Josna Rege

218. No Baby No Cry*

In 1980s, Books, Childhood, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on July 15, 2013 at 2:55 am


Cruel children, crying babies,
All grow up as geese and gabies,
Hated, as their age increases,
By their nephews and their nieces.

     from Good and Bad Children, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

A first-time mother is all emotion, and that emotion all bursts forth whenever her baby utters a cry. No matter what the reason for that cry, it is heart-rending, and in my case, caused me to leap up instantly, even from a deep sleep, and rush to his side. From my point of view, I was doing what any mother would, but onlookers, including my long-suffering husband and our family doctor, saw me as putty in a little schemer’s chubby hands.

—Don’t let him manipulate you, warned dear Dr. Harrington, who loved Nikhil, no doubt, but must have been concerned about my manic motherliness and chronic lack of sleep.

Have a heart, Doctor, he’s only six months old; how could he be manipulating me? What else can he do but cry when he wakes up all alone?

—All alone! exclaimed Andrew. Now that’s an exaggeration!

And it was. As often as not, Nikhil would fall asleep in between us, each of his legs draped strategically over one of ours. That way, if either of us tried to slip out of bed, we would have to lift that leg up, wakening him instantly and eliciting an immediate cry of alarm.

But seriously, what else can a tiny, helpless babe do but cry? And how terrifying it must be to cry and cry without a response from those upon whom you must depend for life itself!

Just a few months after Nikhil’s birth came the publication of Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (1985, revised and updated 2006). My cohort of sleep-deprived new parents latched onto it as our parents’ generation had latched onto Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946, last updated by the author 1997).

While Dr. Spock had broken with the older spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child child-rearing philosophy of the Victorian era, advocating for parents to trust their own instincts and above all, to show love and affection to their babies, Ferber’s method became associated with Cry It Out (CIO); and though, in fairness to him, he didn’t actually advocate leaving your baby to cry for hours on end, any approach that prohibited parents from picking up or feeding their child felt like cruel abandonment to me.

Andrew had an eminently sensible proposition: why not wait to see whether he is really going to wake up before rushing to snatch him up and waking him for sure? But I had an non-negotiable answer: if I go to him right away, I can forestall those tentative, fretful cries working themselves up into an apoplexy of unrestrained bawling. Looking back, I wish I had been more reasonable; but reasonable was what this young mother could not be.

I listened and watched, quietly aghast, as my friends shared their Ferber stories with me. One couple, close friends of ours, desperate to get some sleep, clenched their teeth and forced themselves to lie in bed, every fiber of their being tensed up, while their son screamed for two and a half hours without let-up. They couldn’t bring themselves to continue the experiment. Visiting other dear friends, I found them following Ferber to the letter, coming to the room when the child cried, assuring her that they were there, but religiously restraining themselves from picking her up. My own behavior was starting to feel irrational and self-indulgent next to all this sincere effort on the part of my peers. I too, not to mention my poor husband, must have been crazed with lack of sleep, and yet I persisted in going to my baby whenever he cried. Ferber argued that by reinforcing a habit of repeated waking by picking the infant up whenever he cried, one was preventing the child from learning how to go back to sleep by himself, and thus actually depriving him of sleep rather than facilitating it. Now I was feeling guilty for robbing my child of the rest so critical to his well-being.

At last I turned for advice to Hayat, who was the first of my friends to have had children and my only close South Asian friend who was a mother. Her response to Ferber et al. was immediate and unequivocal:

—We don’t let our babies cry. We go to them.

So that was that—we didn’t let our babies cry! What a relief! I was validated, and never again let Ferber keep me up at night (though dear Nikhil did, for many, many moons to come).

P.S. Of course, it’s not only South Asians who believe in going to their babies when they cry; not all South Asians share the same approach to child-rearing; and, to be fair, sleep-deprived parents who experiment with the Ferber method love their babies too.

* Thanks to Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry

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  1. The horror of male pediatricians who through the centuries who have tried to talk mothers out of their maternal instincts.!!! And left a trail of children with broken trust !
    I knew nothing about bringing up babies and was isolated far from home, with her father sent overseas at the beginning of labour , so I listened to the colicky baby, and carried her whenever she cried, and like all comforted babies, by the time she was a year old she hardly cried at all…
    Sleep deprivation – oh yes, with a gap of a year and a second baby who wouldn’t give up his two o clock feed until he was six months – I was a zombie… but commitment is what babies need from their mothers, not professional men’s theories !

    • Thank you for your sharing your own experience, Valerie. You’re absolutely right to point out the pattern here–male pediatricians, specialists of all kinds–presuming to lecture mothers on what they’re doing wrong. Perhaps it was a blessing that you were alone with your first baby (although I’m sure you could have done with other adults around to help), so that there was nothing for it but to trust your instincts.

  2. I didn’t let ours cry either. Our kids slept with us or, if I could slid them in, in a small crib on wheels that my grandparents had used with my mother and their other children. Pushing them back and forth would often stall off the wake up. Those days look good looking back but wow was I tired!

    • Awe-filled salaams to you, Kristin, to have gone to all six of your children! That pushing back and forth often does the trick. In our case (and my parents before me) it was walking back and forth, patting the baby on the back and singing. Nikhil would fall asleep while I was singing but wake up the second I stopped, or even before, when started to slow down in the last line of the song. And yes, it’s easy to look back on those times through rose-colored glasses. Though we were tired, I think we were in a kind of daze.

  3. hi josna, thanks for this. we wrecked our rocking chair, taking turns with baby in arm or on our stomachs, rocking, rocking, crooning all the songs we knew. i was definitely sleep depraved the first years. but i’d do it again, i guess. i still believe, babies cry for a reason, whatever it is. that they can’t express it, is no reason to assume it’s not there. and i wanted to let our son feel that i heard else but by touching him in tenderness would one be able to do that? bine

    • Apologies for the long delay in responding, bine. I love “sleep-depraved”—described the condition perfectly! You have beautifully expressed exactly how I felt—and like you, still feel. Plenty of times later in life our children are likely to feel unheard; but while we have some control, let us respond when they cry out in the wilderness. x J

  4. Our second child suffered from colic and would cry in the night. It was immensely difficult. I can’t remember us ever leaving him to cry even though the temptation to do so was overwhelming. Then one night, almost three months to the day, we went to bed, braced ourselves for the ordeal and suddenly awoke with the birds singing. We had slept through. We couldn’t believe it. The colic magically disappeared. I can’t begin to explain the sheer relief. Your post brought back a lot of memories, Josna.

    • Ah, those sleepless nights of young parenthood! We would never wish them away—at least, not in retrospect. But oh what heavenly music, the sound of a baby not crying! Thank you for your comment, Don, and for sharing your memories.

  5. “me as putty in a little schemer’s chubby hands.” – 😀 That is a super post. And one I totally relate to and agree with. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sakshi, for your visit and kind comment. Also for making it possible for me to find your terrific blog, which I am enjoying very much so far and looking forward to reading more of.

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