the picture of a heartlessness. Some parents can handle a very slow process or be able to co-sleep for a couple of years and get enough sleep. It’s when a practice stops working for a family that change needs to happen. And on the other side of any parent teaching their child how to sleep is happier, healthier child with parents who have the energy to actively participate in each new day.
So, I’ll put it out there, proudly, in hopes that it gives other parents courage to do the same. Here are the choices I’ve made so far, some through trial and error, some I made on the fly, most I put a lot of thought into. Every single one of them I second guessed at some point. I’m ashamed of none of them.
- I had an epidural. I actually asked for it about a month before Norah was born because I had so much back and pelvic pain. My doctor said no, that I could have it during childbirth and no sooner.
- I’ve breastfed in public and don’t mind when other women do, although, I’ve always preferred to do it in private because it was more comfortable for me.
- I breastfed my daughter until she was 11 months old and she bit me so hard it drew blood. I gave her formula and baby food after that. I did home-made baby food sometimes. Not all the time.
- I never saw myself as a stay-at-home mom, but when I tried to be a working mom I found that it was a path that did not work for me and my daughter. I am now a mom who works at home…in many ways. There are good and bad things about it.
- After trying many methods to help my daughter sleep in a scattered and uneducated way, we were finally successful using a modified extinction method. With many other changes and considerations (consistent routine and earlier bedtime) and more research than I’ve done since my Master’s degree, this is basically what it looked like: If she cried for more than 10 minutes, we would go in a soothe her while she was in her crib. The first night, it took her 30 minutes to fall asleep and she woke up twice in the night for about 20 minutes each. The second night, it took her 15 minutes to fall asleep and she woke up once in the night. The third night, there was no crying and she went peacefully to sleep and woke up once, falling back to sleep in 8 minutes. Since then, she has consistently slept between 10 ½ and 11 1/2 hours through each night without waking up. While those three nights were difficult, I would not choose another route given another chance. I’m proud of the work we did and the work that she did. She blew away my expectations of her.*
…Oh. And I used Mike-N-Ikes or M&Ms to bribe my daughter through potty training AND I let her play on an iPad on airplanes.
Yet, she is remarkable and smart and funny. She is on track and then some, in every way, just like so many other tots and babies who’s parents are making different choices than I have. “Hooray for all of us!!” is what I say! Let’s share in MORE joy, LESS shame.
Every parent I’ve ever met wants their child to be rested, wants their child to be developmentally healthy and thriving and happy. To shame one another about anything casts a terrible shadow of doubt where the cup runneth over with doubt already and at every turn in this very difficult, very rewarding journey. Believing that the choices we make for our children are the best choices that anyone should ever make for their children lands us squarely in a cycle of judgment, where we don’t feel like we can have honest conversations about our own philosophies which are almost always rooted in nothing but love. Instead of alienating one another, simply believing that everyone is doing what is best for them and their families should put our minds to rest and allow us to be on the same side—the side where we raise good, kind, healthy, happy children into good, kind, healthy, happy adults. Right?