Colic, Sleep Deprivation, and the Dangers of Dogma (from the Momplex Blog archives)

When I was pregnant, I didn’t read parenting books. Seasoned moms said my instincts would be all I needed, and I believed them. Babies sleep. Babies poop. Babies eat. You put them down when they’re tired. You change their diapers when they’re dirty. You feed them when they’re hungry. And you do any and all of the above when they cry. I presume that advice is probably sound advice for most moms and babies. But as it turns out, the usefulness of instinct goes only so far with some situations.

My daughter arrived a few weeks early, yellow and small. It’s almost laughable to recall that we had trouble rousing her during her recovery from jaundice. I remember gripping my own breast in my hands and sliding the nipple back and forth across her mouth to make sure she got a little sustenance, and she’d just be out cold. But man, when she came out of it three weeks later? What a change.

My daughter cried. A lot. And cried and cried and cried. She had a whistle-register cry, and people used to joke that she sounded like Mariah Carey. She spit up constantly, and she was a dreadfully bad sleeper, sometimes going whole days without napping and usually waking up at least five or six times at night. My husband couldn’t help as much as he wanted, because he was at work all day, and anyway, my daughter just wanted to nurse. And nurse and nurse and nurse. I still remember one day when I felt completely liberated just to be able to set her in a bouncy chair while I stood—in her full view—across the room without her screaming hysterically. It lasted about 15 minutes.

Maybe she has attachment issues? Could it be reflux? She just doesn’t need to sleep as much as other babies. You’re putting her down when she’s overtired. You’re overstimulating her. You haven’t waited long enough between naps. Don’t look into her eyes. Don’t let her nurse for too long. Are you letting her nurse long enough? Maybe it’s gas. Is there an allergy? Try eliminating dairy from your diet. Maybe she needs soy. Cut out all chocolate. Is there a neurological problem? Don’t bounce her. Do bounce her. Have you tried swaddling? Have you tried the Miracle Blanket? The swaddle looks too tight. No, maybe it’s too loose. How about an Amby bed? Want to borrow my Maya Wrap? Put her down awake. Put her down sleepy. Set her car seat on the dryer. Run the vacuum. Don’t keep a quiet house. Do keep a quiet house. Never put her down. Sleep her on her back. Answer her cries. Ignore them. Did you test her for reflux again?


Don’t think we weren’t looking for answers—at the doctor’s office, in books, on TV shows, and of course, from other parents. Coupled with all the unsolicited advice I got, I feel pretty good saying I did my homework. Yet it seemed the more responsive I was to my daughter’s wailing, the more demanding she grew. Everyone kept assuring me this would all get better, but it just kept getting worse. And I, stupidly, just kept tightening my grip on my dream of being one of those “gentle parenting” parents who can solve any problem with a boob, sling, or co-sleeping. I was going to be damned if I let my baby cry it out.

Well, here is something the gentle parenting books—the very ones that most closely jibed with my fantasies of how parenting should be—fail to mention: A chronically sleep-deprived caregiver is far more dangerous to a baby than being left alone to cry. And getting a desperate mother the critical medication or rest she needs is ultimately a lot more important to baby’s wellbeing than breastfeeding is. If you are a mom who went through or is currently going through the sleep hell I’m describing, you know that these can be real-life either/or scenarios. This is not hyperbole.

Not happy...not a one of us
Mad…and not gonna take it anymore!

There finally came a day, 8.5 months into my daughter’s life, when I realized I was in a truly precarious mental state. By then, I’d begun fantasizing about driving away from my house and never coming back. It sometimes took every last ounce of self-control I had to not harm my own baby. Mother-rage has to be one of the worst feelings in the world. I know from talking to other parents that these terrifying impulses happen to tired and isolated parents more often than you think, even with people whose babies have “normal” crying. But if a few nights of bad sleep or a few days with a heap of shrill crying can turn a regular parent into a regular nutcase, just imagine what eight months of it can do.

So, there came a point when I made a choice–to give the arrogant faction of the “gentle parenting” community the boot before I completely snapped. I didn’t allow their commentaries, judgment, or advice to sway me from doing the thing they’d so long warned me was “barbaric”–to just let our baby cry it out. Sure, doing that went pretty hard against the grain of my mom fantasies. But there was nothing left to try, and I couldn’t go on in that state of stress and exhaustion any longer. The process took weeks, not days, but it worked. After it was all done? We FINALLY got to meet our real baby. This one wasn’t miserable and crying and constantly looking at my aureole. She was rested, happier, more playful, and had a wonderful personality. She didn’t break, and our whole family’s life improved immeasurably.

So, now you see: When I talked last week about kids shattering their parents’ dreams of parenthood? Not being able to sing a lullaby was even smaller potatoes than I made out. I dreamt from before she was even born of holding and rocking my baby girl, comforting her crying, and being that mom that always knew what her child needed. Naturally, I wanted to be good at the one thing a mother is supposed to be good at—knowing her child’s needs and answering them. In my obsession with that ideal, I instead just got good at judgy parenting dogma, and I found myself putting that dogma ahead of our family’s wellbeing.

It took me 8.5 months to do it, but letting a parenting fantasy die so that I could make the best of our reality was one of the best things I ever did. Come to think of it, I did end up being that mom that knew best what her child needed, pretty much as I was told when I was pregnant. It just took me a while to tune out the peanut gallery and realize it. More than eight years (and a second child) later, I can tell you things turned out just fine.

17 thoughts on “Colic, Sleep Deprivation, and the Dangers of Dogma (from the Momplex Blog archives)

  1. I cannot tell you how encouraging this is to hear! I am only four months into this whole motherhood business and already I have had to make decisions for our family that cause others to shake their heads. Trusting those motherly instincts despite all of the *kind* advice from others has proven to be one of the most challenging hurdles I have had to face. But we have survived another day, so it can’t be that bad, right? =)

    1. Good for you. I wish I’D figured more of that out by four months! It took me so long to realize that nobody else knew what my baby needed as well as I did. Since she cried so much, I didn’t get a lot of natural positive reinforcement to let me know I was doing things okay. And I do think new parents’ insecurities are exploited by dogmatic “veteran” parents who for whatever reason are deeply concerned about how everyone else raises their kids, from what you feed them to how you discipline them. I know it may take a village, but it’s nice when you get to choose which villagers you actually want at your party. 😉

  2. Bravo! Thank you for this honest look at what parenting is often really like. The best advice my mother always gave me from the minute I got pregnant was to “take care of the mom.” I always thought it was so strange. The books and experts and friends always talked about the baby. Take care of the mom? Well, she was right. No good parening plan can work if I’m in my closet crying alone Sure, even when I tried to take care of myself I still found myself in the closet on certain days- that’s just life as a parent. And it was certainly difficult to learn to take care of myself not because I had beautiful dreams of the type of mom I wanted to be, but because I was a prideful martyr, if I can be completely honest. It was ridiculous. And we all suffered for it. Once I realized OUR welfare as a family was more important than being able to say “I do it all and don’t even take naps” I was able to focus on what was important and what needed to be done.

    It’s hard to let go of our dreams- or more accurately, let them evolve and changes. Hats off to you for doing that. And hats off for being honest about it and sharing it with the rest of us.’

    1. You know, it really is kind of funny how we fuss and sweat and worry over making sure baby’s crib, carseat, carrier, food, highchair, etc. are the best, safest, and healthiest — no compromises on the things that keep them alive and well — but we don’t take the greatest care of ourselves, baby’s most critical piece of safety/health equipment by far! 🙂

  3. Good on you!!

    My parenting ‘style’, if you can call it that, is mostly fly by the seat of my pants. Especially so now that I have two kids. They’re both so different, and neither are ‘by the book’ by any measure.

    My second has been in sleep training for, oh, 3 weeks? And he was still waking up in the middle of the night, crying, refusing to go back into the crib, refusing to go back to sleep. And by sleep training i mean, yes we let him cry it out. Nothing else worked. And we knew he was fine, he wasn’t hurt, he wasn’t hungry, he wasn’t uncomfortable, he was just sleepy and pissed that Mama didn’t nurse him to sleep as usual.

    We’re not 100% there yet (sleeping through the night? Hah!), so we had to move him out of the bedroom. He was too aware of my presence. Last night was the first night we slept in different rooms.

    It. Was. Awesome.

    1. I think Fly by the Seat of Your Pants is a great name for a parenting book! With a 9-year-old, a 4-yr-old, and a “fixed” husband, I still find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to have a baby that just falls asleep when tired. Congratulations on your night of *real* sleep! May it be the first of many!

  4. This is a wonderful post. Four years (and two kids) into parenting and I still listen too much to the ‘advice’ when really the only advice I should listen to is the stuff they dish out on planes. “Mothers of young infants, put on your own mask before seeing to the needs of others.” Or (more simply) “Happy Mummy = Happy Baby.”
    On a different note, crying out worked with our first child and not with our second (colicy) baby. That sucked. You finally think you’ve learned something as a parent and then they change the rules on you. Sneaky buggers. Thankfully after nearly two & a half years of hours of patting, rocking, soothing, hand-holding and dummy-in-the-night finding I only have to get up to him once or twice in 12 hours. Bliss.

    1. I really feel for you on crying out not working with your colicky baby. I swear, when we got to the point of actually doing it, my biggest fear was that it wouldn’t work — or that she’d cry herself to puking — because I felt it was literally our last option. And I really freaked myself out thinking about what I would do if it didn’t work. I can totally relate to what you say about thinking you’ve learned something as a parent, and then, BLAM, the next kid schools you. My second had colic, too, and I could not get him to take a nap outside of the sling no matter what I did — and I didn’t want to do the cry it out stuff until he was six months old and, again, as a last resort. So, I carried him in a pouch thingamajig for the first five months of his life, and he spent all his sleeping hours attached to my boob and in that sling, and I swear my back will never be the same. He’s four now, and it’s still wrecked!

      1. Haha maybe I should make that bumper sticker and make my millions! 🙂
        My son did cry until he was sick when we tried the cry it out method from time to time (he was a sicky baby anyway when my daughter had never vomited. That was a shock too!) and he can still cry to vomit when he wants to. I figure at least he’ll be a master at the tactical chunder when he’s a student…. (Should I think that, as a parent?)

  5. Well, those “mommy books” were kinda stupid anyway. They filled our heads with this wonderful idea that we were going to sit in a soft, sunlit room, rocking our calm and rewarding baby in a rocking chair, and that even though it would be hard work, it would be ever so rewarding. They didn’t say that my son and daughter would NEVER let me put them down when they were small, and that I’d be filming my baby daughter and toddler son with the video camera as they freaked out just to prove to the world that I was at my wit’s end for good reason.

    And this too shall pass, right? Has passed. You’re right.

    1. I hope you’re way out of the woods and able to laugh a little about it now, because I just did. I did that EXACT same thing! And a year after things had gotten better, a friend of a friend told one of our local TV news anchors about my horrible sleeper. This anchor did a weekly parenting segment, and she called to see if I’d be willing to do an interview. I still remember the look on that woman’s face as I showed her the video. She was about seven months pregnant and got SO confused. “What happened?” she kept asking. “Why was she crying like that?” It was a video of my daughter crying her holy frustrated head off while my husband sat next to her on the bed with earplugs. I said, “That’s just what she did, every day, for hours.” It was like HERE IS MY PROOF. THIS REALLY HAPPENED!

  6. Let me say this .. God. Bless. YOU… I have been slowly losing what is left of my poor mind. Questioning my own judgements, going against my instincts of what I already knew.. BECAUSE OF THE PEANUT GALLERY! You just summarized everything I have been feeling for almost the past 3 months. I feel so much better.

    1. Oh, I feel for you so much! It’s been a long time since I was going through this experience, but I will never forget it, so I wrote it in hopes that it would touch someone else who’s walking in those shoes now. Thank you for letting me know it helped you feel better.

  7. Absolutely! As a mother who was on the verge of wanting to run away because of sleep depreivation I can honestly say my motto is “Do what you’ve got to do to survive.” We’d all like to be constantly serene and patient and nurturing, but sometimes we’ve just got to get the job done for our sanity.

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