Smart Love


Night owl baby wears out parents

By Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD. and William J. Pieper, M.D.

Q: My 4-week-old baby doesn’t seem to distinguish between night and day. She is most awake from about midnight to 3 a.m. and does her best sleeping during the day. My pediatrician advises me to get her on a schedule by putting her in her crib at night and letting her cry herself to sleep. I know you argue against leaving babies to cry, but I am exhausted from lack of sleep and really want my baby to get night and day straightened out. Do you have any suggestions that don’t involve leaving her to cry?

P.T., Aurora

A: Your baby is in the very early stages of adjusting to life outside the uterus. Perhaps you are expecting her to sleep longer at night than she can at this point. This is a very short-term problem—when you look at it from the perspective of 21 or so years of growing up.

You are right that letting her cry is not the way to teach her to sleep better at night. The emotional price babies pay for being left to cry is to think that the unhappiness they feel is what their parents want for them. They then develop the need to recreate those same unhappy feelings for themselves.

We know how tired parents of newborns can be, but if you comfort your baby when she has difficulty sleeping you will reap the future reward of seeing your baby become a calm, confident, optimistic child.

That said, we do have some practical suggestions for hastening the process by which your baby learns to sleep at night and play during the day. First, try to be as boring as possible between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Of course, you always want to use a caring, gentle touch, but try to avoid stimulating your baby. Don’t turn on more lights than necessary, don’t be too talkative, don’t bring the baby into a room with a lot of activity or other people, don’t leave anything but a small night light on at night. During her daytime naps, leave the lights on or the windows uncovered. In the not too distant future, your baby will respond and begin to differentiate night and day. Meanwhile, whenever possible let the chores go and sleep when your baby sleeps so as to preserve your own strength.

She wet her pants and now fears preschool Q: Our 4-year-old daughter is a very happy and well-loved child. She chose to use the toilet at age 2 and has had few accidents, all of which have been handled gently with a “no big deal” attitude. After attending a wonderful preschool for about six months, she had an accident and wet her pants. She says she didn’t go to the bathroom because she didn’t want to miss snack. Now she doesn’t want to go back to school. The nights before school she gets so upset and anxious she cries and refuses to go to school unless I go with her. When we go, she loves being there, but when we talk about her going to school on her own she gets upset and tells me she’ll miss me too much. This is unusual since she’s never been insecure about my temporary absence.

Knowing it is related to the accident, I ask her what upset her the most about it. She says, “I was embarrassed.” I tell her it is normal to have accidents and that many people, including adults, have them. I tell her she can wear Pull-Ups if that would help. “No way” is her response. The school has been very helpful and understanding, but I can’t keep going with her forever. Please help me to help her return to her well-adjusted, happy childhood.

M.M., Brookfield

A: Our hunch is that your daughter is putting her finger on the problem when she says she felt embarrassed by wetting her pants. Either the teachers weren’t as supportive as you think, or she was teased by other children. When you are there with her, she feels that if she were to wet herself again she would be protected from painful feelings. We suggest you check with the school to make sure children aren’t being allowed to tease others who make mistakes. Perhaps you also could send an extra set of clothes and underclothes so she will not worry about having to stay in wet clothes in case of another accident.

Meanwhile, tell your daughter you will continue to go to school with her as long as she needs you. When she seems more relaxed, try leaving for a few minutes every day. If she does well in your absence, gradually increase the time you are gone. Eventually, she will be able to go to school by herself again. Most important is to take her fear seriously whether it makes sense to you or not. If you can give her this leeway now, chances are you will avoid school problems later on.

Learning to use utensils is important, but messy Q: My 11-month-old son wants to do everything we do, including eat with utensils. When I give him a spoon or fork he doesn’t get much to eat and the food is all over him and the kitchen. But when I don’t let him have utensils and he sees me eating with a fork and spoon he cries. I would like to wait until he is older, but I don’t know how to make him accept that he can’t have utensils now. Please help.

A.L., Chicago

A: Your son is going through an important developmental process. Unfortunately, you can’t postpone it until a more convenient time. The most important engine powering successful development is the desire to be just like one’s beloved parents. It is important to interfere with that motive as little as possible. Obviously your baby can’t copy you and cook on the stove, but he can certainly try to eat with a child’s fork and spoon.

You may feel better if you try to keep the mess to a minimum. Put a big plastic sheet under his high chair, dress him in something simple and washable, and let him have fun. If you are worried whether he is getting enough to eat, make sure he has some finger food on his tray and put some food on a separate spoon and offer it to him in between his own efforts. See if you can enjoy his pleasure at trying to master this skill and be grown up like Mom and Dad. Someday you may even look back on these meals with real nostalgia.



Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., have a new book, Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work, and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2002), about helping parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than two decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.

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