Our culture is obsessed with independence. As soon as babies are born, the race toward self-sufficiency is on. We as a culture cannot wait to have babies sit independently, eat independently, sleep independently, and play independently. In fact, we kind of want them to just get a job already.
In the seven years I’ve been a parent, I’ve learned that there are two ways you can get your child to meet a milestone.
- You can engage in a long struggle of pushing and prompting, or
- You can wait until they do it on their own.
Whether you follow approach #1 or #2, your child will generally meet any given milestone around the same time. The main difference between the approaches is the amount of battling and frustration that you experience in the meantime.
To be clear, I am not referring to children with developmental delays or special needs who can benefit greatly from occupational therapy, speech therapy, or other extra help. If this is your child, I know that you have poured your heart and soul into helping your child meet milestones that other parents take for granted. I know that parents like you are working overtime and advocating tirelessly for your children to have the tools they need to succeed. If you are one of these parents, my hat is off to you.
For the rest of us, here are five struggles we took off the table by simply waiting for them to happen on their own when our kids were ready.
1. Sleeping through the night.
My kids didn’t sleep through the night until they were about 4 years old. When I share this with other parents, it’s usually met with either a gasp of shock or sigh of relief that it’s not just their kids. Some people luck out with unicorns who are “good sleepers,” while the rest of us are left to care for regular human children.
Anthropological evidence shows that regular human children don’t typically sleep through the night without needing a parent until 3-4 years old on average. As Kathy Dettwyler, a former Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nutrition at Texas A&M University, puts it:
“The first steps to dealing with the fact that your young child doesn’t sleep through the night, or doesn’t want to sleep without you is to realize that:
- Not sleeping through the night until they are 3 or 4 years of age is normal and healthy behavior for human infants.
- Your children are not being difficult or manipulative, they are being normal and healthy, and behaving in ways that are appropriate for our species.”
Dettwyler notes that this is difficult for some new parents to adjust to, especially because of the gap between what our culture teaches us to expect about young children’s sleep habits and reality.
That was certainly the case for me. When my firstborn was a newborn, I was sure she would start sleeping through the night within a few months and certainly by a year old. That’s what babies do, right?
Nope. We parents have been sold a pack of lies. We are fed a three-pack of lies stating that we shouldn’t feed our babies to sleep, that they must sleep solo, and that they shouldn’t need us at all for about 12 hours of every 24 hour period.
As a 2003 study explains, “Data on what, for decades, were regarded as the ‘norms’ of infant sleep were established in the United States and United Kingdom, when breastfeeding rates were at their lowest and solitary sleeping arrangements for infants were the norm. Nonetheless, the data from such studies are still cited in current pediatric texts as the standard against which infant sleep development is measured.”
The study goes to explain that due to the indigestibility of cow milk, formula-fed infants begin to wake less frequently at night at a younger age than breastfed infants. Formula feeding is associated with “shorter sleep latency, longer duration REM sleep, and a larger percentage of REM sleep.” This means that formula-fed babies, on average, fall asleep faster, but spend more time in lighter, REM sleep than in deeper, non-REM sleep, during which “the body repairs muscles and tissues, stimulates growth and development, boosts immune function, and builds up energy for the next day.”
Of course, the vast majority of formula-fed babies are healthy and thriving, but the fact remains that formula creates some changes in infant sleep patterns. And unfortunately, sleep guidelines and parental expectations are often based these altered patterns that are evolutionarily unrealistic, leading parents to believe they must “train” their children to sleep.
2. Eating solid foods.
My kids were both late starters when it came to solid foods. They were happy to keep nursing for all of their nutrition as babies, and only slowly started adding solids during toddlerhood, at first only when I wasn’t around.
According to kellymom.com, a popular evidence-based breastfeeding website created by Kelly Bonyata, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and mother of three, much of the information available about toddler nutrition assumes they are no longer breastfeeding. Bonyata suggests that a nice transition from exclusively breastfeeding to complementary foods is to have a diet that consists of 75% breastmilk and 25% solids at 12 months, 50% each at 18 months, and about 80% solids by two years old. My kids were a bit slower to start on solids than this, but this wasn’t something I had any interest in losing sleep over. (I had that covered already.) I have also never met an otherwise healthy adult who couldn’t eat solid food, so I figured there was no risk of my kids being the first ones it happened to. And sure enough, they eventually started eating food. No special effort required.
3. Weaning from breastfeeding.
Going hand in hand with the late start solids, my kids were also slow to wean themselves. I wrote about my oldest daughter self-weaning here. My younger child, a newly minted five year old, is now close to weaning herself too. Breastfeeding each child for years was never something I set out to do, and I fully support mothers who wean for their own sake. Just as importantly, I also fully support mothers who let their children nurse more or less on demand until they are done.
Too many mothers are unsupported in their nursing relationship and feel the need to go hide when breastfeeding their toddlers or preschoolers. Too many mothers get frustrated or feel like failures when their children want to engage in the biologically normal habit of nursing past infancy. In fact, breastfeeding past infancy and toddlerhood has nutritional and immunological benefits for both children, as well as a number of health benefits for mothers.
4. Potty training.
I’ve already established that my kids took years to sleep through the night, weren’t interested in solid foods as babies, and breastfed for years. Potty learning was the exception to their late bloomer status. Both of our kids started using the potty more or less on their own a little after turning two – no training required. If you think your kid is ready to ditch diapers and you’re willing to spend a little bit of time nudging them toward that milestone, go for it. But another perfectly viable option is just to wait it out. In our case, we made a potty available from a young age and over time they started using it, first occasionally and then more frequently. Eventually it didn’t make sense to keep putting diapers on them anymore, so we stopped. Simple and stress free.
5. Sleeping solo.
When we first became parents, we dutifully bought a crib, thinking that our baby would actually sleep in it. Our baby arrived with other plans. The crib ended up working rather well as a temporary climbing gym and laundry holder, but it was terrible for sleeping. My daughter woke up frequently when we tried crib sleeping, and popping in and out of bed to get her a bazillion times a night was turning me into a zombie, especially once I returned to work. At the six month mark, we happily embraced co-sleeping, which got us some much-needed rest.
Six years later, we were still at it. My daughter had been sleeping through the night for years, but was still in our bed. We started wondering how long this phase might last.
The answer turned out to be about 6.5 years. We had started listening to audiobooks around bedtime as a way to wind down a bit. This worked great for our older daughter, but less so for our younger daughter, who preferred falling asleep in silence. Eventually our oldest decided to go listen to her books in our spare bedroom instead, and after a few days, opted to make it her room to sleep in permanently. And with that, we had another stress-free transition in the books.
In praise of waiting until they’re ready
Although we’ve taken a child-led approach to each of these milestones, there are certainly many wonderful parents out there who take a more parent-led approach due to constraints like work schedules or the arrival of new siblings. Perhaps you’ve found a way to nudge your child along on one of these milestones while maintaining family harmony. If so, great. However, many parents today feel pressured to make sure their kids meet these milestones on a rigid but arbitrary timeline for no particular reason at all. There is no developmental reason your child needs to wean by age 2 or be potty-trained by age 3 or sleep alone by age 4. Each of these items is a milestone children reach when they are developmentally ready. Independence emerges naturally from dependence. It’s ok to wait until it happens on its own. The gift of an unhurried childhood is a wonderful thing.