FAMILY HAPPINESS: Biking along Lake Champlain in 2008 with Sarah, Will and Lizzy.
FAMILY HAPPINESS: Biking along Lake Champlain in 2008 with Sarah, Will and Lizzy.

After my first child was born 25 years ago, I was desperate to find other professional 30-something moms to commiserate with. So I did what all new, overwhelmed mothers do, and joined a playgroup. Several times a week, 3-month-old Sarah (Class of 2012) and I would wend our way from my tiny, baby-saturated apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to a cheerless function room at Columbia University.

We moms sat on folding chairs in a large circle, our squirming babies on blankets on the floor inside the circle. Most of the babies, like Sarah, were in the insect-on-its-back phase of physical prowess.

In between pickups, spit-ups and breastfeeding, we tried to find a way out of the fog of new parenthood by consulting self-help parenting books. Dr. Spock was still the high priest of baby doctors. But British psychologist Penelope Leach and pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton also had best-sellers on how to raise the smartest, happiest, kindest child.

A vague feeling of inadequacy came over me every time I opened one of these well-meaning books, so I began to avoid them. I had perfectly defensible reasons, I rationalized to myself. Leach’s book was too encyclopedic to keep me engaged more than two or three minutes into my precious naptime. Dr. Spock seemed mechanistic, and, as I recall, the font size in the paperback was tiny. Brazelton seemed too avuncular.

Then I discovered Richard Ferber’s book “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” a slim, practical volume compared to the others. In easy-to-follow steps, Ferber shows parents how to train their babies to soothe themselves to sleep (once they reach the right weight, age and emotional readiness). Every mother I knew was desperate to “ferberize” her baby.

Best of all, it didn’t take years to find out if you had followed Ferber’s advice successfully. You would know in only a few nights, when you and baby slept blissfully through the night.

Back then, I was amazed at the notion that a baby could, with the gentlest parental guidance, learn to comfort herself, and be better off for it. After all, wasn’t that my job? But 25 years later, I now understand clearly what I knew only theoretically then.

Writ large, the ability to self-soothe, to cope successfully, to comfort oneself even in the face of the most dire adversity is an essential life skill. Luckily, it seems we’re born with it. Like so many other innate and acquired talents, the trick is to nurture it, and give it purpose.

Once I was cleareyed from regular sleep, I donated all the baby-doc books to my local library. Instead of consulting parenting gurus, I started consulting my baby, and the two who followed. And now, once in a while, my three fabulous young adults consult me.

Laura Gardner, P’12