Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Baby Whispers

One of the things I believe is that as long as parents are not harming their children, then the way that they choose to raise them is the way it should be done. I don't offer advice or criticism, mostly because what the hell do I know? But also because the world already gives new parents more advice than they need.

"Oh," says the world, "your baby doesn't sleep? Have you tried letting her cry herself to sleep?"
"Have you tried the family bed?"
"Maybe it's something you're eating."
"He needs to be kept on a strict schedule."
"She needs more stimulation. Take her outside."

These things might all be good advice, but when you're sleep deprived, and your own individual baby, the one you know best in the world isn't sleeping, what business is it of the world to intrude with its sage advice? No. I figure I am a better friend by believing with all of my heart that the parents know best.

And, so, when I worked as a nanny/research assistant in Portland, OR, for a woman who followed a book called "The Baby Whisperer" to the letter, I did as she instructed. I didn't rock her son to sleep, and allow his drowsy baby head to droop against my shoulder. I didn't hold his sleeping body against mine and smell his head while he dreamed. No, I followed her routine. He woke up. He had some food (breast milk with her), he got a clean diaper, he played on his stomach as long as he was happy, and then he played alone on his back. When he got tired of alone time, I picked him up and talked to him and sang with him. And, then, as soon as he started to rub his eyes or droop, we played three songs on the stereo while I danced with him in my arms. When he zoned out and his eyes glazed over, I carried him to his crib, and placed him gently on his back. He was still awake, but he was as limp as an overdone noodle. Before long, he fell asleep on his own. I walked away, and helped Liz with her research until he woke up again, at which point we would start the routine from the beginning.

She was strict about following the routine (which she never called a schedule, because it was shaped by the baby and never by the time on the clock). Once she returned from vacation, nearly in tears. Her son wasn't sleeping well. Her husband had walked him to sleep the whole time they were on vacation. He had ruined her carefully constructed patterns. How was the boy ever going to learn the rhythm again?

Sometimes, I thought maybe she should lighten up. I was pretty sure she was missing the greatest joy of feeling her small baby sleep against her chest. It definitely seemed like bad policy to over-monitor how her husband parented. However, I have to admit that the job was one of the easiest I ever had. Her son took to the routine. He ate well and played happily alone and then he enjoyed singing and talking until it was time to dance and to sleep. It was her kid, and she seemed to know how to parent him. I did as I was told.

I didn't realize that the Baby Whisperer's patterns had become so ingrained in me, until last week when I babysat for an infant about the same age as that boy had been when we met. I thought they were just Liz's thing that I did because she told me to. But then there I was with a small infant, and I had forgotten how boring they are. For a while, alone with this blob of an (albeit very cute and cuddly) baby, I felt at a loss for what to do. I was in someone else's house, holding someone else's baby, and there was nothing to do.

And so I fell back on the routine. I put the baby down, arranged some toys to be swatted by her undirected hand flailing, so she could learn some cause and effect. When she got bored I picked her up and sang with her and talked to her. When she started to yawn and looked glazed over, I set her down, and watched her fall asleep. She woke up. I gave her the bottle. We changed diapers. She played a little more Cause-and-Effect. I sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and asked her how big the baby was. She stared the yawning again, and I put her down, and just as I was getting bored again, she fell asleep. And, so I knitted, baby-whispering complete for the afternoon. She slept straight through until her mom arrived.

It's a pretty good trick, actually, especially for that little monkey-baby stage. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't work on my own kid, though. I'd be too busy smelling hair, and trying to get some cuddles in.

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