American in Spain

What to do when your child cries at night

October 19, 2010
Pissed Off

One of the most frustrating parts of parenting for me is the distinct lack of right answers to questions of how to raise a child. Not every issue is as straightforward as "Should I let my child crawl on the ledge of my 7th story window?" (Answer: Only if you've double-checked the harnesses.) Like life in general, most issues come down to a judgement call with good arguments in both directions. One issue about which I often feel completely clueless is that of what to do when my child cries in the middle of the night. It seems that there are two opposing strategies.

Intermittent Visitation

In Spain, there is a fairly large movement lately towards the "let her cry herself to sleep" end of the spectrum led by neuroscientist Dr. Eduard Estivill and his very popular book, Duérmete, Niño: Cómo Solucionar Los Problemas del Sueño Infantil (English version: 5 Days to a Perfect Night's Sleep for Your Child: The Secrets to Making Bedtime a Dream). The basic concept goes like this:

  • Your child needs to understand that night time is for sleeping and that crying won't make her parents get her up to play.
  • Go and visit your child every 5-7 minutes so that she knows she's not forever abandoned.
  • Make your visits as boring as possible. Simply state, "It's night time and it's time for sleep. Good night," and leave again.
  • Repeat until the child is asleep.

The computer scientist in me loves the idea of boiling a complex parenting issue down to a simple algorithm like this. It feels so...scientific! Like I should have on a white lab coat and carry a clipboard when I go in to console my wailing child. Many, many parents we know absolutely swear by this method. They say that with their first kid, they used to let him sleep in bed with them and it took years to get him to sleep alone, but with the second kid they were strict with this method the first week and everything has since been wonderful.

The only drawback is having to silence the little voice inside your head screaming, "What a terrible horrible selfish parent you are sitting on the couch watching television while your tortured child is obviously in desperate need of your companionship and touch!!" I have found that I am able to accomplish the emotional distancing feat fairly well (headphones help), but it eats my wife up inside. And I completely understand her point of view; it can really make you feel like a complete failure of a human being.

Selfless Companionship

The alternative is to simply do whatever it takes to get your kid to sleep every night, rocking her to sleep in your arms, holding her hand while she falls asleep in her crib, singing lullabies, letting her sleep in her parents' bed, whatever it takes. The theory goes that your baby isn't yet smart enough to manipulate you consciously and she's just expressing her biological need to be close to a loving parent. This is how it's been done for millennia and it's what is most natural for healthy emotional development.

That's all well and good if you can afford to give that much of yourself to your child. But this is the twenty-first century and the stay-at-home mom family model is out the window. My wife gets up between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning to go to work. She can't afford to be singing lullabies from 2:00 to 4:00 in the morning just because Junior is bored in her crib. Nor can I.

The Selfless Companionship model might be the quickest short-term solution to getting your kid to bed on any given night, but then she'll expect it the next night, and the next, and the next. The sooner a child can learn to fall asleep by herself, the better off the whole family will be in the long term.


The problem with human developmental psychology is that our innate morals prevent us from doing any interesting experiments. You can't place one twin in a loving home and place the other one in a padded white room until she's eighteen and then compare them. Our sense of ethics prohibits that kind of experiment with anything bigger than a rat. In the end all we have are opinions and gray areas and individual judgement calls; and no irrefutably right answers. You might think your parenting style is better than mine, but you can't prove it; nor can I prove the contrary.

The wisest move is to simply take a step back and ask yourself if it really matters. Do you know what method your parents used on you? Probably not. I suspect, but obviously cannot prove, that the way your parents put you to sleep every night has very, very little affect on who you are and your adult life. So in the end it doesn't really matter. Everyone must choose some balance between how much of themselves they can afford to give at two in the morning vs. how much the empathetic heartbreak of a crying child alone in the next room weighs upon them. One thing's for sure, though... Parenting certainly isn't easy.