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When Babies Cry, Don't Listen to the Experts

08/02/2011 09:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

I hovered outside my toddler son's bedroom, listening to his distressed wails through the door, my hands twisted into a tight knot. Seven minutes since I'd last gone in to comfort him, and -- according to a well-known pediatric sleep expert -- I needed to wait three more.

"Wait five, ten, fifteen, then thirty minutes to intervene," he instructed. "By that time he'll surely be asleep."

Wrong. Nick had cried for another half hour before he fell silent. It was excruciating -- standing there outside the door, doing nothing.

I tiptoed in. My boy lay on his left side, one arm dangling through the bars of the crib. The last time I'd comforted him, he'd been on his feet, clutching the railing. He must have dozed off -- exhausted -- and crumpled to the mattress.

To hell with the experts! I thought. Never again!

From the time Nick was born, people -- particularly older female relatives -- had warned me not to lie down with him at bedtime. I should put him in his bedroom at the other end of the house and shut the door. "Let him cry" they'd say. "Otherwise, he'll never learn to go to sleep by himself."

This tough-love method of child rearing didn't feel right to me. These same women -- in the Fifties -- hadn't breastfed their children because modern, educated women didn't want to be encumbered the way their foremothers had been.

To be fair, for these women, mothering was a full time job. Unlike me, they stayed home with their kids. By day's end, it was probably a relief to have their children fall asleep by themselves.

But I'd gone back to work just six weeks after Nick was born. My husband Greg and I relied on both our salaries to get by. And my employer had talked about eliminating my position after I had my baby, so I was afraid to stay away too long.

Though Greg cared for Nick most days and a loving friend filled in the gaps, I missed my baby even more than I'd expected. When driving home to see him after a day at work, I eagerly anticipated our reunion -- like I was on my way to the hottest date ever. He always lit up when I arrived, and his favorite way to spend the evening was nursing and relaxing with me.

I couldn't be with my boy during the day. Surely it was all right to give him the comfort of my presence as he fell asleep. So I continued to lie down with him.

To ward off my lingering guilt, I pretended I lived in a culture where it was normal for mothers to lie down with their children. I'd read about the kang beds in China, built over a stove for warmth. Whole families slept together. And those children, presumably, grew up to be well-adjusted adults.

Later, I'd hear a segment on National Public Radio that confirmed what I'd known intuitively: parents in most cultures sleep with their children.

When Nick was nine, as I sat on the edge of his bed one night, he placed a hand on my shoulder and said, "Mom, I don't think you should lie down with me anymore. You've gotten too large."

"It has been getting a bit crowded," I acknowledged. I didn't tell him it was he who had grown.

We hugged, exchanged a good night kiss, then I whispered "Sleep tight" and quietly left his room, shutting the door behind me.