A young couple already has decided to bring their as-yet-unborn child to your group. Now they are interviewing each member in hopes of finding a primary care physician who will best fit their expectations. Their second question for you is, “How do you feel about letting a baby cry itself to sleep?”
You sense that their question is a Rorschach test and a sneaky attempt to peer into what makes you tick. But let’s pretend for a moment that you are seized by a brain cramp and fail to do the obvious by turning the question around and asking them about how they feel about sleep training. Instead, you shoot from the hip. How would you respond?
Would you tell them that allowing a child to cry himself to sleep is neither dangerous nor cruel? Nor does it commit the child to a life of insecurity and emotional imbalance. In your opinion, if done correctly, it is usually the quickest and least painful way to help a child develop healthy sleep habits.
Or would you tell them that their child’s cry means that he needs something, and it is their responsibility to meet that need? That you believe letting a child cry himself to sleep is cruel and that it is better to let a child develop the skill of falling to sleep naturally at his own pace.
Because you neglected to first determine where these parents are coming from, regardless of which end of the spectrum you favor, your candid, nuance-free answer is likely to be a problem for somebody. If you revealed that you are a let-’em-cry proponent, the parents who were looking for a sensitive, child-centered pediatrician will quickly cross you off their list. However, if the parents choose you because you presented yourself as a let-nature-take-its-time pediatrician, they may have narrowed their options when their baby fails to settle in easily.
The challenge of how best to advise parents about infant sleep problems is a prime example of when practicing primary care medicine becomes an art. The answer to the let-’em-cry … or not dilemma is saturated with emotion and pretty much devoid of supporting scientific data. My gut, my personality, and 40 years of experience tell me that, more often than not, letting children cry themselves to sleep is the better approach. However, experience also has told me to keep my mouth shut when the topic of infant sleep is painted in the black-and-white question of let ‘em cry … or not.
The best approach is to learn as much as possible about the baby’s parents. Do they have similar or widely differing tolerances for a crying infant? I won’t really learn this until the parenting game has begun. Will I be able to convince these parents that, while it may be their responsibility to meet their crying child’s needs, one of those needs is the need to fall asleep? Or will I be wasting my time by trying to change their instincts?
Regardless of your own bias, your advice must be tailored to each individual family’s strengths and vulnerabilities, including the child’s temperament and the parents’ emotional resilience and tolerance for crying. Just as when we are counseling a mother who is nearing the end of her struggle with breastfeeding, a pediatrician must be prepared to become a chameleon and leave his or her bias behind.
One of the best strategies for avoiding that treacherous let-’em-cry … or not fork in the road is to promote good sleep habits from the beginning. When a baby is gaining weight, I encourage mothers to shorten feedings so that the baby finishes most feedings sated and drowsy but not fully asleep. I urge parents who find that a pacifier helps to use it only when the child is in his crib and to create a dim light, minimal-stimulation environment from around 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. By encouraging families to adopt these and other sleep-friendly practices early, I can often avoid revealing the ugly truth that, at my core, I am really a let-’em-cry guy.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”