Time magazine advocates “tough love” approach to infant sleep

Time magazine recently published a section called The Year in Health, A to Z in the Dec. 7, 2009 issue. The letter B is for Babies and what Time advised regarding babies, “tough love” and sleep has many people shaking their heads in disagreement.

The article states:

When a baby has repeated problems falling asleep, Mom and Dad may need to show some tough love. Lingering with cranky babies too long or bringing them into the parents’ bedroom can make them likelier to become poor sleepers, according to psychologist Jodi Mindell, who gathered data on nearly 30,000 kids up to 3 years old in 17 countries. “If you’re rocked to sleep at bedtime, you’re going to need that every time you wake up,” she notes. Her advice: have children fall asleep 3 ft. away. “If they’re slightly separated, they sleep much better,” she says.

Parents, pediatricians and proponents of attachment parenting strongly disagree with Time’s advice.

On Attachment Parenting International, Samantha Gray, executive director of Attachment Parenting International, and Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, founders of API, published the letter to the editor they wrote in response. Here is a bit of it:

Contrary to the very unfortunate and detrimental advice on sleep in Time magazine, API’s Principle outlines the need to be responsive to children during the night and not to brush aside their needs as inconsequential to them or to their development in the name of “tough love.” The magazine and this proponents’ advice is framed in such a way to alarm parents into unfounded fears about their children being poor sleepers if they respond in loving ways such as rocking their child, breastfeeding, or lying down with the child. We know, in fact, that these practices are not only healthy for the child, but, for the very short period of a child’s life that needs are met in this way, parent and child benefit.

Science indicates that a comforting nighttime approach helps children achieve healthy sleep habits. Research and the experience of parents throughout the ages have proven that effective nighttime parenting includes prompt, calm response, as well as holding, cuddling and soothing touch.

We pray no one takes to heart this advice you have quite surprisingly chosen to publish, all the more in the midst of the availability of substantial quality parenting information. This advice goes against parents’ good instincts to care for their very young child in the ways their inner knowing tells them to.

We implore Time to urgently correct this harmful information in such a way to command even greater attention than received by the original article. Our children are worth it, and so are their parents.

At the time of this posting, Time had not responded to API nor published any sort of correction.

Pediatrician, father of eight, and author of numerous parenting books Dr. William Sears suggests in his own letter to the editor to Time:

Rather than issuing rules or cautions about being “over attached” concerning nighttime parenting we should be encouraging parents to sleep safely and closely with their babies. In my experience and that of others who have thoroughly researched the issue of co-sleeping, namely Dr. James McKenna, babies who sleep close to their parents sleep physiologically healthier and a mutual trust develops between parents and child.

Remember, we have an epidemic of insomnia in this country necessitating a mushrooming of sleep disorder clinics. When babies start out life with a healthy sleep attitude, that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fear-less state to remain in they’re more likely to grow up with a healthy sleep attitude and both children and their parents will sleep better later on.

On his website, Dr. Sears has 8 Infant Sleep Facts Every Parent Should Know including:

  • babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults
  • there are developmental and survival benefits of nightwaking
  • and as babies grow, they achieve “sleep maturity.”

Kayris who blogs at The Great Walls of Baltimore said, “considering the amount of adults who suffer from sleep problems or use sleep aid medications, I’m truly surprised at the amount of people who expect sleep to also be easy for children.”

Micki AKA ADDHousewife is one of those people who has trouble sleeping and said in response to the Time article, “That’s pure crazy. Some kids are just lousy sleepers. Plain and simple. I am still a bad sleeper!”

Hannah Gaiten, owner of Natural Choices, had this response to Time’s article:

That type of position is based on what is perceived to be best for parents, not taking into account what is truly best for the kids, in my opinion. Heaven forbid a child need to nurse to sleep…why is it regarded as such a “problem?” We do it everyday, every time my daughter needs to sleep, she needs to nurse. Sure, it’s not the most convenient at times, but if I were looking for convenience, then perhaps being a parent wasn’t the best road to take.

To make a blanket statement like, “If they’re slightly separated, they sleep much better” is unwise, in my opinion – each child is different and instead of this author telling parents how to parent their child, they should give unbiased information and encourage the parents to do what is best for their family (not just what is in the best interest of the parents).

Susan, who blogs at Two Hands Two Feet agrees, “I hate it when ‘experts’ tell parents what is best for them and their kids. You need to do what is right for your family, not what an expert says. This stuff caused me a lot of grief when my girls were tiny. I read books because I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. But what I really should have done was just gone with my instincts.”

Suzanne at The Joyful Chaos who co-sleeps, but also says she’s “not actually an advocate for co-sleeping,” drives the point home that you have to do what works best for your family in her post The Cosleeping Edition of my Attachment Parenting Freako-ness and sometimes that may very well differ from child to child.

A Mother In Israel Hannah asks in her post Sleep Training at the 92nd St. Y:

Are our babies robots? Or dogs that we need to train? No, they are very small people who can’t understand why everyone ignores them once the sun goes down, even when they cry hard enough to throw up. A baby’s cry is intended to be disturbing. If we train ourselves to ignore it, we lose our instinctive rachmanut (compassion). And a baby whose cries are ignored learns that his feelings don’t count for much. Eventually he will give up and go to sleep, but pay a steep price.

Who are we to say that our need for a solid eight hours (which we usually don’t get anyway for all kinds of trivial reasons) trumps the baby’s needs? Adults can learn to cope with less sleep and babies need concern and sympathy no matter when they are in distress. Trust your baby; she will tell you when s/he is developmentally ready to fall asleep without your help.

As for my opinion, I think it’s very irresponsible for Time to make a blanket statement like that, especially when there is evidence that proves the contrary is true. I do believe it is up to each family to decide what works best for them and their children. While I don’t think it’s for everyone, co-sleeping worked for my family for years. Nowadays my children are still co-sleeping with each other at age 3 and 5 and sleep side by side in a room together. Just as they have different personalities, they are very different sleepers. My daughter has a harder time falling asleep than my son, but both are parented to sleep in a way that works best for them.

There’s nothing that is convenient about being a parent. It is a physically, emotionally and mentally taxing job. Parenting doesn’t end just because the sun sets. It’s a 24/7 365 days of the year job.

Instead of trying to put more distance between parents and their children, I think Time should be encouraging more connections. The time that our children are infants and toddlers is so fleeting in the grand scheme of things, we should be embracing them, not pushing them away.

Jan Hunt, director of The Natural Child, points out, “As the writer John Holt put it so eloquently, having feelings of love and safety in early life, far from ‘spoiling’ a child, is like ‘money in the bank’: a fund of trust, self-esteem and inner security they can draw on throughout life’s challenges.

Children may be small in size, but they are as fully human as we are, and as deserving as we are to be trusted to know what they need, and to have their voices heard.”

There is a wealth of information about infant sleep on Attachment Parenting International’s Baby Sleep Strategies page, including infant sleep safety, co-sleeping, nighttime parenting and more.

Annie at PhD in Parenting also has an informational post Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips that “provides tips for sleep deprived parents that want their babies to sleep better and… do not want to use the cry it out approach.”

If you’d like to respond to Time about “B” for Babies, please do so online using their letter to the editor web form or snail mail to:
TIME Magazine Letters
Time & Life Building
New York, N.Y. 10020
“Letters should include the writer’s full name, address and home telephone and may be edited for purposes of clarity and space.”

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

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34 thoughts on “Time magazine advocates “tough love” approach to infant sleep

  1. I find that advice to be very upsetting. I remember when Julia was a baby and was having trouble sleeping. I was soooooo torn at breaking the “rules” and letting her sleep with me.

    But now I see that co-sleeping was the best parenting decision I ever made.

    I’m so glad I trusted my mother’s instinct and not the advice of “experts” such as these.

    My 4 year old and my 2 year old still co-sleep with us and we all love it. It is such a peaceful way to end the day.

    We all start and end the day together.

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  4. I agree with Hannah from Israel, if we ignore our babies communication they won’t feel heard or as important. We didn’t really understand attachment parenting or co-sleeping until we heard about it on Twitter! Now it makes sense for us most of the time, but every child is different and every parent is too! Thanks for this great blog!

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  6. I think this was a great article! I appreciate that you emphasized that each parent needs to do what is right for their child. For us, for this child, co-sleeping wasn’t a great fit. I really appreciate Dr. Sears’s approach to AP, which is to take the aspects that work for your family. Baby M used a co-sleeper bassinet next to me for the first 3-4 months, so he was right there for me to nurse as he needed. After that he wasn’t getting up to nurse but wasn’t sleeping well. We transitioned him to a crib in the next room and he sleeps pretty soundly. We didn’t do CIO; he just slept. When he does wake up, we tend to him with whatever he needs: patting on the back, rocking, a song sung, etc. Perhaps a child of ours down the road will prefer co-sleeping.

    I agree; I think TIME shouldn’t have come out with a blanket statement. 1) Every baby is different and 2) Experts clearly disagree on the issue. They ought to have instead done an article on ways to parent your child to sleep (love that phrase!) and provided equal space to co-sleeping.

    It will be interesting to see how TIME responds. I hope you’ll post a follow-up!!!

  7. I respect each family’s decision to do what is right for their family. But my informal observation is that among friends who co-sleep, both parents and baby tend to have an extended period of sleep problems. I’m not convinced this is in the child’s interest. I also think that sometimes parents (especially mothers) have needs for closeness and fulfillment and they may put those above the best interests of the child.

    Blanket statements will never work for everyone, but I don’t think this is a blanket statement. It is merely citing the results of research collected from 30,000 families. If there is similar large-scale research available with different results, that can be discussed as well. But telling them not to publish the results sounds kind of like censorship.

  8. I’ve had babies who’ve co-slept and babies who haven’t, and I don’t think either really factors into what type of sleeper they become.

    But what I find most interesting is it’s usually the mothers who are most obsessed with getting their babies to sleep through the night who end up the most miserable. I’m speaking from my own experience here! When my first was an infant, I wasted so much time trying to figure out how to get her to sleep better, what I was doing wrong, etc., and I really was miserable.

    With my 2nd, 3rd and 4th, I’ve gotten more and more laid back about it, and now it’s not really something I think about except when I wake up engorged because the baby’s slept for extra long!

    It’s just become such an obsession in our culture, and I think so many moms walk around feeling like it’s the sign of whether you’re a good parent or not, and that’s just so not true!

  9. Thanks for linking to me, great article! As always, I’m surprised at what a polarizing issue co-sleeping and sleep training are. Also, I agree with a previous poster that how well a child sleeps is often used as a indicator of how good of a parent a person is, and it’s ludicrous. Some people are just better sleepers. My older child has always required more effort to get him to sleep, while my younger child sleeps easily and often.

  10. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I blogged about sleep training a few months ago with links to Dr. Sears. I think it’s incredibly important to maintain connections with your little ones instead of trying to push them away at night! I hate it when people assume I’m a crazy parent for cosleeping. :(

  11. Thank you for this article! I am linking back to it on my blog and RTing it. Very informative! I am an AP mom and my 2 yr old still co sleeps with DH and me and 8month old DS. Everyone sleeps very well! I just don’t get that…..I don’t like it at all.

  12. It was hard for me to go against the grain ( in my world most moms were not co-sleeping) yet I went with my natural instinct & we decided co-sleeping & nursing to sleep was best for our children and family. My girls at around age 2 1/2 stopped nursing to sleep & neither had the toddler night terrors. They both sleep 12 hours any time that I put them to sleep. I am so glad I didn’t listen to advice at the time that told me to go against what we new was best.
    My 6 1/2 yr old still needs me to rub her back & sit with her but I would not change it for the world. As she is growing, I see that the time I will be “with” her, nurturing her at bed time will be short…I hope we snuggle at bed time for years to come!

  13. To the person who said co sleeping causes prolonged sleep problems, I have co slept 6 infants, currently co sleeping the 6th, and not a single one of my children have sleep issues at all. When they were ready to move into a big girl and boy bed they did fine.

    People amaze me these days. Do what you want but don’t make up stories to justify your actions.

  14. I tried to follow the books and tough love approach with our first child…I wish everyday I would have listened to my natural mom gut instinct that God provided! Our second son was born in a close to natural fashion, breastfed for one year, cloth diapered when I could, and we slept together quite often….he is the most gentle, loving, completely secure and happy chid! The other child…not so much (bless his little heart)!He needs me constantly and does not sleep well at all! The one that we took the almost granola parenting approach…sleeps like a baby! Let us help support your natural mommy feelings (with style) at http://www.moderngranolamom.com Almost Crunchy…Always Sweet!

  15. I hadn’t heard about this article; thank you for this. I’ll have to read it and think carefully about how I want to respond. I have so many thoughts about sleep issues. With no offense to mothers of children who use pacifiers, I find it very bizarre that so many doctors think it is normal for a child to suck on silicone all night, but a problem if they need to be comforted or reassured by their mothers. I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of support and understanding about breastfeeding too. I never let my son cry it out, and never will, but when discussing with a pediatrician one time that I didn’t think the method would work anyway, since he just kept standing up in his crib if I tried to put him to sleep there, I was actually advised to let him cry until he fell asleep and fell over. Nice.

  16. @worldmama “But my informal observation is that among friends who co-sleep, both parents and baby tend to have an extended period of sleep problems.” I wonder if your observation is skewed because in addition to mothers who just wanted to cosleep, you are also including mothers who fell into cosleeping BECAUSE the baby was having sleep problems. The latter was my case (my son had medical issues and I felt cosleeping was the safest option for him), although now I am happy to have coslept, not for my own need for closeness, but because I think it helped us to firmly establish breastfeeding, and for me to get some rest, which I needed to be a good mother to him.

  17. It’s true- there is no one way that works perfectly for everyone. I do admit it makes me want to cry when I hear parents brag about making their children cry it out. We sleep trained our 1st two and co-sleep with the other two. I regret the sleep training so much & wish I knew better at the time.

    I feel like I get much better sleep co-sleeping and it also has strengthened the breastfeeding relationship, especially long term. Also? There’s nothing like the closeness and security having baby/child near.

    Going with the flow and taking a gentle approach no matter what you decide is right for your family is best, in my opinion.

    Steph

  18. Since I’ve been out of it for over a week I just now checked out the Time article & API statements and feel the need to write a blog post about my family’s co-sleeping journey and how it literally saved our family and helped my son become a confident, happy person who transitioned to his own room/bed on his terms when he was ready for it. I’m sorry to see that Time would publish such outdated research on babies’ sleep.

  19. I think several misunderstandings and assumptions are being played out here without really trying to understand or respect the “other side.” The black and white belief that “tough love” or not “co-sleeping” means simply letting babies “cry it to sleep,” is false.

    In my mixed group of friends I think I know one person who has actually literally used the “cry to sleep method,” something I would personally never advocate. At the same time our son has slept on his own from the beginning only spending time in bed to nurse. I know folks who have done as we have, while several others are (or were) co-sleepers. For some reason our son seemed to learn how to self sooth fairly early on. We definitely addressed his needs and had plenty of hard nights when he was teething or having a night terror in which we had to help him settle back down.

    I think the problem starts on either end when the child is not able to learn to self sooth, because someone always does it for him or her. This can be done by always rocking a child to sleep or always helping a child to sleep in another manner.

    And the kids and parents that I know today who have sleep issues are ones who have never learned to self sooth. At the same time, it is difficult to establish what came first, was it that these children were difficult sleepers and no matter the circumstances would they have had sleep issues? Or, were the parents interfering with their child’s natural ability to learn how to self sooth?

    Ultimately, we do need to do what works best for us as individual families, but I definitely think that there are parents among co-sleepers and or rockers and or 4 am feeders (of babies older than a year) that are doing their kids a disservice. And, I would bet that these are some of the folks referenced to in this study.

    This does not mean that all co-sleepers are negatively impacting their kids, it simply means that parents do the best they can and sometimes their best doesn’t quite work right. The same I am sure could be said of “tough love parents” or just your average “non-co-sleeping family.” I also think it is important to keep in mind that a study on childrens’ sleep should possibly be taken with a grain of salt, as so many factors can contribute to the results outside of simple “sleeping practices.” Diet, naps, atmosphere and so much more go into healthy night time sleep that I think ultimately what this study might really be guilty of is simply “oversimplification” of a complicated issue.

  20. I am not going to hop on the anti-Time bandwagon here. Jodi Mindell has been very generous with her time in speaking with breastfeeding groups in the Philadelphia area, and her advice has been sound and supportive of encouraging breastfeeding. However, sleep deprivation is a serious issue, and I think that the more things out there for parents to consider as they discover which sleep style fits each of their children is a huge help.
    My first was a dedicated cosleeper, which I had not intended at all, but I loved it, he did too, and I don’t regret a second of our snuggly time in that. But. Despite? Because? of that, he is a lousy sleeper today and still frequently ends up in our bed and has trouble falling asleep without us staying in the room.
    I was looking forward to cosleeping with my second, but he had no interest at all and would fuss. However, if he were in his cosleeper, he slept much better. His transition to the crib was easier (I stayed in his room in a different bed for a week or ten days; since then, not at all unless he’s sick, and he never ever comes to our bed for sleeping).
    But I am not sorry I didn’t follow that sleep pattern with my first. I don’t think he would have adjusted to that at all. It’s just not in him.
    And of the two? The second is clearly the better attached.
    Time erred, imo, in making this a blanket statement. All suggestions of Things That Worked for Others are helpful to new parents. As ever, the key is “listening” to your baby.
    Thanks for this comprehensive overview–really helpful and interesting.

  21. What well written column, Amy, but then you always do write well. And such an important topic. Thank you for bringing it out for discussion in such an open and well-rounded way.

    By the way, I’ve been gone for a while-nothing serious, just caught up in parenting two active boys! But I’m glad to be back. I missed reading your posts.

    Hugs,
    Liesl

  22. As the mom of 3 boys, none of whom slept through the night before 14 months, sleep “solutions” are always fascinating to me.

    I chose to nurse, rock, nurture, and soothe my babies as they woke up hour after hour for the first year plus. All three followed the exact same pattern. I was exhausted, depressed, confused. But “tough sleep” was not something I felt comfortable with. So I stuck it out.

    My children now happily, willingly, eagerly go to bed at 7:30. The baby doesn’t even want to be rocked; he simply reaches for his crib when he is tired. They sleep through the night, don’t climb into our bed until morning, and know to listen to their bodies when they are tired.

    It was certainly a brutal first year with all of them. At the time I would have given my left breast for 4 hours straight of sleep. But the payoff, hopefully, are children who truly have healthy sleep habits – on their own terms.

  23. Thank you for all of those great links. I blogged on this topic on my site & on API Speaks (the API blog). It saddens me that parents might read Time’s advice and be scared into moving their babies out of their beds, or worse, their rooms.

  24. “Time” should have at least presented more than one opinion on the subject. Why is it so hard for journalists to present a “tough love” approach and a co-sleeping approach? As many commenters have noted, one size does not fit all.

    And this, “But my informal observation is that among friends who co-sleep, both parents and baby tend to have an extended period of sleep problems.” Anecdotes do not equal hard data.

    Are the parents you know choosing to co-sleep having informed themselves of the benefits or are they co-sleeping out of exauhstion because “tough love” wasn’t working? If the parents are complaining about their sleep arrangements, then my guess would be the latter. And in that case what’s to say it wasn’t the CIO or “tough love” that caused the sleep problems and not the co-sleeping that followed?

  25. We don’t co-sleep very long with our children, but I personally enjoyed the months we had together.

    I will admit, though, that my kids do sleep better/longer when they aren’t next to me (as babies). But when they are toddlers and young kiddos and they end up in my bed they sleep fine. It’s Mama with the knee in her back that doesn’t. HA!

    I don’t let my kids cry it out, though. Co-sleeping or not, I think that’s CRUEL and hurtful and makes me want to cry thinking about it. A baby for heavens sake! A baby! They aren’t being spoiled because you pick them up when they cry.

    UGH!

  26. @WorldMomma While that may be your informal observation, I’m sure you are aware of the difficulties of anecdotal evidence like that. For example, perhaps they co-sleep in *response* to sleep problems? At any rate, I have had sleep problems all my life and my parents did not co-sleep with me. So, there is always a counterbalancing anecdote.

    And I find your statement about the mother’s need for closeness to perpetuate certain unhelpful stereotypes. I am overjoyed at any sign my children show of independence–I’m just not pushing independence on infants.

    As to your second point, no one is suggesting that anyone not publish a scientific study. This is not a medical journal. This is a popular magazine that chose to pick one sleep study over the others available, without indication as to the methodology or providing a counterbalancing viewpoint. Asking for some objectivity in discussing infant sleep is hardly censorship.

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  28. Amy – Thank you for including my comments as part of your post. I feel very passionate about parents finding the right sleep solution for their family without being pressured to cry it out or do other techniques that don’t feel right.

    Thank goodness for Dr. Sears!

  29. And the kids and parents that I know today who have sleep issues are ones who have never learned to self sooth. At the same time, it is difficult to establish what came first, was it that these children were difficult sleepers and no matter the circumstances would they have had sleep issues? Or, were the parents interfering with their child’s natural ability to learn how to self sooth?

    Ultimately, we do need to do what works best for us as individual families, but I definitely think that there are parents among co-sleepers and or rockers and or 4 am feeders (of babies older than a year) that are doing their kids a disservice. And, I would bet that these are some of the folks referenced to in this study.
    plumber san jose
    This does not mean that all co-sleepers are negatively impacting their kids, it simply means that parents do the best they can and sometimes their best doesn’t quite work right. The same I am sure could be said of “tough love parents” or just your average “non-co-sleeping family.” I also think it is important to keep in mind that a study on childrens’ sleep should possibly be taken with a grain of salt, locksmith san jose as so many factors can contribute to the results outside of simple “sleeping practices.” Diet, naps, atmosphere and so much more go into healthy night time sleep that I think ultimately what this study

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