Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Shall I Let You Cry Some More?
Six months ago, I gave birth to a wonderful baby whom we named Helios.
During these six months, I’ve literally lived for him and him alone. I stopped working and exercising. I saw friends only occasionally. I ate fast, like really fast. I even felt like I didn’t even breathe anymore sometimes. I guess I needed to do everything that I ever told my students and other people who came to me for advice. As a first-time mom, however, it’s not so easy with my little star. Maybe you’re thinking that I should have read some books about parenting first. I actually read many books about parenting, sleep habits, and so on, but if I’ve learned something valuable in these past six months, it’s that every baby is unique and parenting is not something that comes with a manual. Let’s start from the beginning shall we?
I had a wonderful pregnancy. (Some of you may have read my previous articles about it.) I was as healthy and as energetic as ever. I continued eating healthily, exercising regularly, and sleeping well. I didn’t experience any of the common problems during pregnancy, and I even worked out on the day I went into labor (two hours of walking and 45 minutes of Pilates). I had hoped to have a natural delivery without an epidural, but life is not always so accommodating. After some three hours, I was so tired that I asked for the epidural (my dilation was at five), because I came to believe I wouldn’t be able to push when the time came. The wise lady also told us that without it, it would take at least another five hours before I was completely dilated, so I followed her advice. The epidural in itself was very painful, but I could at least then finally rest a little. Two hours later, I was ready for the delivery, but I also started to feel the contractions, so I asked if it was possible to have a little more medication if the delivery was too painful. The wise lady recommended against it so I could feel the pushing, so I again followed her advice, and it was really easy to manage the pain. After a few minutes, however, she came and administered some more medication anyway! It was not just a little either but rather a complete dose! From that moment on, I didn’t feel anything at all, not even my toes! This meant I couldn’t push the baby. I was so frustrated and disappointed in myself. All those delivery preparation classes I took had been for nothing! What’s more, the doctor said the baby was positioned too high, so he needed to use forceps. This was a real disaster for me. Finally, the baby arrived with no health problems, but mommy was not fine at all.
Three days after the delivery, I still couldn’t walk. Every time I tried, I just bent over double. I started to feel severe neck ache as well. A few days later, a nurse told me I had a breach in my spinal cord due to the epidural! My options were clear: I could stay like this for lord knows how long, or I could undergo a blood patch. This procedure resembles the original epidural, but instead of medication, the patient’s own blood is injected into the spinal cord to repair the breach. I chose the blood patch, and two days later, I was finally sent home!
During these five days in the hospital, I would lie on the bed while my husband cared for the baby. He changed his diapers and learned how to wash him. All I could do was to breastfeed him.
Following the delivery, Helios stayed with me, skin to skin, for some time. The nurses later took him away for an examination, and when they returned, they placed him in a crib so I could rest as well. He slept and didn’t eat for a long time. Around midnight, he woke up and started crying. I fed him, but he continued crying. The nurse suggested he was realizing that he was separated from his mommy, and this was why he cried. I therefore took him into bed with me and since then, we always slept together. Whenever I tried to leave him in a crib, he would wake up. He just couldn’t sleep alone, and I have some theories about why:
- I was so disappointed at not being able to push during the delivery that I wanted to at least keep him close and help him sleep.
- He became stressed when separated from his mommy during the blood patch procedure, so he now wanted to stay with me constantly.
- He was abandoned in one of his previous lives, so he is afraid of being abandoned again and wants to stay close to his mommy.
- His father is so afraid he might die of cot death that he doesn’t want to be away from his baby, so Helios senses this anxiety.
We have what we call a family bed, and the three of us slept together in it. Helios had his own room with his own crib, and there was a co-sleeping crib next to our bed. None of this mattered, though, because he always wanted to sleep with his mommy.
I can see the situation evolving now, however. At first, he couldn’t be apart from me for more than five minutes, even when he was awake. He hated his stroller, so I used a sling to walk with him. Someone else had to hold him so I could eat. Today, he can sleep for 30–120 minutes alone, at least if I settle him down first. By his fourth month, I had started putting him in his crib during the day. If he didn’t want to be alone, I never forced it but rather lay down with him. He also likes his stroller as well now, so we can walk for hours without any complaints.
For all these improvements, I had to be very patient. Most times, it meant I couldn’t do anything other than sit on the couch with him sleeping in my arms. Of course, I later started to have serious back problems, because sitting for so long is very dangerous. I then started to sleep with him instead. I sometimes had the feeling I did nothing other than eat and sleep. Last week, however, I started to get back on track: I now do yoga and Pilates regularly and teach my Pilates classes again. I also write articles and study for my nutrition courses.
I admit that I didn’t enjoy all those hours sleeping and sitting. I was mildly depressed for a couple of weeks, and during this period, I read much about baby sleep problems and techniques to help them sleep. Here is some of the advice I found:
- Cry it out: Kiss the baby and say “Night, night” before placing him in his crib. If he cries, don’t come back but rather ignore it. He should stop and fall asleep eventually.
- Reduce parental presence: Place the baby in his bed, with you either sitting on a nearby chair or lying down with him. Each day, pay less attention to him, stay less with him, and try leaving the room before he sleeps. Come back before he cries, however, to show that you can be depended upon. In the end, he will learn to become more comfortable and fall asleep.
- The 5-10-15 method: Put your little one in his bed before leaving the room and closing the door. Five minutes later, come back to say you love him and tell him it’s time to sleep. Do not stay more than a few minutes with him. Your next visit will be in 10 minutes time, with another one 15 minutes later. Even if he cries, you should not go to him before it’s time. This continues until he falls asleep.
- Routine: Whichever method you decide upon, you should first set a predictable sleep routine for your baby. It might involve singing a few songs, taking a relaxing bath, or reading stories to him, basically anything you enjoy that will calm your baby. With this routine, he’ll come to associate it with sleeping time. The predictability will also reassure him. You should also set a wake up routine to start the day.
- Put your baby to bed when he’s drowsy but not yet sleeping: Whatever you do, do not let your baby sleep in your arms. Put him to bed when he’s drowsy enough but not yet asleep. This way, he’ll know how to fall back to sleep if he wakes up.
After reading all this, the only thing we did was to set bedtime and wake-up routines. Helios takes a bath or watches me shower, and then his father gives him a massage and changes his diaper. I then feed him and sing to him. We also sometimes dance a little before the final song because he just loves the motion. After a while, he falls asleep in my arms with my breast still in his mouth.
I’m sure the other advice works fine for many babies and parents, but it just didn’t fit with Helios and our family. We are Mediterranean folk. Where I grew up, mothers have coaxed their babies to sleep for centuries. Maybe it takes hours to nurse a baby in the arms, on the legs, or on a swing, but the mother never leaves the baby alone until he or she is sleeping. This is also how I see it: A mother nurses her baby to sleep. As for Helios, even when I tried putting him to bed while sleeping, he always immediately woke up. How was I supposed to put him to bed drowsy and expect him to fall asleep on his own? He is the kind of baby who doesn’t cry unless he feels pain, but he complains a lot when we let him play on his mat. He simply wants to move, but he can’t on his own for the moment. The complaints very easily turn to crying, and he can keep this up for some time. This crying is the main subject of this article!
Letting a Baby Cry Causes Stress
Imagine that you had an accident and couldn’t talk or walk. You would need someone to take care of you, right? You are all alone in your bed, and you want your nurse to come and help you with something, but you cannot call out. What would you do? You would cry of course! If your helper still didn’t come, and you knew he or she was nearby, you would get angry and cry louder. Now, would you still trust this person? How would you feel in this situation? You would likely become distressed. This is exactly what happens to babies every time they cry but nobody comes to help.
When our friends learned about how we slept with Helios and never let him cry, they said he needs to cry in order to learn about frustration. However, the first three months of a baby’s life can be regarded as the fourth trimester of pregnancy. This is when a baby gets to learn about his or her new surroundings. Babies come from their mothers’ womb of course, which is a warm, cozy place with many sounds, motions, and an abundance of food and no need to even breathe. Then we ask then to change all their habits and become what we want, to sleep quietly without contact from momma or poppa. They need to ask for food when they are hungry, but they shouldn’t just cry for it. How would you feel if you were forced to sleep in a strange place, were fed less, and could never ask for more? You would surely need some time to adapt, and it’s just the same for your baby. Babies need time to get used to their new surroundings and living conditions. Holding them in your arms is just welcoming them as they deserve to be, and by sleeping with them, the smells they remember from the womb comfort them (breasts have the same odor as the placenta). After three months, you can start teaching your baby new things, but I preferred to be as gentle as possible until then.
Why on earth would I want my baby to learn frustration? Here are some things Helios would learn if we let him cry:
Momma and poppa don’t care about me, and I can’t trust them! I’m alone on this strange planet where I don’t understand anything. No one listens to me, not even my parents. Maybe I should cry even louder and force them to listen to me if I need something…
Anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, loneliness are some of the feelings that result when you ignore babies and let them cry. Moreover, when parents are tired from the grind of everyday life, they lose patience very quickly. Instead of calming their babies, they sometimes shout at them: “I’ve had it with you! Stop acting so spoiled! You cry for no reason, and you never do what I tell you to. I don’t want to hear you anymore.” Stress is the inevitable outcome of all this.
Stress Is Toxic for an Organism
Stress triggers a flow of adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are released by the adrenal glands. In normal amounts, an individual feels very energetic. When the amount increases, however, the same person grows anxious and/or angry. He or she becomes filled with fear and the body becomes hyper-vigilant, ready to attack or retreat. Cortisol, likewise, is very useful in moderate amounts. It increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood, calming a stressed body. A higher amount of cortisol, however, creates a feeling of powerlessness, discouragement, sadness, and insecurity. A prolonged elevation of cortisol can also modify the metabolism and the immune system. This can then lead to autoimmune and other chronic illnesses like diabetes, polyarthritis, and so on. If you think about the undeveloped brain of a baby or young infant, the damage can be very severe.
The secretion of these three substances also explains the behavioral changes in our little ones. They lose confidence as they feel threatened by the world and the people around them. This distrust leads them to become depressed, to isolate themselves, or to become aggressive and antisocial.
Fortunately, the body also secretes an anti-stress hormone called oxytocin. This anxiolytic (something that prevents anxiety) is secreted when a person is in a positive situation, decreasing the secretion of cortisol and calming the person. When your baby is in contact with you, such as sleeping in your arms if he or she needs it, his or her body secretes oxytocin. My husband and I do our level best to keep our son full of this hormone.
Sleep Is a Complex Phenomenon
Think about yourself. How do you sleep? It’s really a complicated issue. In order to sleep, you need to relax and let your body go. For that, you need to feel safe in your environment and trust the people around you. You need to feel secure. These feelings can take some time to cultivate in a baby whose brain is not yet developed. Letting a baby cry could only make things worse.
In many cultures around the world, parents sleep with their babies for a long time, even a year or two. What’s more, think about African women working in the fields. They keep their babies with them constantly. These babies get to be with their mothers all the time.
In Western culture, we try to rush things. It’s ironic how we want babies but expect them to behave like adults and adopt the routines and behaviors we promote to them. We want babies, but we want to get away from them as soon as possible without giving them the time to construct a healthy relationship with their new surroundings!
We let respect and love rule in our family. We do not try to enforce behaviors and habits on Helios. We accept that he has his own personality, even just after birth but more so at six months, and we help him like we would an adult. I wouldn’t let an adult cry if I could help, so I also don’t let my son cry alone. (If he happens to cry while he’s with us, we try to understand why and demonstrate how we care.) If he wants to sleep with me, I’m happy to let him. What do you think the early humans used to do? Did they hide their babies away, so they could learn to sleep alone and become independent? Am I too traditional? If so, so be it, but I will never let you cry, my little star