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06/28/2005

How to alienate half your readers with one simple sentence

Charlie cries it out.

If you've been reading for a while, you might recall that when left to his own devices, Charlie takes naps of no more than 47 minutes in duration. I asked Charlie's pediatrician if there was any help for it, and she shook her head grimly. I consulted Weissbluth, who warns that children who take short naps are less adaptable, less attentive, and more likely to mow down their kindergarten class in a devastating hail of gunfire, but also says — without so much as an apology for destroying my fragile dreams — that "you cannot make short nappers into long nappers." And then I asked Charlie's neonatologist, who said, "Oh, that's easy."

"When you put him down," she said, "set a timer for an hour. Then go outside where you can't hear him, and don't go in until the timer rings." Then she paused, to give her next words special weight. "And do not," she said sternly, "take the baby monitor with you."

We started that day. At the end of the hour, when I went back inside, Charlie was just winding down. Hearing his complaints diminish, I planned to wait five more minutes before going in to see him. It didn't take even that long: before five minutes were up, Charlie was back asleep, and didn't wake again for another hour.

Since then we haven't looked back. We've made some adjustments; if he wakes much before the magical 45-minute mark, it's generally because he's hungry or has rolled over and can't get comfortable again, so one of us goes in and soothes him back to sleep, usually without difficulty. I no longer set a timer, having developed a sense of how long is long enough. And I seldom go where I can't hear him.

I think it's supposed to bother me to hear him cry. I know it bothers more experienced mothers than I. And I've heard more than once about parents who are determined to try, but crumble in the face of prolonged howling. I get the distinct impression that hearing him cry and not going to him should make me feel like my heart's being ripped, still beating, from my chest (heaving, natch, with sobs).

But I have to tell you it doesn't. I know he's not hurt, ill, hungry, soiled, or wet. He's physically fine. And though he's unhappy, it's transient and, I believe, superficial. See, I don't interpret those premature-end-of-nap cries as "Help me, I'm alone and frightened and I'm worried you'll never come back." I hear it more as, "Hey, here I am, ready to play! Hey! It's time to wake up! Heeeeeeey! Big lady-shaped person! C'mere! I've had enough sleep!" To which my response must necessarily be, "The hell you have."

About 80% of the time I'm right. Most of the time, after 10-15 minutes of low-level complaining, he settles back in for a long continuation of his nap, for a total of anywhere from two to two-and-a-half hours, a reasonable length by anyone's definition. The rest of the time, I let him round out the prescribed hour, then go to him in his crib. He stops crying immediately, and is invariably delighted to see me — not heartbroken, not inconsolable, not betrayed — just as he is when he's managed that longer nap. The difference is, when he's slept the longer stretch, I'm delighted to see him, too.

I am only too happy to trade those 10-15 minutes of crying for the sleep he certainly needs and that mutual delight. It seems like a fair exchange.

I'm well aware that people who oppose crying it out might accuse me of a lack of empathy or warn that I'm jeopardizing Charlie's trust. The only answer I have to that is to say that I do care about Charlie's feelings, passionately. It's just that I care about his obvious need for solid sleep and the collective sanity of the family a little bit more.

But then I never thought I'd be the kind of parent who couldn't leave a baby to soothe himself. I didn't feel a visceral resistance to doing so, and I never thought it was categorically cruel to hear your child cry and yet not respond. So far I see it as a means to greater household harmony, one I hope will be only temporarily necessary. After all, I don't enjoy hearing him cry...it's just that in this case it doesn't gut me.

Am I damaging our boy or our relationship? Do me a favor: if you think so, don't tell me. I won't hear it anyway. I'll be in the yard, out of earshot.

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