Need vs. Habit
By Tine Thevenin
It is the law of human life, as certain as gravity; to
live fully, we must learn to use things and love people ... not
love things and use people.
~ Maria Montessori
"It is not in the nature of nature," writes Salk, "to
provide organisms with biological tendencies unless such tendencies have
survival value."1 It would
therefore be wise to heed nature instead of trying to suppress or ignore
it. Certain aspects of human life are not matters of opinions, but are
determined biologically. The need of a child to sleep with members of
his family is not a subject to be determined by our opinion, but should
be determined by his emotional wants.
The wants of a well-adjusted human being are his needs. It is when
his needs are not fulfilled that his wants become excessive in the
attempt to fulfill suppressed needs.
We are born needing. We have need for air, food, sleep, and shelter.
We have need for intellectual and physical stimulation. We have a need
to be loved and touched.2 If
any of these needs goes fully or even partially unattended, the person
hurts; and in the case of an emotional wound, the person may spend the
rest of his life struggling to soothe the initial hurt.3
Gesell argues that a child passes through predictable stages of
development at predictable times.4
Thus what might seem to become a habit, may be simply a gratification of
Hymes, in his book Child under Six, describes a habit as an
action which can easily be broken. "If you run into any major
difficulty at all," he writes, "Beware! You are probably not
dealing with an old outworn habit. The chances are that you are
tampering with a human need."5
If the body indicates a need for food, treating it like a habit and
disregarding it will not make the hunger go away. Ignoring the sensation
of wanting to lie down and sleep will not cure one forever from having
to sleep eight hours a day.
But if one is in the habit of putting his keys in his right pocket,
there need be only a worn-out pocket to change the habit from putting
the keys in right to the left pocket.
The child who seeks his parents' bed at night is expressing a basic
need. And this need must take its own time and pace for satisfaction.
The child who is thus allowed to be with his parents will gradually
mature to being satisfied with sleeping elsewhere, usually seeking the
companionship of another member of the family. Should this child choose
to sleep alone, it might do well to be aware that he has not transferred
his seeking security from his parents or siblings to an inanimate
object. If the child wants to sleep with his parents, it means he
needs it. If he crawls into his parents' bed but then is content
to be taken to a sibling's bed, it may mean that he was in the habit of
going to his elders' bed.
For some strange reason we tend to think that to satisfy a child's
need is to make it into an unbreakable habit, where in truth the exact
opposite is true.6
When our children develop a "good" habit, one that suits
us, we are afraid it is not going to last. But when our children develop
a "bad" habit, one that does not suit us, we are afraid it is
going to last forever. So many people are afraid that their children
will not grow up. We are told to feed them solids with a spoon at three
weeks of age, lest babies will never learn to eat solids, let alone with
a spoon. We are told to toilet train them when they are one year old or
they will never quit wearing diapers. We are told to begin to discipline
them at one month, otherwise they will never listen to us. We are told
that children must always sleep in their own bed or they will always
want to sleep with us. It is commonly believed that babies need to be
weaned by the mother. And yet when weaning is left totally up to the
child, it happens in a natural, healthy, and relaxed way. At the time
the child no longer needs direct physical contact with his mother, then
he weans himself from the breast. Likewise, parents' experiences
indicate that the healthy child will wean himself in time from the
Children should be given the credit that, provided the home
environment is healthy, they will mature. As each need is fulfilled at
each stage, they will move on and become more mature. (We did. Let's
It will be found that one phase passes into another, and another, and
another. Please trust that in a sound surrounding the child will
graduate from each stage of development.
I remember carrying my first infant throughout the day. Then she
began to crawl and I no longer needed to hold her so frequently. I
remember nursing her fifteen times a day. Now she is weaned and eats and
drinks what we eat and drink. I used to take her with me wherever I
went. And if I could not take her I stayed home. (Except if she was
asleep.) She was happiest with this arrangement. Then when she was about
three years old, she took another step toward independence-, she looked
forward to the occasional babysitter to read her a bedtime story and put
her to bed.
A child who has his needs fulfilled will become an independent,
secure person. But independence cannot be forced upon someone.7
It takes time and growing at the individual's own pace. The more secure
he is in the knowledge that he can always come back to his parents, the
more independent he will become. We will only create problems if we
regard his needing us at night as a problem which should be
Our western society is so complex. Our very houses are far too
complex to let the child have the freedom of his domain. It is truly
amazing how many restrictions we must place on him in his every day
life. The stove is dangerous, the electric appliances are dangerous,
etc. it is a real eye-opener to count the number of times we say
"No!" or remind a child that he is dealing with potential
Should we therefore frustrate him even more by putting restrictions
on emotional wants and needs?
The child's sleeping in the parental bed should not be regarded as a
privilege, nor restricted for the fear of its becoming a habit. Rather
it should be considered the necessary fulfillment of a basic human need.
1 Salk, Lee. "Role of the Heartbeat
in the Relationship between Mother and Infant," Scientific
American, May 1973, p. 29.
2 Montagu, Ashley. Touching. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1971, p.289.
3 Janov, Arthur. The Primal Scream. New York:
Dell Publishing,1970, p. 22.
4 "What Is A Mother To Do?" Newsweek,
9-23-68, p. 69.
5 -Hymes, James. Child under Six. Englewood
Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963, p. 87.
6 -Salk, Lee. What Every Child Would Like His
Parents To Know. New York: McKay Co., 1972, p. 42.
7 "Frequent Night Nursing of Toddlers and
Clinging Dependence during the Day." La Leche League Reprint No.
77. Franklin Park, Illinois: La Leche League International
Excerpted from The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing,
Avery Publishing Co., 1987.
Reprinted with permission by the author.