I don’t have many regrets in life. But, I sincerely wish I could rewind time and have a do-over with my firstborn. Why? In a word (although technically it should be two): Babywise.
In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that Babywise (a method of sleep training found in a book by same name by author Gary Ezzo) made my first six months of motherhood miserable and may have contributed to some of the insecurities I see surfacing as the child I subjected to this method ages.
My perspective on this subject is somewhat unique in that I had four babies within a window of five years. Though I have friends that claim both “victories” and “failures” using the system, I feel my condensed childbearing timeline gave me a special opportunity to test Babywise’s methods against others (mainly trusting my instincts).
My story is a common one. A friend recommended the book because it worked for them. I was entering unchartered territory and desperate. So, I’d read anything I could get my hands on.
To a brand new mom, sleeping through the night is that big elusive milestone. It seems the sooner your children reach it the bigger the “motherhood merit badge” you earn. The concept of following a method to meet that goal sounded delightful.
That’s what Babywise offered. So, I bit.
There was a certain degree of logic to it. The book knew exactly how to appeal to me. It lured in the part of me that desperately longed to have a child without changing my comfortable “childless” life at all.
It also convinced me (temporarily) that the problems in the world today are created by how “baby-centric” parents become. Since I didn’t want to raise a selfish child, it only made sense to demand this creation of mine to fall in line.
The problem was Babywise didn’t work at all like it should have. Instead of realizing that maybe the system (or the author and his theories) were at fault, I blamed myself. Already struggling with some degree of post partum depression, I faced a rough reality check. Parenting was going to be a lot harder than I ever dreamed.
My first few months with Babywise resulted in a stressed out, frazzled, demoralized, depressed new mom whose perceived failure at having the Babywise method work was just another strike against her.
I had acquaintances that swore by it…touting the only way they could do it (turn off their instincts to follow Babywise that is) was to go outside and talk on the phone or get in the shower and turn on music. This would drown out the cries. They encouraged me to do the same…it would be “hard” on me but “good” for the baby.
Now, I think about this advice as preposterous. If my four-year-old needed me because he was hurting or scared and I went outside so I couldn’t hear him crying…that would be cruel, right? Or, better yet, if I was sad, lonely, hungry, or just feeling insecure and I was crying in bed and my husband got in the shower to tune me out, that would sound like abuse, wouldn’t it?
The challenge for most new mothers (myself included) is that I didn’t know whether or not I could, or should, trust those instincts. I was paralyzed with fear that I would do it wrong. Simultaneously I was concerned that I didn’t even know what “wrong” was in this arena. I was more tired than I had ever been in my entire life. So, I bounced between reading the book desperately to figure out what page I must have missed or what I must have been messing up to get it to work correctly and cursing the book for making me so miserable.
After encouragement from my mother (who read the book and thought it was insane) to experiment with things like feeding to sleep, napping in the swing, and co-sleeping, things started to go a little better. Oh, and my almost three month old son–who had gotten so frustrated he had taken to head banging–stopped that behavior as soon as I gave up the Babywise method and started answering his cries.
It was very hard to quit though. I felt tremendously guilty for not following the book and was concerned that like the book promised, once I put the baby in our bed he’d be in there until he was at least 12. But, I was at the point of desperation. I needed some sleep. He needed some sleep. And, (shockingly) her suggestions were working better than Mr. Ezzo’s.
I also recognized that my son had some digestive issues. (Four children later I’m able to diagnose exactly what they were better than any of my firstborn’s pediatricians ever could.) In addition to his problem with acidic foods and dairy, because of the Babywise feeding rules, I was way over feeding the little guy. Truth is, it’s impossible to know this stuff as a new mom. I was so concerned about him gaining weight and going to bed full that the thought of him eating too much and that causing digestive issues never crossed my mind.
Baby two came just 16 months after baby number one. This time I followed my gut. She slept in the swing frequently. If she fell asleep while eating I’d put her down. She slept through the night at five months old and, although we co-slept when needed those first few months, never slept in our bed after six months of age.
Is Babywise completely ineffective for everyone? No. I do have friends that will still swear that it worked for them. (I know some of you reading this are thinking you had no troubles with it.)
But, mommy friends, looking back I think this method is scary dangerous. And, although it may be getting some children to sleep through the night faster, the long term consequences are real and far more important than that first “sleeping through the night” milestone. You can’t think about what your child will be like at six or seven when all you want is to make it through the first year. But, let me encourage you that your parenting isn’t finished when they start sleeping. It’s only just begun…
Some recent studies have come out about the consequences of having infants cry it out and what happens when our newborns don’t attach well. Beyond that, this study explains how you aren’t really training an infant to sleep when you don’t respond to cries. Instead, the baby’s neurological system shuts down from frustration and sleep follows.
These reports cite correlations with more stressed out and anxious children later. I can attest to this. I see differences between my Babywise baby and my other children. My oldest displays more fear, has a more difficult time with expressing emotion, and is very guarded.
Of course, I understand that each child has a unique personality and that maybe that’s his natural bent. But, as I read the reports like this one on the impact of systems like this, I can’t help but see some similarities in my now-seven year old.
Being a mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had. And, like most new moms, I was desperate for some guidance on how to do it “right.” But, I think we moms, at all stages, have to free ourselves of that pressure. There isn’t a right way or a wrong way. There is your way and there is my way.
Every child we have added to our family has done some degree of messing up the rhythms for the rest of the family. Everyone has had to adjust as each new baby has come along. The Babywise method of make the baby fit you just doesn’t make any sense to me, at any level, anymore. Scheduling has some merit…routine has lots of merit… But, Babywise as a comprehensive system to be followed to the tee, is a bad idea.
Now, on the other side of newborns, I certainly wish I had researched more about the author, his background and lack of credentials before I put my child through his system. I’m embarrassed that I trusted this unknown man to tell me how to raise my newborn.
I hope you’ll do the same and avoid my regrets.
To read a counter opinion, check out Why I Stuck With Babywise.