A couple of months ago, my aunt was visiting me and the subject of our 2-year-old co-sleeping came up. My aunt said she couldn’t have coped with that, “but then I’ve always been the sort of person who needs to have everything where it belongs, even when I was a little girl.” It didn’t seem worthwhile to attempt to question the paradigm that assumes a baby doesn’t ‘belong’ in her parents’ bed, let alone apparently views a child much like a pair of socks (‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ ;)).
Then she dropped the line that every parent who makes a choice slightly different from the norm will hear at some point: “Sometimes we can be making a rod for our own backs, too.”
- Feed babies ‘on demand’ and they’ll grow up to be demanding children.
- Sleep with your baby and you’ll never get him out of your bed.
- Feeding your baby to sleep and through the night means they’re not learning to sleep on their own.
- If you don’t punish your children, they won’t learn right from wrong.
I passed some bean dip to my aunt, but I’m going to address her comment here.
Firstly, I’ve never really understood the logic of the ‘rod for your own back’ comment. It almost seems as if some people want to make parents’ lives as stressful as possible in the early months/years (as if new parents didn’t already have enough to cope with!), on the pretext of making their lives easier later on. It’s not necessarily even true – some children will decide of their own accord that it’s time to move into their own beds, or stop feeding to sleep, before their parents are no longer happy with the arrangement.
Even if it is true in a given instance – if, for instane, I will be working hard in a year or two to get my daughter out of my bed – why does my aunt think it’s intrinsically better to do that work sooner? Cosleeping works for us now – can’t I cross that bridge when I come to it?
But I’ve been thinking lately that it’s often more a question of ‘picking your rod.’
For example, a friend once smugly told us she’d taught her baby to play after feeding, instead of feeding to sleep. I was pregnant at the time, and had been researching breastfeeding. I knew there were hormones in breastmilk designed to help mum and baby sleep, so I was stunned that she would have deliberately interfered with what looked to me like God’s excellent design. When I asked why, she said there are a lot of toddlers having inconvenient naps after meals because they are used to sleeping after a feed.
A year or so later, knowing that our babies shared the problem of excessive wind at night, I excitedly told my friend how I’d discovered ‘dream-feeding’: I didn’t have to wait until my baby was fully awake at night to feed him, and when I fed him in a drowsy state he settled much more easily. I was now getting 1.5 hours more sleep each night than I had before, even though he was feeding a little more often! She said mournfully, “I was never able to dream-feed B.” I felt like saying, “What do you expect? You deliberately dissociated sleep and feeding!” In trying to avoid one potential rod, she had created another. (Well, to be honest, I never observed her to have fewer toddler sleep/nap problems than other mums I know, either).
Here are a few ‘rods’ I’m choosing, partly in the hope they’ll prevent worse ones in future:
- There are nights we’d like our bed to ourselves – but we hope that as we make ourselves available to our children at night for the first years of their lives, they will associate sleep with feelings of security and comfort – rather than isolation or panic at being left alone – and that this will prevent sleep problems like recurring nightmares as they get older.
- When I fed my babies through the night, I was passing on the hormones that were in my own body. There is some evidence that this might help the baby’s system to learn a normal hormone pattern for sleep in its culture (sleep patterns are quite different around the world). So cue-feeding through the night is really ‘sleep training’ 😉
- Feeding my children beyond their second year promotes normal healthy bone and jaw development and supports their immune systems. Sometimes I feel like I’d love to have my body back, but for me, the hope that I’ll spend a lot less time in doctor’s waiting rooms and emergency rooms in the future – not to mention the thought that I’m setting their bodies up for health throughout their lives – is worth a little inconvenience now. Breastfeeding is also good for my health, so it means less doctor visits for me, too.
- We want our children’s moral sense to grow out of a trusting relationship with us and ultimately God, not fear of punishment. Teaching their hearts is harder than moulding their behaviour, but God has promised, ‘Peacemakers who sow in peace will raise a harvest of righteousness’ (James 3:18). We don’t always live up to it, but our goal for our whole family to live in shalom (peace, wholeness) and grow in righteousness.
This isn’t the whole story, either. Most of these ‘rods’ have great short-term benefits, too. In fact, calling them rods is really not all that fair. Feeding to sleep, for example, makes my life easier most of the time.
In no way do I intend this post to judge the choices others have made that have been different from mine. I am not saying that my parenting journey has been or will be painless. On the contrary, what I’m saying is there are no guarantees. No single ‘parenting style’ or ‘discipline method’ will produce a life of ease and convenience for the parents, or a perfect child.
I would encourage you, though, to think about what is really important to you in the short- and long-term: On the one hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – don’t trade the possibility of future convenience for the certainty of present stress (for yourself or your child). On the other hand, if the long-term goal has true value to you, it’s worth some occasional inconvenience or short-term work or pain to get it.