I Failed French Parenting 101

"Not quite."

“Not quite.”

“So, is he sleeping through the night yet?”

Hands down, that is the question I am asked most whenever I go anywhere with my six month old. Everyone from work colleagues to nosy Target cashiers loves to pry open this particular parental wound that has become the go-to topic for baby small talk.

In response, I give a smile that probably looks more like a wince and say, “No, not yet. Not quite.”

In my case, “not quite” involves breastfeeding every two to three hours around the clock. “Not quite” means that, last night, my baby ate at 7:00 PM when I put him to bed, then again at 10:00 PM, 12:00 AM, 2:30 AM, 5:00 AM, followed by a nice little wake-up nurse at 6:30.

Last summer, when I was about six months pregnant with Julian and had finally stopped throwing up thrice daily, I listened to an audio version of a book on French parenting, Bringing Up Bebe. Pamela Druckerman, the author, is an American expat living in Paris who notices that all the French children around her are bizarrely well-behaved with patient temperaments and sophisticated palettes – in contrast to her own untamed American menaces who seem ripe for Supernanny intervention.

The most miraculous feature of these Parisian cherubs is their ability to sleep through the night at only a few weeks old. Druckerman attributes this to an engrained French parenting technique she calls “the pause.”

Whereas the neurotic American mother rushes right over to the crib at the tiniest sound, the French mother – who I imagine reclining on a chaise reading Madame Bovary with a glass of Beaujolais in hand – simply tilts her head at the sound, pausing to assess whether the baby needs to eat or not. If not, he learns to soothe himself back to sleep.

Très simple, non?

That’s “the pause.” That’s the wizardry that French mothers use to get their babies to sleep through the night when they’re just wee little baguettes, fresh out of the womb.

“No problem,” mused my pregnant self. “That’s just common sense.” Armed with this gnosis, I was lulled into a smirking confidence.  Surely, I thought, with my maternal intuition, my sensitivity, my cross-cultural parenting savvy, I wouldn’t be one of those harried mothers shambling into the baby’s room multiple times a night, like an extra from The Walking Dead. I would simply pause, my baby would lull himself back into sleep, and then I would go back to my high-brow reading and red wine drinking before getting a good night’s sleep.

HA HAAHA HA HAAAA. Ha. No. That has never happened.

[….]

Read the rest of my guest post over at my friend Beth Woolsey’s parenting blog “Five Kids is A Lot of Kids.” While you’re there, be sure to check out some of her hilarious writing.

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23 comments

  1. T. Greenfield

    My oldest son slept through the night at 6 weeks. My youngest son was up for an entire YEAR! I remember my husband saying at some point about 8 months in with the second son how great it was that he was sleeping through the night. I just stared at him and then finally said, “You think he SLEEPS THROUGH THE NIGHT! I AM UP EVERY NIGHT AT 2 a.m. with him!” Love how someone was sleeping through the night! It get’s better…REALLY!

    • divinemo

      hahahaha, love you response T.Greenfield,just this past night, baby daddy said, “oh, the boy slept throughout the night I see,I didn’t hear him wake up or anything” and in my tired and condescending response I said, “yes, only in your own world, he didn’t wake up dear, because in my world he did at around 1am, and as usual I put him in our bed for about an hour, before I could put him back in his cot, at 2am”.

      The boy is 15 months next week, luckily he doesn’t feed at night anymore, but because of some bad sleeping habits (i’m guilty as charged) he hasn’t learnt to soothe himself back to sleep when he stirs at these strange hours.I rock him to sleep,despite my best intentions.And I was utterly frustrated at 6 months when after introducing solids, he still woke up multiple times for feeds, but lo and behold just after his first birthday, the night feeds stopped and we started enjoying some good 7 hour sleep……

      You are not alone Mama unabridged.I look like Frankenstein’s bride as we speak. I am tired and ugly.

      • Abigail

        I can so relate to both of you, ha ha…!! (Although I don’t believe the ugly part, Divinemo, at least from looking at your picture.) My husband and I share almost every parenting burden somewhat, but the night feedings are always mine, so he’s been pretty much sleeping through the night from the get-go, lucky man. We’re now trying to get the little guy to learn to self-soothe — not a CIO thing, but more like a modified “sleep lady shuffle.” So far, it seems to be helping. But I also know that babies go through phases, and I have no doubt that there will be times when he sleeps like an angel, and then times when he’s up at all hours again. Sigh.

      • T. Greenfield

        Too funny! I also remember when our second was a newborn and I was up every single night repeatedly and I was so exhausted I couldn’t function. In the middle of the night the baby was crying and crying and I kept thinking my husband would wake up. He didn’t. So I yelled at the top of my lungs, “DOES NO ONE ELSE IN THIS HOUSE HEAR THAT SCREAMING BABY!” He slowly sat up, looked at me for a second and said, “I hear YOU!” lol

    • Abigail

      T. Greenfield — another thing I love about your comment is how different your kids have been with sleeping!! That’s one thing that drives me nuts with most parenting books — they seem to have the idea that all babies are the same, and one method works for all of them, but the longer I’m a mother, the more I get the sneaking feeling that nothing I do really matters; it’s mostly all him.

      • T. Greenfield

        We have a great pediatrician who is the mother of 3 boys. Most of our well child checks she spent with me and my crazy list of first time mom questions. She was so good at talking me through things. Both of our boys had reflux but our second had it very badly and he had multiple ear infections. I remember her saying, “Think about it….giving him a bottle and filling his tiny stomach and then laying him down to go to sleep is like you drinking a large milk shake and going to bed.” I thought at the time, “THIS IS INFORMATION I CAN USE! NO BOOK TOLD ME THAT!” Don’t sweat it, you will find your way. Now that my boys are 7 and 10, what I wouldn’t give for just one more late night with a sweet baby all alone. (Yeah, yeah, that doesn’t help you right now…I know!)

  2. Titfortat

    I cant remember at what age I had the joy(wink) of weaning my daughter off her 1am feeding. Lucky for her mom, she worked nights. I read that when they start crying you should just let them go until they sleep. Everytime you give in you will have to start the process over. The first night was a mind numbing 1hr of crying, I broke out into sweats thinking I was scarring my kid for life. After she stops crying I went in to see she had fallen asleep on her knees with her face stuck to the cradle wall(pretty funny actually). The next night took 20mins and the one after 10mins. And VOILA, she was cured of the late night feeding frenzy. 🙂

    • Abigail

      Yup — the crying it out method works for a lot of parents. We’re trying a modified version of sleep training now — not to get him to sleep through the night (don’t think he’s ready for that, since he’s not eating solids really), but to get him to be able to fall asleep on his own and take better naps. Fingers crossed!

  3. Murphy Must Have Had Kids

    My daughter is two now and is still usually up once in the night for a diaper change. “Sleeping through the night” is a great parenting lie! Teething, sickness, night terrors etc. all enter into the picture. I figure I’ll sleep again in maybe 15 years or so. 😉

    • Abigail

      Yeah, most of my friends who have three year-olds are up for one reason or another, too. I think there is too much emphasis placed on “sleeping through the night” — as if it’s the holy grail of parenting. I felt like a failure for awhile because he wasn’t even close, but now I’ve just accepted that that’s who he is and what he needs to do for now.

      • Murphy Must Have Had Kids

        My son is 5. We “sleep-trained” him…the whole nine yards. He got the last laugh: all the sleep books I read and energy I wasted getting him to sleep were for naught. He comes into our bed every night at midnight and stays there. And I love it. 🙂

  4. Brin

    “Sleeping through the night” has always been a mythical construct to me as well. Both of my children nursed until 2ish. My daughter still thinks she needs to “hold it” (my boob) whenever she’s near me, especially while laying in bed. Both children still want to come and cuddle if they wake in the night. I can usually convince the 5yo to go back to bed until morning, but he always wants those early morning snuggles… The 3yo however… Nope. She’s very adamant that “THERE IS ROOM!” and in my quest for functioning without being a complete terror myself, she often ends up in my bed halfway through the night.

    In all honesty, I’ll miss the days when they don’t even want to cuddle. My natural instincts fell in line with most “attachment parenting” tendencies, though my son definitely needs harsher punishment.

    • Abigail

      Yes, I love the snuggles!! I know I’ll miss the days when they are gone, too. And I can relate with your last couple of sentences, too; I’ve mostly been following my instincts, not a manual, and so far they’ve falling basically in line with AP parenting — but I suspect we’ll do discipline a bit differently from what I’ve read about the “positive discipline.” Then again, I am obviously terrible at predicting what kind of parent I’ll be, and what my child will do, so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see!

      • Brin

        part of why the “talking” approach to discipline failed for us, when asking him “why?” or “how do you feel?” he’d just say “BECAUSE!” and “I DON’T KNOW!” lol Toddlers are amazingly difficult for being so small. He’s now a not-so-small 5 year old, and my daughter is turning out to be as full of attitude as her mother… who would have thought that was possible!? I’m not sure I can handle anymore replicas of myself! ha

  5. Susiemessmaker

    I’ve tried to replace the idea of “sleeping through the night” with the idea of rest. What our bodies and minds actually need is rest, which so often means having a positive (but realistic) attitude and cherishing the moments we have to sleep, sit alone in the back yard, or eat some ice cream without having to share it! If we go through our days feeling like we have the short end of the stick, we will only feel more stressed, and this won’t help us to sleep more, believe me. I love your perspective, Abby, of cherishing the time we have with our little ones. Some day in the not too distant future, they will but up all night texting with their friends with no thought of us!

  6. Liz

    I love this! Maybe this phenom is part of why French people are, I think, more petite than Americans.
    Also, don’t ya kinda love half awake feedings where he barely stirs, you nurse lying in bed, everyone drifts off to peaceful slumber again?

  7. Mommy V

    Giirrrrl!!! Yeah. My 15-month-old woke up to nurse three times last night, thanx to a wicked round of teeth-cutting and some sickness. Yay. Even more shocking?? …I didn’t even realize it. I mean, until I read this article, I somehow hadn’t stopped to think how old she was or whether or not she was sleeping through the night. In the great chaos of this third go-round of mommy life, I just kept plugging along unconsciously… HA! Well, now I’m thinking about it. And she’s old. And she’s not sleeping through the night. So, let me join you (however unintentionally) in the great pool of French Failure.

    Also, AMEN to the “every kid is different” bit. My 2nd was a holy terror at night. Right around 1 year, we decided to try CIO (even though I hated the idea) as a last resort because we were all ragged and miserable. He cried on and off (and by “off” I mean brief periods of half-conscious whimpering and sniffling) for SIX HOURS A NIGHT for THREE NIGHTS. We lived in an apartment at the time and the neighbors complained. So much for that. And what finally cured him of this crazy sleeplessness?? We put him in bed with his 2yo brother. They snuggled up together like happy little clams… all squished up on a single crib mattress. Voila! How did I not think of that earlier?! (Perhaps the multi-year zombie-state that took over my existence???)

    In any case, you get NO JUDGMENT from me. Because in my world, parenting decisions regarding sleep are a matter of survival. And we do what we gotta do to cling to our last shreds of sanity. One of my favorite thoughts on sleep came from a mommy friend of mine whose first son (she now has 4) was born with a seisure syndrome. She resuscitated him when his heart stopped multiple times before the age of 1. She said, “God gave YOU that child. You make the decisions and you live with the consequences.” She rocked her kid to sleep every night for years.

  8. Diana

    I find I am incredibly against the whole “cry-it-out method” until my child has been up 3 times in the night and wants to eat again and she is already 12 months and should really be past this because my other 2 were before this and I can’t handle it any more and you can just stay in your bed! Until about 5 or 10 minutes later when I feel so horrible that I go in and pat her back until she goes to sleep. At least she sleeps in her own bed, right? Right?? Ahh, the life of a parent! But I love it.

  9. Bruce

    Whenever I hear about some amazing thing that people are doing with their kids somewhere halfway around the world, I have to suppress a little growl. Sure, the French are probably incredibly sophisticated parents who are able to put their kids right to bed (perhaps with a little beaujolais in the bottle), while perfectly knotting a Hermes scarf and giving a graceful full-bodied shrug. Of course Chinese mothers are training their kids to play the violin and do radial keratotomy surgery by the time they’re able to stand. Needless to say, Swedish kids are able to field-dress a reindeer by the time they can read. Can’t everyone?

    Then again, when you scratch the surface, you discover that French men are bizarrely dependent Mama’s boys, “Tiger Cubs” are neurotic balls of stress, and Swedes…well, the Swedes are perfect, so we should just leave it at that. Speaking personally, the first 6-8 months of having a kid felt a lot like what I imagine a Soviet interrogation cell would be like: a lot of stress, a lot of sleep deprivation, and a short, loud dictator yelling at you all the time.

    Kidding aside, I wonder what parenting advice would look like if it wasn’t so focused on brilliant ideas that come from just over the rainbow (or just across the ocean). I have a feeling that parents would certainly be a bit less harried/worried/upset if they didn’t feel obliged to keep up with Les Joneses…

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  11. joeyfullystated

    My oldest slept from about 11:30pm-8:30am, which was great, since I was raising two other children to whom I couldn’t claim birth rights, but who still needed breakfast, soccer uniforms, braids, packed lunches and attention nonetheless.
    My youngest had colic. Colic was from 9pm-3pm, and for about seven weeks, I hated my life. My whole life.
    Perhaps a French nanny with “pause” skills should’ve come to care for the colicky bebe. Mmhm.

  12. wfprice

    When I lived in France as a boy, I remember that my neighborhood friend would often trot down to the local Radar Super to buy mama a bottle of claret and a pack of Gauloises — at ten years old! Then, as she sank into the typical Gallic ivresse, the two of us would engage in various delinquent activities around the neighborhood.

    You have to keep in mind that the païsan mentality is never far from the surface in la France, and that means the kid is expected to pull his/her weight from a very young age. Is the child acting out and goofing off? A swift slap to the face and some gratuitous humiliation will do the trick. Did he/she say something “gauche?” A contemptuous look – “the pause” – should quickly get the message across, and if not then some gesture or statement intended to inculcate the greatest amount of guilt and shame in the child will be applied.

    As an American boy in France, I felt damn lucky to have American parents. Sure, maybe we’re naïve simpletons from their perspective, but we’re more humane to our children.

    I’ll give you this to consider:

    When a strict American parent spanks a child, he or she claims it is to beat “the devil” out of the child. When a French parent does it, the child is called the devil. Which one is more malicious?

    These Americans who marvel at French parenting style don’t know the half of it…

    That said, I love continental women, and have a soft spot for them. But when it comes to dealing with the kids, I’ll be an American chauvinist and make damn sure my parenting norms are adhered to. If anything, American parents just need to adopt a little more of that “que sera, sera” attitude and put a little more faith in God (or nature if you will). But I know how hard that is. Oh, how I know…