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A happy baby is a baby who knows there are rules. This is one of the great ironies of becoming a parent and it takes a while to figure out: Although babies bring chaos into your life, they don’t actually like chaos. Even though they make a huge mess, they actually prefer a nice tidy world — one in which they can depend on simple routines and reliable outcomes.
For example, sleep. When your baby is a newborn, none of this applies. When they cry, you must leap out of bed — even if you are deep in REM — and run like a scalded ape through the night, violently smashing your knees and toes on all kinds of hardwood furniture which someone seems to have rearranged again. Pay no mind that you would pay a billion dollars to just fall back into that dream, because you have to keep running with your broken toes and give the baby whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
That was then. Now that your infant is approaching the one year mark, something else is happening in his brain. His cries no longer signify a primal need. Instead, he is figuring out one of the basic laws of the universe: cause and effect.
At about a year old, a baby begins to learn something important when he realizes, “Hey. If I do this, the big nosed one does that. If I shriek at 4 AM, he, or the soft faced one with the milk, will come get me.”
At this point, the baby really doesn’t want to be the boss, but you will notice your home is a lot like Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. There’s a power vacuum and if you don’t step up and be the strongman, Isis or your baby will fill it.
If you want a really crazy boss who makes you run around and do all kinds of cruel tasks before the sun rises, all you have to do is keep waking up whenever he cries.
But if this is a battle you intend to win, follow these 3 easy steps.
If he wakes up while it’s still dark out, go to the crib and explain that nighttime is when people sleep and that you don’t want to be awake before the sun rises as you are not a garbage man or a rooster.
When he keeps crying, be like, “Bro. Mommy and me are gonna go back to sleep. So cry all you want, but we don’t want to wake up yet.”
He will keep crying, but bury your head with a pillow and tell yourself this is not selfish. You’re actually doing something very kind. You are helping him develop patience. You are giving him the greatest gift a wise parent can share: clear boundaries. You are teaching him that normal humans don’t wake up when it’s still dark out.
There’s a famous study in which children were left alone with a marshmallow and told to wait as long as they could before eating it. The kids who waited longest had the most successful lives. The ones who gobbled the sweets with no self-control all ended up in prison. So tell yourself, by allowing junior to cry now, you are teaching him the self-discipline that will make him a CEO and save him from being a crack addict hobo. (The study I’m referring to is widely known, and I’m paraphrasing some details. But facts require naps, and I can’t get fussy about either right now.)
A few minutes later, admit you are too weak to stand the sound of your baby crying and give in. His tears will still be wet on his face as you cuddle this beloved little jihadi. He has won. And you have both lost.
There’s always tomorrow.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.