Don’t do for them what they can do for themselves.

I repeat: don’t do for them what they can do for themselves.

This bit of wisdom is one of my own top 10 rules of parenting. For sure, no question about it. It should be engraved on every developmental stage without exception, because our job is to prepare them to be self-assured, independent adults. But after three kids and every possible combination of challenges, I still need to be reminded — frequently.

Case in point: Our family reached a bittersweet milestone last spring when Daughter finalized her decision about which college acceptance to choose and hit send. For better or worse, we have completed our very last, 3rd of 3, never have to do it again, college search process (more for better than worse, but that’s a rant for another day). The point is, our youngest child was making the last big decision where we, her parents, still had the final say.

After all the acceptances and non-acceptances (the word rejection is not PC) came in she sat back and weighed her choices … in her own way, with her own list of pros and cons. At an average application fee of $100 a pop, we had already been through the pruning process — each school had the parents’ seal of approval — but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have strong opinions. Was it my decision? No. Was I dying to weigh in and lean heavily on one side of the scale? You bet. BUT … don’t do for them what they can (and should) do for themselves. Sit on your hands and bite your tongue, Mom. Decision to be made by Daughter, for better or worse. And I sure hope it works out.

This brings me full circle to the other end of the parenting timeline and the controversial topic of sleep training (okay, maybe you missed the segue). If there’s one most frequent FAQ we get at MOC, it’s on the subject of babies and sleep training. Or, more accurately, babies and sleep.

Sometime during the the second half of the first year, parents get weary of  spending big chunks of their evening cajoling munchkin to sleep, only to be awakened several times during the night to repeat the process. There’s a foolproof (and trauma-proof) fix for the problem, but even the most gently applied technique, which I call the loving Ferber after the pediatrician who published the original cry-it-out method, involves some amount of front end distress on the part of an unaccustomed baby and a stressed, worried and guilty mom.

Last week a study in the journal Pediatrics reassured overtired parents that they needn’t worry, because sleep training methods like this don’t cause long-term harm.

Researchers followed 326 children who had sleep problems in infancy over five years and compared those who were introduced to sleep-training techniques with those who weren’t. The randomized study found that by age 6, there was no long-lasting impact on psychological development, mental health or the parent-child bond.

The researchers looked at two techniques: “controlled comforting,” where parents let babies cry for increasing intervals as they learn to fall asleep; and “camping out,” which calls for parents to sit in the room and gradually move further away as baby starts to settle. They concluded that both methods could be used successfully without concern.

In fact, the Pediatrics study noted that 45 per cent of mothers report sleep problems in babies 6 to 12 months old and that this doubles the risk of maternal depression. The stress and strain of chronic exhaustion can hinder a mother’s ability to respond to her child. A good night’s sleep (or at least several in a row) may make all the difference.

I would add another benefit: For babies, the ability to self-soothe at bedtime is a huge and valuable skill. It’s one of the first times they get to experience the power of, “I can do it myself!” Not only do they get an early taste of mastery and self-reliance, they achieve deeper and more restful sleep which leads to a happier, less cranky baby during daytime hours. It’s a win-win all around.

So instead of looking at sleep training as five days of bloody, tear-filled Boot Camp (I swear it never takes more than five days if you persevere), see it as part of your job as teacher-in-chief. You are teaching your kiddo the fine art of putting himself to sleep, and it only takes a quick five days or less. There aren’t many life skills that can be taught as quickly with so much impact. It’s one of the very first opportunities parents have to be reminded … don’t do for them what they can do for themselves. Soon you’ll be biting your tongue when it’s time to choose a college.

For more tips and the complete sleep training schedule, see our past post, Rock-a-Bye Baby.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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