By HOLLY WAINWRIGHT
On the hour. every hour.
Imagine being woken up every night, at hourly intervals, by the call of the person you love the most in the world.
It sounds like a great privilege. And it is. Comforting your baby when they’ve woken in fear, or hunger, or pain, is a parent’s job, and it brings profound satisfaction.
But every single hour of the night, for months and months, maybe years and years?
It stops being a beautiful, nurturing moment. It starts to become dangerous.
Everybody needs to sleep. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds elementary, but when it comes to the politics of babies and what they do at night, it becomes the most emotive debate of all the baby debates (and that – that’s really saying something).
This week the argument about whether or not we should try to “teach” babies to sleep is back. It’s back due to newspaper coverage of a Doctor from Adelaide who calls himself the The Babysleep Doctor. He’s really called Dr Brian Symon, and he advocates that after six months of age, you should be able to prepare your baby for bed, put them down, reassure them and then walk out and close the door at 7pm, not reopening it until 7am.
Anyone who has ever met a six-month-old baby will tell you that this is the sort of crazy, impossible dream that once sent educated men riding of on camels in search of the inland sea.
But Dr Symon is not suggesting this happens instantly, but rather after a period of comforted “training”. He is certainly not alone in that.
Still, after the article about his methods appeared in a weekend newspaper, he has pulled out of the Melbourne Baby and Child Expo this weekend, as his presence was deemed so controversial that it would disrupt the whole event. You see, a lot of people are really, really angry at what Dr Symon insists is possible, and scientifically justifiable – a good night’s sleep.
Sydney-based Dr Howard Chilton is one such person. The well-respected baby doctor’s philosophy is basically the exact opposite of Dr Symon, as he wrote on his Facebook page:
It is a method of pure abandonment… but it can be effective to silence babies at night. The reason it ‘works’ is that evolution has developed within humans a mechanism that, if the baby feels (s)he is abandoned, crying ceases to protect the baby from attracting predators. It’s called ‘extinction’. Stress remains high (hence it can induce vomiting) but the baby falls silent. This, unfortunately, is precisely at a time when the baby is developing his long-term brain wiring about whether he is loved, valued and safe.
And so, here we are, in a familiar place. Parents caught between duelling philosophies about how to do the most high-stakes job of their lives – raise a decent, happy, well-adjusted little person.
For the most part, parents who seek out the wisdom of baby doctors are Trying To Do The Right Thing. A truly neglectful or deliberately cruel parent is unlikely to be trawling baby books and shelling out the kind of money and time required to enlist the services of a sleep expert. So let’s assume that all the parents advocating for and against sleep-training are well-meaning, and love their children. Let’s get that out of the way.