Listened to my year-old son banging his head against the headboard of the crib and wondered where I'd gone wrong. Nighttimes were easy as I nursed him to sleep and then carried him across the room to lower him - carefully, carefully - onto his mattress. But every afternoon at naptime, he fought off drowsiness and screamed as soon as I laid him down.
He was my first child. The sound of his crying shredded my heart. So I picked him back up and nursed him again and again till finally he moaned in fatigue and stretched his arms toward his crib.
I laid him down and watched in dismay as he hunched onto all fours and rocked back and forth with enough force to eventually "walk" the crib several feet away from the wall.
"You shouldn't keep picking him up," said my neighbor, a mother of three. "Just let him cry it out."
"Well, what else can he do?" asked my mother. "You won't let him fuss, so he's got to find another way to put himself to sleep."
"The head-banging is self-rocking and won't hurt him," baby experts assured me, "but just letting him cry is fine. He'll get over it."
Perhaps they were right, but I shrank from the idea. A crying baby is an unhappy baby, my heart told me, and I wanted my baby to be happy. I couldn't - or wouldn't - let him cry himself to sleep.
"But is a head-banger happy?" asked the neighbor. I had no good answer.
Fortunately, my son gave it up in his third year.
Then my second child was born. One afternoon I'd just finished nursing her when my son began wailing. I laid the baby down abruptly and raced to my toddler, aware that I now had two crying children.
Soothing his skinned knee, I silently telegraphed a message to my daughter: "I'll be there in a minute, just another sec or two, I'm coming, I'm coming...."
But when I returned to her crib, she'd fallen asleep.
Staring at her in amazement, I tapped my chin and thought perhaps there was a lesson to be learned in this experience.
I remembered a favorite refrain of a beloved child-psychology professor from college: "Offer the child the opportunity to learn (whatever was the lesson for the day)." I immediately filled in the blank: Offer the child the opportunity to learn that she can fall asleep by herself.
What a concept! I walked around in a daze the rest of the afternoon.
The next day at naptime, I changed her diaper, pulled down the shades, smoothed out the wrinkled crib sheet, sat in the rocker, and nursed my little girl. She dozed off, but roused as soon as I stood up, clearly expecting me to sit back down and nurse her to sleep again.
Instead, to her obvious surprise, I kissed her powder-puff cheek and whispered, "You're dry, your tummy is full, you're tired, and it's naptime." I carried her to her crib, adding, "and I love you to pieces," as I laid her down.
She popped up like a cork in a bathtub and screeched in protest. I kissed her again, laid her back down, repeated my mantra, took a deep breath - and walked out.
In two minutes, her bellows trailed off to muttering and grumbling. Then silence. Then one last groan of resignation - and she slept!
I called my mother with the news, and she said, "Oh, it's just pillow-punching."
"What?" I asked.
"You know, pillow-punching. When you go to bed at night, you don't just lie down and pass out, do you? Of course not. You toss and turn and fix the covers. You flip from side to side and punch your pillow into place.
"Everybody needs time to wind down when they go to bed, even babies. They don't have pillows, so they have to work themselves into sleep by fussing, rolling around, complaining, whatever. But it's still pillow-punching, when you get right down to it."
I laughed, appreciating her wisdom for the hundredth time.
By the time my third baby came along, I no longer thought of two minutes of token naptime complaining as "letting the baby cry it out." I thought of it as giving him an opportunity to get settled on his own.
Even my older children, nearly teenagers by the time their baby brother was born, knew the difference. My 12-year-old came into the kitchen with a friend one afternoon. His friend stared at the room monitor, listening to the grumbling, grousing, thumping noises coming from the upstairs bedroom.
"What on earth is your brother doing up there?" he asked.
My son said, "He's just pillow-punching. He'll fall asleep in a few minutes."
And he did.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society