This week's problem: Chloe is breastfeeding her nine-month-old son. He wakes screaming five times a night and she is getting to the end of her tether. When she and her easy-going husband have him to sleep in their bed, everything's fine. But Chloe's friend says she is making a rod for her back, and that firm and kindly discipline is the answer. Who's right?

Ah. Our old friend "firm and kindly discipline" rears its unrealistic head. I managed to dredge some up with my young son when it came to electric plugs and road-crossing - but when he was tiny, hungry and scared? In the middle of the night? A mother has to be strong, cold and, yes, cruel to consider discipline in those circumstances.

It's only quite recently in Western society that babies are plonked straight from a womb to a room. And in the avalanche of "three-in-a- bed" letters, some strange facts emerged. In the animal kingdom, it's only reptiles that don't sleep with their offspring; night breast-milk contains more prolactin, which relaxes both baby and mother. There's some evidence that babies who sleep in their parents' bed are at less risk of cot death. The only parents who roll over and suffocate their babies are either drunk or drugged. Finally, all babies leave the marital bed sooner rather than later and, in the meantime, everyone gets a good night's sleep.

So why on earth should Chloe tie herself in the knots that a few other readers suggested? Why play musical beds, cots next to bed, or mum sometimes sleeping with baby; or have dad going in to comfort the child at night so it won't "smell the milk" (love that one); or go in for bizarre "programmes" that involve going into the baby's room but not picking it up every five, 10, then 15 minutes; or wearing earplugs to protect against the natural instincts of racing to give comfort? One reader even hired a universal aunt for a week to "train" the baby out of bad screaming habits. She may have saved herself sleep in the short-term but, as Pamela Ramsden of Ipswich pointed out, she is storing up hundreds of sleepless nights in future when the child grows up fearful and unconfident. Why should Chloe go in for all this when she could make life so pleasant for the entire family so easily?

If Chloe lets her baby scream for an hour, argued some, he'll soon learn. Indeed he will. He'll learn to be terrified and abandoned, he'll learn the deadly, submissive "goodness" that comes through fear and resignation. Certainly, even now I wouldn't like to scream for an hour. And if my calculator is correct, an hour of a nine-month-old's life is the equivalent of a day and a half in a 30-year-old's. Were an adult left to scream in a darkened cave in the middle of nowhere for a day and a half, hordes of counsellors primed in post-distress syndrome would, rightly, gallop to the rescue.

A baby needs love, security, the comforting sound of its mother's heartbeat, the feeling that food is always on offer. There is no argument. If three in a bed works for Chloe, then she should take the child into her bed. If it's a bit of a squash, get a bigger one.

readers' responses

I was ill for 20 months after the birth of my daughter, largely because I did the same things as Chloe. What follows was learnt slowly and painfully, but it works.

Do, do, wean your son. Breastfeeding is exhausting, and by now you've given him the immunities and trace elements he needs. After the last feed, don't give him anything except a little water until 6am. Solids and formula are harder to digest, so will make him sleepier. Try to find what, besides you, he finds comforting. One special teddy, rag, dummy can work wonders.

Put him in a cot now. If you leave it any later he'll be able to climb out, and then (if he doesn't break his neck) life will be twice as hard. Don't let him sleep after 3pm and get him as physically tired as you can. Have a soothing night-time routine with books, not videos. At 8pm, put your son down and leave him to cry. Make the room dark, but leave the door ajar. Don't switch on the baby alarm, it will only torture you. Visit every seven minutes, then every 10, then every 20, but don't pick him up. Babies can't be spoilt, but they will stay awake for "rewards" such as extra cuddles. Within a week he'll settle. If he wakes in the night, repeat the process.

Even if it feels like ripping your heart out to hear his screams, please try it. It will not damage him, and meanwhile your exhaustion is a real danger, both to you and your child. He needs a mother, not a zombie, and part of being a mother is learning when to say no to the person you love.

Amanda Craig, London

Of course Chloe and her husband should take their baby son into their bed. In the view of some educators who have studied the more natural ways of primitive peoples, who have not lost touch with their instincts, he should have been sleeping there since birth, and she should still be carrying him for much of his waking hours close to her body, as the infants of our species are programmed to expect. At least she is still breastfeeding him, so she has not entirely lost touch with her instincts. The unthinking cruelty of the friends who advise against this simple, natural, loving remedy for his loneliness and insecurity are at the bottom of most of the world's troubles. I speak as a mother who didn't do any of the right things because I listened to others and lived to regret it. "Bad habits" be damned! Love him and keep him close, make him happy and secure, and when the right time comes he will move out on his own.

Lynne Stephenson, Dorset

Our first child was an appalling sleeper and I understand Chloe's exhaustion. The other overwhelming feeling I had was one of inadequacy. The more I listened to well-meaning advice, the more I felt that I was doing something wrong and it was all my fault.

I know better now. All babies are different. Some will not sleep well until they are much older. You have a bad sleeper and you must find a way to live round it. You must do what you feel is best for you. Be flexible. If it suits you both to have him in bed with you at the moment, go for it. If necessary, you can tackle getting him out again later. There is no magic solution. Try to relax about it. Above all, don't blame yourself.

We tried everything. There was a slight improvement after leaving him to cry solidly for three hours on two successive nights, as described in that intensely undermining little text My Child Won't Sleep by J Douglas and N Richardson. Even then the problem didn't go away.

He is seven now and, surprisingly enough, has been sleeping through the night for some years. As I write this, I can still feel the anxiety I felt then. I wish I'd been more laid back and trusted my own instincts.

Julie Mather, Nottingham

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My husband has a very good friend he has known since school. Some years ago, he was involved in an acrimonious divorce and lost touch with his family. A few months ago, he came to us in tears saying that his 20-year- old daughter had been to a counsellor and had "remembered" that he had sexually abused her when she was five.

Naturally, we were very supportive of him when he denied it - but I'm appalled now to find that I feel uneasy to leave him alone with our children, aged 10 and 6. He often comes over at the weekend and sometimes takes them to the shop for an ice-cream on his own, and I am in a torment about what to do. So is my husband.

As friends, we have backed him to the hilt; we are 99.99 per cent certain he is completely innocent. But when it comes to our own children, what do we do?

Yours sincerely, Louise

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.