The Night Wakings

Stay calm and gentle always.  Yes, it is frustrating to not get the sleep we need especially when we are trying to do everything we can to help our babies and small children get the sleep that they need.  But a plain fact of life is that babies and children will wake up at night.  They won’t consistently sleep through the night until they are between the ages of four and six years.  We have to accept this because if we do not, we are setting ourselves up for some major disappointment and unnecessary set-back.  We cannot expect to have the nights to ourselves (you know, to work, rest, or sleep without having to tend to babies or children).  At least not yet.  The time will come, though.  We know that it will because our older children have shown that to be true.  As long as we have multiple children and someone between the ages of zero and four years, we will need to surrender our nights.  Is this fair?  Of course it isn’t.  But parenting well (and, specifically, mothering well) means that we suck it up and do what we have to do so that our children are well cared for.  It’s inhumane (strong to say, I know) to let our children cry and cry and cry just because we don’t want to get up or because it’s not time for their feeding or their diaper change or their scheduled holding.  Any schedule that we have in our heads is only a flexible framework to use so that we don’t lose track of time and forget to do the essential things if our children happen to be at ease for an extended amount of time.  Whenever our children need us, we go to them!  We don’t make them wait for the sake of waiting.  All of those waiting lessons come later—much later (age 5 and 6 years is about right)—and they are integrated into daily life gradually and with practical context.

This is a complete 180 from how many parents raised their children not too long ago (I am one of those children), where a child’s cries (including an infant’s cries) were interpreted as something to be ignored lest the child become spoiled.  This is completely incorrect, most especially when we are talking about newborns and babies between ages zero and two years.  The little bit that I know about child development summons the work of Erik Erikson and his stages of psycho-social development.  The stage of age zero to about one and a half years is about building trust, and if parents are completely ignoring their babies’ cries, then there is little room for trust-building and a lot of room for dysfunction (or at least mistrust, which lays eggs for dysfunction) to grow.

So decide right now that you’re going to respond to your baby’s or child’s cries, whether it be day or night.  Ignoring the cries may get your baby or child to stop crying after a while, but it won’t be because they’re suddenly “okay” and that you did them a favor by helping them to “soothe themselves.”  It will be because they are learning that you will not come when they cry.  And why would we ever want our babies and children to learn something like this?

So when we do come, let us do so calmly, gently, and soothingly.  We are their loving parent!  And even in the middle of the night (and multiple times at night), our children can trust us to treat them lovingly and with great care and tenderness.  Parents have the toughest job that there is!  There is no denying this!  But we can grow into this position by cultivating an attitude that says I’m-always-here-for-you-no-matter-what.  No matter if we’re tired and need our sleep.  No matter if this is the tenth time we’ve had to get up.  No matter if we would prefer that they fall back to sleep lying down instead of being carried.  No matter if we’ve already done everything that we can think of.  No matter if we feel foolish for bending to our children’s needs so much.  Our children will go back to sleep (and they will grow out of babyhood).  They won’t stay awake all night (even if it feels like it)—and they won’t forever need us to help them go back to sleep.  So we will get our sleep (or at least some of it for the time being).  And in the process we will be growing a very valuable kind of relationship with our children that breathes security and comfort into them.  And we can feel good for knowing that we did right by them—even if it was tough on us—because we are also doing right by ourselves by being the kind of parent we know we are and want to better become.

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