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Stop Shaming Women for Teaching Their Babies to Sleep

A study published this week found that sleep training doesn’t cause long-term harm to babies.

If you’re not a parent, this should sound pretty benign. Babies sleeping — what could be less controversial? But the politics of how a baby should learn to sleep through the night are insanely fraught, and (surprise) they’re closely tied with the politics of women and work.

This study, published in the medical journal Pediatrics, is the latest in a line of research that concludes that allowing a child to cry itself to sleep in a controlled fashion isn’t harmful. Moreover, researchers keep finding that it works — babies who “cry it out” sleep longer stretches than babies who are left to their own devices. The authors of this study are among those who have challenged the methodology of a 2012 study that concluded that allowing a baby to cry for extended periods raised stress levels.

Also called “extinction,” this kind of sleep training usually asks parents to wait a set amount of time before they attend to crying babies in the middle of the night. Through experience, the baby learns how to re-settle after night wakings without the help of an adult, and eventually stops waking up at all. There are thousands of “sleep training” guide books: They differ mostly in method, in pre-bedtime routines and songs sung, in swaddling or not-swaddling methods, and in the amount of time one should let a baby cry in its crib before reentering the war zone.

Sleep training is one of those parenting issues you can go most of your adult life without caring a fig about. You can even make your way home from the hospital with a human baby, blissfully unaware of the political minefield that awaits you. But if you have a child and you are a woman — especially one who works (and that’s most of us) — then at some point in the first six months of your baby’s life, you’re going to realize that you need sleep, and your baby needs sleep, and this problem isn’t going to magically solve itself. That’s when you Google “sleep training” and fall into an online battle that never ends.

I sleep-trained my daughter when she was 8 weeks old, partly because I am a selfish monster who has a career, and partly because my pediatrician, Tribeca Pediatrics, is a famous proponent of so-called “early” sleep training. In their thinking, the earlier you do it, the faster the job will be completed. I can tell you that in the case of me and my daughter, that was true: It took a few nights, and she started to sleep through the night fully at 9 weeks old.

She is over 2 now, and rarely wakes up after going to sleep, generally sleeping for 11 or 12 hours. On the one hand, we’re lucky. On the other, I still let her whine or cry herself to sleep on days when she is overtired and simply decides she’s not onboard with the program. We all sleep pretty well, and she is very happy and almost never cranky from sleepiness. All of this seems totally reasonable for my family.

That said, I don’t have a political position for other people’s families. I have found this to work for me, I believe the studies’ findings, and I trust the doctors, but I certainly don’t think anyone else is obligated to sleep-train their children.

But I also agree with Dr. Perri Klass, who recently wrote  in the New York Times:

I sometimes wonder how the people who are most strongly opposed to any form of sleep training would feel about having their children’s teachers, or doctors or bus drivers, coming to work sleep deprived after really disrupted nights. Sleep matters, as we have learned to acknowledge in medical training. Babies matter, and so do parents.

If we take parents at their word and assume that everyone has the best interests of their children at heart, it becomes clear why people feel so strongly on both sides of the debate. People who are in favor of sleep training agree with the research that it won’t harm their babies and prioritize sleep for everyone in the family. People opposed to it believe that sleep training causes long-term damage, and while we now know that’s not the case, is there anything scarier than the idea that you’re harming your baby?

Often, the anti-sleep-training contingent are proponents of “attachment parenting,” which advocates for a model of mothering that involves breast-feeding on demand (no schedules, no pumps), bed-sharing, and never, ever letting a child cry. 

Note that I said “a model of mothering” — the father takes a decidedly backseat role in all of this. Writes Dr. Sears, a prominent proponent of attachment parenting: “While a preference for mother is natural for babies in the early years, fathers are indispensable. Father creates a supportive environment that allows mother to devote her energy to the baby.” Elsewhere: “It is the father’s job to nurture the mother so that she can nurture the baby.” Neat.

As an Evangelical Christian, Dr. Sears is wholly bound to his belief in the sacred role of the mother. But what that really means is that he believes women shouldn’t need to sleep at night reliably, because they shouldn’t be working outside the home. They shouldn’t be running to meetings or pumping their milk so that others can feed their baby. They should “sleep when the baby sleeps,” which is a fun thing to suggest to someone who has a regularly scheduled 1 p.m. meeting right around the time the baby is starting her second nap of the day.

Being politically opposed to sleep training ignores the reality that almost all of us operate in, one in which many women work. It’s hard to function in a workplace when you’re bone-tired. It’s just as hard — to Dr. Klass’s point — to drive your kid around, or make important family decisions, in an exhausted haze. And it’s scary to imagine someone else who’s sleep-deprived offering medical care or shepherding your child across a busy street. Every adult is different, and some of us are fine choosing little sleep, but that decision is ours to make, and ours alone.

Tensions run high in the sleep-training movement because the unspoken subtext is that if you sleep-train your kid, you’re a bad mother. If you need more than two hours of unbroken sleep, you’re a bad mother. If you have a job or a career that requires you to have some semblance of a schedule, and brain cells remaining to devote to it, you’re a bad mother. If you’re looking out for your own mental health, you’re a bad mother.

Parenting is hard, and parents shouldn’t judge one another: None of us has it easy. But we should also start asking who benefits from some of our newer parenting strategies, and who the authors of those strategies are.

So let’s pretend for a moment that you are the bad mother of internet legend who sleep-trained your kid for purely selfish reasons. Now, come Sunday night, you have nothing to do at 9 p.m. but curl up on the couch to watch Game of Thrones while your baby visits the snoozetown symposium. Well, science says you haven’t done any harm, anyway. So why not, right?

Stop Shaming New Mothers for Needing Sleep