Mothers Who Lie

I’ll let you in on a little secret. All three of my children “slept through the night” at three months of age! For real! I’m not lying! Except, then they didn’t. Inevitably my 3-month-old would cut her first tooth, get a cold, or just plain decide it was nice to have her mama comfort her back to sleep in the night. So can I say in all honesty that my children slept through the night at three months of age? Not quite.

Image courtesy of Lorenzo González

I think a significant number of mothers are not completely honest about how things are going in their mothering journey. For some reason, mothers (and fathers too) sometimes feel a need to tell a tiny untruth/white lie/fibber about whether or not little Johnny eats much solid food, uses the potty, or sleeps through the night. This happens for a number of reasons — mothers think they are the only ones struggling with these issues (because, well, other mothers lie!) and they think for some reason their children should be doing X, Y, or Z but they aren’t yet. Mothers who exaggerate the abilities of their children do all other mothers a huge disservice.

I see this mainly in two areas — (1) potty training and (2) sleep. Moms might brag about how little Johnny was out of diapers at 2.5 (heck, I’ve said that about my own children), but they fail to mention how much effort (and control — more about that in a minute) went into that “accomplishment” and that there are still occasional daytime accidents and the child still wears diapers at night-time (for another 2-3 years!) I have seen cases of forced/strict potty training backfire before. Sure the kid is “out of diapers” by age 2, but then at age 3 he decides he’s no longer interested in pooping on the potty and he simply soils his underwear as a way of exerting control. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all children will do this, nor am I saying that I’ve seen such a huge sample of children that I know if and when it will happen. I’m just saying, even the parents who think they’re telling the truth might just possibly not have any idea of what will happen in the future due to their pushing a development before the child was ready.

The claims of the sleep trainers and cry-it-out parents are the ones that really get to me though. Oh, Johnny goes to bed at 7 without a peep and doesn’t get up until 6. Okay, number one, at what price? Tears and a complete surrender of the hope that his parents will comfort him in the night? And number two, sure, after those 3/4/5 nights of endless crying, little Johnny sleeps through the night. But what about the next time Johnny is teething, or has a cold, or is going through a growth spurt, or is trying out some new developmental skill like standing up or walking. In my experience, moms rarely come back and admit oh yes, Johnny slept well for a couple of weeks but then he got that ear infection and we had to start the process all over again — 3 more nights of crying! It was torture!

At best these mothers are lying to themselves, at worst they are lying to other mothers. And that’s all I’ll say about “mothers who do this” or that. I just hope we all can support each other, no matter where we are in the journey.

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    • Dr Sarah

      I don’t know whether you meant your comments to apply only to a particular subset of parents who sleep train, but the way they came across sounded as though they were aimed at parents who sleep train generally. Could you avoid generalisations like that? They’re inaccurate and uncalled for, and quite ironic in a post that ends with a call for us all to support each other.

    • Michelle

      I am a sleep trainer and proud of it:) I don’t begrudge attachment parenting aspects (of which pretty much the only one I believe in is breastfeeding, hence my reading of your blog, which I very much enjoy). I really wish people would be polite to each other, it’s like the mommy wars only its your old school versus your attachment. I’m very old school…I believe in spanking, letting baby have some alone play time each day, letting my babies learn to sleep on their own (yes they cry, and they really do sleep by themselves without crying for 10 hours by at least 3 months…my youngest was 8 weeks). I’m not lying about it, and I will be honest, it was a LOT of work. I do what I do because I believe that is what is best for my family. I don’t tell people who do the opposite of what I do that they are bad parents or what they are doing is bad for their children. I’m sure there are kids that grow up feeling loved and secure on BOTH sides of the fence. My oldest is 5 and crying it out did her no harm whatsoever. She is a confident, lovely little girl:) Not too dependent, but not too independent either. I just wish we could point out that not all parents who use cry it out have to redo it when someone is sick. Mine get sick and are up all night at times. But they go right back into their routine when they are better. I would hope that you stand by your last statement in letting us support each other…cause honestly, this pretty much felt like an attack on sleep training to me. I really enjoy your blog though, most of it I agree 100% with you:)

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      I can agree to disagree on sleep training. Supporting each other as mothers does not mean blindly supporting each other’s decisions when we do not agree with them. In this post I express the hope that mothers will support each other by being honest with each other about their mothering experiences. I do not believe it is inaccurate to say that many children left to cry it out must occasionally be left to cry again. I make no claims as to the number of children for which that is true, only that it is true for the children I know who have been sleep trained.

    • Kathlynn

      What a great post!! As a mother who has decided against CIO, it’s nice to see a post like this! I was told by multiple family members to just let him cry, only to find out that it never actually worked for them…they just couldn’t admit it :)

    • Shelly

      I could never CIO with my children. Doesn’t work for us.

      When a mother tells me that they are going to start CIO training with their young baby, I try not to judge, but I can’t help but think, “Everyone knows that babies wake up at night. It’s common knowledge. Why have a child in the first place, if you weren’t willing to accept all aspects of parenting?”

      But to each their own…

    • Whozat

      My daughter is 15 months old, and her sleep habits really are working pretty great *for our family* but I know that lots of people (inlaws, included) do not approve of the fact that we cosleep, I wait until she’s telling me that she’s sleepy to even bother putting her down for the night (rather than setting a bedtime), I nurse her to sleep, and then nurse several times in the night.

      She might not “sleep through the night” but my partner and I do, so that’s good enough for me!

      However, now I’m wondering if I’m doing other moms a disservice by perpetuating the myth that babies should be expected to “sleep through the night” because when someone asks “How’s she sleepin’ for ya?” I’ve usually just kind of given a non-committal, “Oh, great!” because I really don’t want to hear their opinions of what we should do differently – and because it’s working just fine for us, whether or not it fits their idea of what a “good sleeper” might be.

    • Whozat

      Just to clarify – We “sleep through the night” because when the baby wakes, I just roll over, offer a breast and she and I doze back off – meanwhile, my partner has maybe roused up enough to reach over and pat her butt while I’m fumbling with my bra.

      That’s if my breast isn’t already hanging out from the last wake-up, in which case, baby has probably just helped herself, without me ever knowing!

    • Dr Sarah

      I also don’t believe it’s inaccurate to say that many children left to cry it out must occasionally be left to cry again. I do believe it’s inaccurate to say that, if mothers who’ve done sleep training don’t ‘admit’ to it being “3/4/5 nights of endless crying” and having to “start all over again” when the child next goes through an upheaval, then they’re lying. The latter was the claim you actually made.

      I don’t ask you to support other parents’ decisions blindly when you disagree with them. I ask that you refrain from stereotyping the parents with whose decisions you disagree; from making assumptions about the experiences of those parents; and, most of all, from assuming that if their description of their experiences does not agree with your preconceived assumptions then they must be lying.

    • Dr Sarah

      My point was that, while you may have *meant* your comments to refer only to some of the parents who sleep train, they *sounded* much more general than that. After all, when you talk about ‘the sleep trainers’, it doesn’t sound as though you only mean to refer to some of the people who sleep train. If I talked about ‘the attachment parents’ doing something undesirable, would you assume that was quite OK because I hadn’t specifically *said* that I meant 100% of attachment parents and so obviously I was only talking about a few of them, or would you feel that the way I phrased it was an uncalled for slur on attachment parents generally?

      As far as CIO goes, do you believe that sleep training automatically involves giving up permanently on ever comforting your child during the night? Again, if so, that’s a hell of a generalisation.

    • Kathleen

      While I agree with the spirit of your post- that Mom’s feel pressure to overestimate their babies accomplishments or declare ‘victory’ too soon. I believe this is partially because they don’t always feel like getting into a debate with every almost stranger that asks them and partially because they just don’t remember. (I don’t know about your, but I know the exact timeline for at least the first 6 months of my daughters life is somewhat blurry in my memory.) But I hear you, Mom’s should be honest as to not perpetuate the unrealistic expectations put on motherhood.

      What I have a problem with is the assumptions you have made about CIO. I strongly believe that it DOESN’T work for some kids and it DOES work for others. And for those it DOES work for, I can tell you it is not a traumatizing as you have assumed. That doesn’t mean I recommend it for every baby. I don’t recommend a parent doing anything they are not comfortable with. Our families are different and our babies are different and I believe you should do what works for you and you are comfortable with for your child/children. I fully support your belief that CIO is wrong for your family. But please don’t assume to tell me I have traumatized or damaged my child with CIO.

      And please don’t tell me I am lying to myself. Let’s try to be more supportive of each other.

    • Whozat

      Ah, you know, now that I think about it, I guess I actually do usually tell people what we’re doing, if it’s not just a stranger at the grocery store.

      I do try to avoid discussion of it with the inlaws; they know we cosleep but we’re careful to not let on about anything other than perfect, blissful rest – lest they offer their “solution.”

      (“Stick her in that (unused) crib and let her cry.”)

      But, with most people, I do tend to say something along the lines of, “Well, we cosleep and breastfeeding – so I don’t even know how often she wakes up, because I sleep through it!”

    • Beverly

      I do agree that there seems to be a bit of not telling the whole truth about “sleeping through the night” or what is really meant by “sleeping through the night” as well as how well the CIO methods work. But from reading some of what
      ‘Dr. Sarah” has written I could not help but start thinking about why do parents want to put their children in a separate room and let them cry regardless of how long or by what methods they use? Why do you really think this is best for you and your child? I wanted to share something with parents who want to let their children CIO to think about and hope this will help reinforce what AP parents may already know.

      I coslept with my mom for a number of years – until I was ready to go to my own bed. It was not that unusual in my mother’s generation, who was born before the Great Depression, for babies and little ones to cosleep with their parents and then with siblings when they got bigger. This stuff about having a separate bed or even a separate room for each child is very recent in most America family history as is cribs I might add. Unfortunately, when I was born in the 1960′s breastfeeding was at an all time low and a postnatal hospital stay for a 44 year old woman of 9 days did little to help my mom breastfeed me. So sadly, I was not breastfed.

      As far as my experience of cosleeping as a child, I do remember how secure and safe and loved I felt sleeping next to my mother. Even though I was not breastfed, her breasts and their smell were a comfort to me and I loved to rest my head on them as I slept with my head in her arm. There were times when I would wake up and Mom would be sleeping with her back turned to me and I would say “give me your arm Mommy” when I wanted to be close. She would turn over and give me her arm to rest my head on. I would go to sleep feeling warm and safe.

      Now at 40 years old I am an attachment parent: breastfeeding toddler who cosleeps, use cloth diapers, gentle discipline, etc. It just all came naturally to me. Yet I have experience that most other moms do not have. Since my mother was older when I was born, I had the responsibility of taking care of her when she was old when I was rather young. I took care of her when she had cancer – all three times – starting when I was in college long before I became a mother.

      The last time I cared for my mom was for 2 1/2 years in my early 30′s. I cared for her in my home and she was totally bedridden most of that time. I turned her in bed every two to three hours – even at night – because she could not turn herself otherwise she could develop bedsores, I diapered her (oh how I wish I had had adult cloth diapers! Disposable ones are horrible for delicate skin because the skin cannot breath!), I gave her insulin and other medications, fed her, got her out of bed with a hoyer lift and took her out in a reclining wheelchair just so she could get out in the sunshine and fresh air, in addition to many other things.

      I remember going into her room at night and just laying down beside of her and talking throughout the night – much like I did when I was a teenager. (How many teenagers do you know who talk to their parents into the wee hours of the night about anything and everything?) We talked about important details of how she wanted me to make final decisions when she was actively dying as well as other topics much less serious and we also laughed. I would hold her like she held me when I was little and I remember her smell – my mommy’s smell.

      I guess I share this because I want to tell Mothers that some day any of us may be in a shape like my mother was. One question I have is who is going to take care of you? No, you may not think that is what you want your child to do. My mother did not want to be a burden to me either. I could have put my mom in a nursing home, but I chose to take care of her (and if you wonder about Dad, yes I took care of him, too.) I think part of the reason I did was because of how I had been treated as a child. What if I had let her CIO? Adult services could have been called.

      Do you really think your children are any different in needing your care at night than she was needing mine? Yes, she was going the opposite direction than a growing child, but their needs can be paralleled. She needed comforting at night as much if not more than during the day. Terminal illness is like that. In fact, she died during the night with me right by her side, holding her hand and looking into her eyes and she into mine as she took her last breathes. More people die during the night than during the day, and if I am not wrong, more babies are born during the night, too. If I had had the attitude that I needed my sleep, I would have missed one of the most precious moments in my life other than the birth of my baby – who was born at night, too.

    • Valerie

      I appreciate your Beverly’s post because of the story it tells about her closeness with herr mother. We often do not like to consider the end of life issues that so mirror those of the beginning of life. Thanks for making the connection.
      The title “Mothers Who Lie” is strong. I am a mother who shared sleep with all three of my children. The family members who wanted me to let them cry it out say I am too tender-hearted. I took that as an insult at the time.
      My husband found sleeping with the children very disruptive to his sleep so I began to lie down with the children at night in a separate bed, nurse them to sleep and then return to my husband in the living room. The problem was the nights when I fell asleep with the baby and never made it back to the living room or the bed with my husband. That happened about half the time and my husband and I didn’t talk about the problem it was causing. It has taken work on our communication to forgive each other for the separation we allowed to develop in that time.
      Now that our children are teens I recognize that my challenge in parenting is limit setting and maintaining boundaries. That doesn’t come as easily to me as empathy and nurture. Now I see the value of limit setting in a way that I couldn’t recognize at that time.
      If you had asked me back in the baby years about my children’s sleep I would have told you they were doing great, no aversion to bedtime, getting all the rest they needed and I loved the sweetness of that time together. But it would have been a lie of omission that I didn’t tell you what it was doing to my marriage since my husband and I were not in agreement on the issue. It was something that I wasn’t looking at then. Maybe I didn’t want to see it.
      My point is that our “truth” (lower case t) is dependent on where we are in life, what we can see or are willing to view at a given time. Later we may well see things differently. I am still a proponent of sleeping with children but now I see it in the context of the agreement and “buy in” of my partner in life.

    • Rovacop

      One of the things I appreciate about your blogs is your willingness to share your strong beliefs about a topic while welcoming all comments, pro and con. The title of this blog was slightly provocative but it served to draw opinions from both sides of the issue. Write on!

    • Dr Sarah

      Sorry – to avoid possible confusion, that should have read ‘aimed generally at parents who sleep train’. I’m not sure what ‘sleep training generally’ would be!

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      Interesting point. I think it depends on the person who has asked “How’s she sleepin’ for ya?” If it’s great-aunt Sue and you know she will not agree with your co-sleeping, then “Oh, great!” is a perfectly fine answer. If it’s another mother with a child the same age or younger, then it certainly would be nice to share what’s working for you without going into too much detail unless asked. “Oh, I hardly even notice when she wakes at night because we co-sleep and she nurses right back to sleep.” Even that raises a dilemma though, because I also know from my experience and others’ that at some point (usually around 2 or 2.5), the night-waking becomes less easy to deal with, and mothers start looking for gentle ways to night-wean or at least cut back on the night-nursing. So, for mothers like me who have had that experience, it would be nice to say, “Oh, I hardly even notice when she wakes at night because we co-sleep and she nurses right back to sleep. Eventually we’ll work on ways to get her to sleep longer at night, but with my other children that wasn’t until after age 2.”

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      The point I was trying to make was that the sleep trainers whose children do need to cry it out again often do not come back and admit it. I didn’t claim that 100% of sleep-trained children will need to be made to CIO repeatedly, although I believe it’s true for far more children than the parents are willing to admit, and that it does others a disservice not to cop to that. And frankly, since I’ve already made it quite clear I don’t believe in crying it out, I will just come out and say that I think if a child automatically goes back to sleeping through the night well without CIO it is simply further evidence of the child’s having given up on receiving comfort from his parents. If you are okay with that, then it works for you. I’m not okay with that.

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      Another point I was trying to make is that sleep trainers, whether or not their children specifically require repeated episodes of CIO, do a disservice to other mothers if they omit/do not admit the fact that, as you say, many children DO need to CIO repeatedly.

    • Dr Sarah

      Sorry, I don’t think I made that last bit very clear. To clarify it with my own experience:

      I did sleep training with my son when he was thirteen months old, to get him to settle down at bedtime. He was comforted both during the actual sleep training (I went back to him every five minutes or so to give him a cuddle) and during the rest of the night (once I’d gone to bed, I just took him into bed with me to nurse when he woke, as usual). So it’s hard for me to see that he stopped crying at bedtime because he’d given up on receiving comfort – he *was* receiving comfort. He stopped crying at bedtime because he’d given up on being allowed to get up and play when he was supposed to be going to sleep.

      Since then, we have always comforted him when he woke during the night, while remaining firm about bedtime being for sleeping not playing (which has occasionally involved short further periods of crying, and has never involved endless nights or torture). He just got over an ear infection, as it happens: he went through a period of waking up during the night and coming into our bed, then stopped that once the infection was recovering. I think the reason he stopped waking at night, pure and simple, is because he no longer had a sore ear waking him up.

      Sleep training doesn’t mean that you give up comforting your child. It means that you set some limits on what you do to help them get to sleep, and expect them to do some of it by themselves.

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      Whether or not I made myself clear in my post, I hope I will do so here: I am OK with making the generalization that the entire group of sleep trainers rarely admit (in literature or on an individual basis) that CIO requires repeated bouts of CIO for many children, whether or not their own children require it. I don’t like CIO, and I don’t like that new parents are all too often given the impression by sleep training “experts” and parents who have let their children CIO that it’s a one-time deal of a handful of nights of crying.

      I recognize there are different types of sleep training. I don’t agree with any of them that involve crying it out for any length of time.

    • Michelle

      I just wanted to add one thing to your comment. The particular sleep training book I use, actually talks about children having trouble as they get older, it’s referred to as the “45 minute intruder.” So that’s not quite true of all sleep training books.

      I also wanted to add Dr. Sarah, that you’re way nicer than me in your sleep training so give yourself a gold star girl:) And I mean that in a nice way!

    • Dr Sarah

      I know you don’t agree with any of the CIO methods. I’m pointing out that there are other reasons for a child to stop crying after CIO than a loss of all hope that the parents will come to comfort them. If that’s the only possible reason why a child would automatically go back to sleeping through the night after getting over an ear infection or other upset, how do you account for my son’s doing so?

    • Michelle

      I agree. I don’t support most aspects of attachment parenting, but I’m don’t accuse people of lying about the great wonders of cosleeping. I’ve had my two in bed during storms, and it is not a joy to me LOL!

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      Of course I hold attachment parenting advocates and co-sleepers to the same standard of honesty in their experiences. I have written what I consider fair and balanced accountings of my experiences co-sleeping and weaning from co-sleeping, and they are all out there for everyone to read:

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      Michelle, what does it say to do when children wake more frequently due to colds, teething, and growth spurts?

    • Dr Sarah

      Thanks, Michelle! :-)

    • Angela White, J.D., breastfeeding counselor

      Well, I was trying to refrain from saying my thoughts on your method, but since you asked, I’m happy to share. I think the method of going back in and cuddling every 5 minutes (or any other interval) is confusing to the child and drags out the process even longer than it might have taken otherwise. Eventually the child gives up hope that he is going to have his way of being snuggled or nursed to sleep. When he automatically goes back to sleeping through the night, he remembers that he might as well not cry because has no hope for anything other than a cry 5 minutes – get “comforted” – cry 5 minutes – and so on pointless (to him) drama. I see nothing comforting about that. The technique “worked” when the child gave up hope and went to sleep. I can see that you don’t see it that way. I do.

      I also think it’s confusing to a child to make him cry it out at bedtime, but take him into the bed in the night when it’s convenient for the mother to nurse and snuggle back to sleep. I give babies and toddlers a lot of credit for understanding routines, but it seems quite hypocritical. You must settle yourself to sleep but not settle yourself back to sleep. It’s better than not nursing, I’ll give you that much.

    • Dr Sarah

      It can drag the process out longer, yes. It certainly did for my daughter, and, really, the only way to get her to sleep was to leave her completely alone to cry, whereupon she would be asleep in less than ten minutes. She actually was better off that way, because any attempts to comfort her just kept her awake rather than settling her. For most children, I do prefer the option of going in to comfort them; it’s not some sort of race to get things done as quickly as possible, and I’m guessing most children find it less upsetting to be left for a few minutes at a time than for a longer period of time. In my son’s case, it took about twenty minutes on the first night and that was it. Maybe it would have been even quicker without that, but I feel happier with the way I did it. .

      I don’t think what he was hoping for was being snuggled or nursed to sleep – I think he was hoping that I’d get him up and play with him some more – but, yes, I agree he did give up on that and that’s why he stopped crying. I think the difference in the way we see that is that you seem to be seeing it as ‘Oh, no! He lost hope! How terrible! That means he must have entered a state of despair and detachment’, whereas I would say it’s no different from any other time I set a limit on what he’s allowed to do. I mean, if, say, I told him he could no longer have pudding after dinner, he would cry and carry on about that for a while and eventually, if I stood firm on the matter, give up protesting. I wouldn’t describe that as ‘giving up all hope of pudding’ – I’d describe it as accepting that he was no longer getting pudding – but, either way, I wouldn’t assume that this would mean he’d give up all hope in life generally.

      Anyway, this still isn’t the claim of yours that I questioned. You were saying that you thought the only reason why a child would go back to falling back to sleep easily after being sleep trained and then getting over an illness that disturbed his sleep would be that he’d lost all hope of being comforted. That still doesn’t explain why my son started going back to sleep easily, when he *was* being comforted in the night, and clearly hadn’t lost hope of this happening.

      I think it can potentially be confusing for a child to get different responses at different times, but probably no more so than getting taken out of their cot to start the day if they cry in the morning but settled back to sleep if they cry at night. Children do adapt to getting different responses at different times. I don’t see why it would be hypocritical: I’m not sure that that’s the word you meant. It’s a practical response to the fact that I can’t spend all evening lying in bed with my child (because I do have other things to do) but can spend all night doing so (since I’m in bed anyway).