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Is sleep training advice just gaslighting parents? Who benefits from all of this worry and guilt?

Next time you feel like you’re doing a crappy job on sleep, know that it may not be your fault.

 

            Parents are freaked out about sleep. It’s true. I see parents every single day who are concerned that they’re not sleeping. That’s not new. It’s a hard time as a baseline. Generations of new parents have wondered how they will survive those early months of disrupted nighttime sleep.

            What’s new is that parents are in hyperdrive because they have been told that if they don’t get their child sleeping well practically from birth, that child will be forever ruined, or the parent will still be rocking their pre-teen to sleep.

            How many of these pearls of well-meaning wisdom have you heard?

  • “Don’t cosleep or they’ll never leave.”

  • “Don’t rock/hold/nurse that newborn to sleep or they will be dependent on it.”

  • “Don’t pick them up when they cry, or they’ll never learn to self-soothe.”

 

            The way that most sleep training advice is written, you’d think that getting a baby down “drowsy but awake” or “sleeping through the night” is the most important thing a parent will ever, ever do --- and failure to do so has serious, life-long consequences. Reading sleep advice, you get the impression that it’s a minefield of irrevocable mistakes. Make one false move, and you’re toast.

Reading sleep advice, you get the impression that it’s a minefield of irrevocable mistakes. Make one false move, and you’re toast.

 Advice is also full of maddening contradictions:

  1. “Babies are malleable, but they also can develop ‘habits’ that you can’t ever, ever break.”

  2. “Be super responsive to build the brain and attachment, but also don’t respond when they cry at bedtime, because then you’re causing the problem and you’re being weak, and they'll never learn to self-soothe.”

  3. “Make sure that you read everything to prevent every foreseeable risk, but if you react too quickly, we’re going to call you a ‘helicopter parent’ and, god forbid, if something does happen, it’s totally, totally your fault for not having the right information.”

  4. “You know your child best so trust your instincts, but don’t because they’re definitely going to be weak/uninformed/wrong. So, listen to the experts who really know.”

  5. “We’re going to scare the pants off you with research that lists all the terrible things that could go wrong, and you are totally, totally responsible if something does go wrong.”

 

            And they use the brain to hook you. Jen Macvarish in her book Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life suggests that “neuroscience gets invoked to support two rather opposite messages: the vulnerability of the developing brain and the danger of inflicting irreversible harm.” When experts talk to parents, the focus is on the possible lasting effects of various actions on the brain, but when they suggest interventions, they emphasize how malleable the brain is. It can’t be both things.

“Neuroscience gets invoked to support two rather opposite messages: the vulnerability of the developing brain and the danger of inflicting irreversible harm.”

            When it comes to sleep, language is strongly fear-based, presumably intended to spur parents into action. Sleep advice books follow a similar thread of logic:


  1. “Sleep problems are dangerous.”

  2. “Sleep problems are common and will persist long-term if nothing is done.”

  3. “Sleep problems CAUSE negative outcomes like ADHD, obesity, and conduct problems."

  4. “Parents CAUSE the sleep problems.”

 

            Then, books will say that parents must sleep train because "good sleep makes better babies” (and also that "bad sleep makes bad babies.") The online program Taking Cara Babies suggests that babies who sleep better have “an easier temperament, are more approachable and less distractible” (Taking Cara Babies, p. 10). Book authors say that, in research, babies who slept better were “mild, positive in mood and are more likely to approach unfamiliar people” (Weissbluth, 2015, p. 10), and more “adaptable, cooperative, calmer” (Weissbluth, 2015, p. 70). Mindell (2009) suggests that “children who sleep well, with limited bedtime problems and night-waking problems, are better adjusted and better behaved, and do better overall” (p. 154). Turgeon and Wright (2014) suggest that “good sleep makes for a higher achieving child” (p. 10).

            What they don’t say is that mellower children tend to sleep better as a rule. In research, this is called directionality: Did better sleep make calmer babies? Or did calmer babies sleep better? Research almost never assesses temperament and given what we know about the effect of temperament on sleep, I think you can guess what the answer is.

In research, the question is: Did better sleep make calmer babies? Or did calmer babies just sleep better? Research never factors temperament into results.

            It’s not just sleep where this kind of thing rears its head. It’s everywhere in the parenting world. It’s important to understand that there is a benefit to keeping parents freaked out and uncertain: you will BUY things — monitors, moving cribs, the perfect sleep suit that says it will facilitate “Neuro-natal sleep,™” a white noise machine that says it will facilitate baby’s language learning while they sleep. (Side note: First of all, it’s just “sleep.” There is no such thing as “neuro-natal sleep.” Second, babies are exquisitely hard-wired for language. We do not have to boost their skill while they sleep.)

            Advice and advertising make you think you need to do everything under the sun to maximize your baby’s potential. They keep you off-center by making you doubt yourself and your ability so that you will consume/buy whatever they have.

            The overriding message is that parents are not enough or that, left to their own instincts, parents will make mistakes. None of that is true. If you feel like you’re not measuring up in this parenting thing….or you’re worried you’re making all kinds of mistakes, stop and ask where you got that idea. These days, people can say whatever they want online…even so-called experts…and it doesn’t have to be true or supported.

As a sleep coach, I’ve had countless parents of newborns apologetically start the conversation with, “I know I’m doing the wrong thing, but my baby will only sleep on me.” They’re barely out of the gate as parents and they already feel “wrong.” It's heartbreaking.

            These doubts and worries actually have tangible costs. Parents who compare themselves to other parents on Instagram were found to have higher levels of anxiety and even depression. Feelings of “not measuring up” or worries about making mistakes take their toll. These feelings often start almost at the birth of the child. As a sleep coach, I’ve had countless parents of newborns apologetically start the conversation with, “I know I’m doing the wrong thing, but my baby will only sleep on me.” They’re barely out of the gate as parents and they already feel “wrong.” It’s heartbreaking. We’ve created a parenting culture fueled by anxiety and self-doubt. It really shouldn’t be that way.

 

Dear parents:

YOU are enough.

You have time to experiment and course correct.

All your baby needs is YOU.

The parenting road is long. Pace yourself.

Breathe in. Breathe out.


 

For more on parenting advice and neuroparenting:

Assarsson, L., & Aarsand, P. (2011). ‘How to be good’: media representations of parenting. Studies in the Education of Adults, 43(1), 78–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/02660830.2011.11661605

Åström, B. (2015). A narrative of fear: Advice to mothers. Literature and Medicine, 33(1), 113–131. https://doi.org/10.1353/lm.2015.0001

Connell-Carrick, K. (2006). Trends in popular parenting: Books and the need for parental critical thinking. Child Welfare, 85(5), 820–836.

Macvarish, J. (2016). Neuroparenting: The expert invasion of family life. Palgrave Macmillan.

Macvarish, J. (2016). The peculiar joylessness of neuroparenting. London School of Economics Parenting for a Digital Future Blog

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