(You should probably take this post with several grains of salt, because my son is only seven months old, and he is also a very very easygoing baby. He does not cry unless there is a reason and is usually soothed relatively easily. I would take credit for my excellent parenting but I am perfectly aware that it is the product of his innate temperament.)
Before I became a parent, I read about attachment parenting, the Ferber method, RIE, cosleeping, elimination communication, the Happiest Baby on the Block, and various other baby-parenting strategies and philosophies. However, after Viktor was born, I invented my own philosophy of parenting babies. It is called If The Baby Wants It It Is Probably Good For Him.
I feed Viktor whenever he seems to be hungry. I put him down for a nap when he seems to be drowsy. (He does have a regular bedtime, because he’s better at falling asleep for naps than he is at falling asleep in the evening, and if he doesn’t have a bedtime he stays up too late and gets crabby.) I started solids when he started grabbing for food; when he kept grabbing for the spoon and trying to put it in his mouth, I switched to giving him soft food that he could feed himself with. I put him in his baby swing when he was fussy until he was about four months old, when it started making him cry more; I assumed that meant he’d grown out of it. I carry him and cuddle him when he is fussy but not hungry, because that calms him down.
I put all his toys on the floor so that he could crawl around and put them in his mouth, which is the thing he finds most interesting in all the world. I talk to him regularly, because he seems to enjoy it. I try out various games and repeat the ones that make him laugh. (The book The Wonder Weeks makes some dubious factual claims, but its list of games to play with babies is top-notch; Viktor loves almost all of them.) Therefore, I spend lots of time bouncing him on my knees, chomping on his ears, dancing my fingers on his tummy, holding onto his hands and pulling his torso in circles while he sits, and turning him upside down so he stands on his head.
I think this is a pretty good parenting philosophy. In the short run, I’m doing things that make him happy and not doing things that make him unhappy, which means that he probably enjoys life overall most of the time.
As for the long run, well, I think the wants and needs of babies have evolved for millions of years. Throughout most of those millions of years, no one read any parenting books or followed any American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. No one had clocks to schedule the baby’s next feeding. It seems to me that babies probably evolved to guide their parents into doing what is best for them. It would be really weird if evolution made babies cry to be held if actually being held was really bad for them; it would be very strange if evolution made exploration, conversation, roughhousing, and music rewarding to babies if they didn’t get anything out of it.
There aren’t a lot of randomized controlled trials of parenting; the evidence about what parenting strategies work best in the long term is pretty limited. So in the short run I’m going to follow the guidance of evolution.
I think there are two general exceptions to the rule that If The Baby Wants It It Is Probably Good For Him. These are safety and sanity (parental).
First, sometimes babies are just wrong about whether things are dangerous or beneficial. For example, Viktor does not know that if he chomps on an electrical cord he could get an electric shock; he just knows that he likes exploring things with his mouth. Viktor does not know that vaccinations protect him from disease; he just knows that they hurt. Viktor does not know that eleven percent of American one-year-olds are anemic; he just knows that his iron supplement makes him gag. In all such cases, it makes sense for the parent to overrule the baby.
Second, parents need to maintain their sanity. Sometimes you need to set the baby down for a bit. Sometimes you need to set the baby down for a bit even though the baby is screaming and needs attention RIGHT NOW. RIGHT NOW!!!! No child ever died of being left to cry for fifteen minutes in a crib, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need so that you don’t scream or shake the baby.
One particularly important area for parental sanity is sleep. A randomized controlled trial has shown that letting your child cry it out has absolutely no long-term effect. While studies have suggested that bedsharing is slightly more dangerous than not bedsharing,the effect size is quite small and probably outweighed by the fact that a parent who has gotten enough sleep is less likely to get into a car accident. There is no reason to believe that there are any long-term psychological effects from any way of sleeping with your child. Bedsharing will not cause your child to be dependent, and cry-it-out-style sleep training will not result in poor attachment or lifelong trauma.
In conclusion, with a handful of exceptions such as putting your child on their back and not trying to train a newborn to sleep through the night, the right way to handle your child’s sleep is the way that gets you enough sleep.
When I first had Viktor, I thought we would bedshare. However, Viktor would sometimes roll under me in a frightening way and sometimes roll off the bed. We got a cosleeper and that worked really well for the first six months. When Viktor turned six months old, waking up three times a night to feed him became unsustainable. We tried gentle sleep-training strategies with limited success and eventually settled on putting Viktor in his own room and closing both our door and the door to his bedroom. His bedroom is very safe, infant mortality is quite low, and he usually stays in his cosleeper all night, so not being able to hear him is a risk we’re comfortable taking. He is happy and cheerful in the morning and the upstairs neighbors haven’t complained, and when he goes to sleep at bedtime he fusses for five to ten minutes before he goes to sleep.
In summary, here are the key points of the Ozy Baby Parenting Philosophy:
- Give babies what they want.
- Most babies want food, cuddles, music, play, naptime, conversation, and rocking motions, but your baby is the expert on what they want.
- Parenting books should be used for ideas about what your baby might want, not as rigid rules about what you have to follow.
- Don’t let babies do things that hurt them.
- Don’t let babies do things that make you want to scream and tear your hair out.
- Sleep is incredibly important and, unless there is a safety concern that outweighs the risk of a sleep-deprived person crashing a car, you should do whatever gives you enough sleep.