It started harmlessly, as some addictions do. It also started because he spent too much time with a temporary addict—me.
Right after our second baby was born, I got through the nights of nursing and diaper changes with sweet, cake-like energy bars (preferably with a little chocolate, although sometimes I forced myself to get the ones that just had nuts). I’m sure investors in the energy bar sector got wealthy from my month-long obsession. But I was always hungry in those early postpartum days.
Sometimes I actually looked forward to the middle of the night nursing because of those bars. My husband would come home with grocery bags, and one always had energy bars. I would grab it and make off with it, planning to stash it in my nightstand drawer like contraband. They always disappeared faster than I meant for them to, but my husband always showed up with more just in time. It was the very definition of true love (or codependence, depending on how you look at it).
But no matter how quickly I whisked the bag away, he saw. Toddlers see everything, and if they don’t see it, they smell it. “[sniff, sniff] Mama, it smells like chocolate. Why does it smell like chocolate?” So he started having some of mine. And then we realized it was much cheaper if we just bought him some small, child-sized energy bars.
So my toddler would wake up in the morning after a night of maybe sleeping in his own bed but probably retreating to mine, and he would immediately ask for an energy bar.
Then things got real. When he woke up in the night, he would ask for a cereal bar. If I didn’t give in, his screaming would wake the baby who might then be up for another hour or more. When I just handed over the energy bar, my toddler would eat it peacefully and then curl up and go to sleep. It seemed easy. People told me, “Maybe he’s hungry! Sometimes I wake up hungry! I don't see a problem with it."
But I was torn. He clung to his morning or middle-of-the-night energy bars like some kids cling to stuffed animals. “Mama! Roo needs a hearee (cereal) bar!” he would say! Throughout the whole morning, he toddled around with his bar in hand. It seemed to soothe his new-baby transition. We limited it to one per day, but sometimes an extra half would creep in there due to parental miscommunication.
But it was insidious. For a while, he started waking up in the middle of the night so frequently and demanding an energy bar with such urgency that I decided maybe he was waking up just for the energy bar. There were a couple of nights I’m not proud of where I broke the cardinal parenting rule of saying “no” and then giving in. He would scream, wake up the baby, scream some more while I bounced my newborn on the exercise ball. Both of us would end up in tears sometimes. This was bad. Plus it wasn't like these energy bars were the best thing he could be eating. I was ruining his sleep and his eating habits simultaneously.
I didn’t know what to do. Most people wisely told me it wasn’t a big deal, but I couldn’t have my two-year-old waking up in the night for a cereal bar while I was also caring for a nursing baby. I needed to be firm. I needed to be consistent. I needed to wean him from these cereal bars. I had sobered up myself, and now he needed to. But the addiction seemed strong.
Then, one day, I realized he didn’t care to have an energy bar. He didn’t ask; I didn’t offer. He ate the last one at some point, and this time, we didn’t buy more, and he didn’t ask. And just like that, his energy bar addiction was gone. He still wasn't always sleeping through the night, but he also wasn't begging for an energy bar when he woke up.
I think this story has replayed itself often in my parenting. I wonder if we focus too much on “creating bad habits” in the toddler years. We worry so much about pacifier addiction or cosleeping, and for some kids (and parents), these are really hard. But in the end, kids stop sleeping in their parents’ bed, they give up their pacifiers, they stop relying on the bottle to fall asleep, they potty train. Sometimes it’s hard for a little while; sometimes it requires more effort on the parents’ part for a few hard days (or weeks).
But a lot of the time, it just happens. Kids change so often in these early years. They are resilient and strange and switch their preferences on a whim.
My son watched a ridiculous amount of Youtube when the baby was first born (and I felt ridiculous amounts of guilt almost every minute), but now he watches none. Some days he asks for Daniel Tiger all day, and then he’ll go days without asking. He’s a strange creature, as are most toddlers.
I think we often confuse the chicken and the egg. Does a parent keep rocking a baby to sleep because there’s no other way to get the child to sleep, or did the parent make the child this way? And often, I think we intuitively know the answers for our own kids if we don’t let other people’s advice and opinion influence us negatively.
With my first son, nursing or walking him to sleep was really the only thing that worked, and he still has a hard time falling asleep without help (this book explains that it could be a feature of his personality). My second son is rocked or nursed to sleep some of the time, but he can also fall asleep on his own. This just happened; it was nothing I did differently.
I love this quote from a mom.me article about how bad sleep habits won't ruin a child,
“But kids are resilient, and not every single less-than-optimal choice we make has permanent repercussions.”
Sometimes we have to survive for now, stop feeling guilty, and know that we can change things in the future. This isn’t some universal truth that applies to all of parenting, but I think it applies to more things I realize in the little years.
Today my son isn’t even a recovering addict—his obsession was temporary. I don't think he even thinks about energy bars. And I guess even if his temporary addiction makes him prone to a future energy bar addiction in adulthood, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world (although I might invest in some energy bar stock).
P.S. Here are some of my thoughts on toddlers and TV.