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Why Johnny Can’t Sleep April 14 1997

by Robert Wright, Time Magazine

The notion that babies should spend the night apart from parents is widely accepted. Trouble is, it makes no sense...

Every night, thousands of parents, following standard child-care advice, engage in a bloodcurdling ritual. They put their several-months-old infant in a crib, leave the room, and studiously ignore its crying. The crying may go on for 20 or 30 minutes before a parent is allowed to return. The baby may then be patted but not picked up, and the parent must quickly leave, after which the crying typically resumes. Eventually sleep comes, but the ritual recurs when the child awakes during the night.

The same thing happens the next night, except that the parent must wait five minutes longer before the designated patting. This goes on for a week, two weeks, maybe even a month. If all goes well, the day finally arrives when the child can fall asleep without fuss and go the whole night without being fed. For Mommy and Dad - it's Miller time.

This is known as "Ferberizing" a child after Richard Ferber, America's best known expert on infant sleep. Many parents find his prescribed boot camp for babies agonizing, but they persist because they've been assured it's harmless. Ferber depicts the ritual as the child's natural progress toward nocturnal self-reliance. What sounds to the untrained ear like a , baby wailing in desperate protest of abandonment is described by Ferber as a child "learning the new associations."

At this point I should own up to my bias: my wife and I are failed Ferberizers. When our first daughter proved capable of crying for 45 minutes without reloading, we gave up and let her sleep in our bed.

When our second daughter showed up three years later, we didn't even bother to set up the crib.

How did we have the hubris to defy the mainstream of current child-care wisdom? That brings me to my second bias: Darwinism. For our species, the natural nighttime arrangement is for kids to sleep alongside their mothers for the first few years. At least, that's the norm in hunter-gatherer societies, the closest things we have to a model of the social environment in which humans evolved. Mothers typically nurse their children to sleep and then nurse on demand through the night. Sounds taxing, but it's not. When the baby cries, the mother starts nursing reflexively, often without really waking up. (And the father, as I can personally attest, never leaves Z-town.)

Just because Ferberization is unnatural doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. If parents find it ultimately worth the trouble, that's their prerogative. But Ferber goes further; he depicts his regime as a matter not just of parental convenience but of parental duty. He claims that children need to sleep alone. "Even if you and your child seem happy about his sharing your bed at night," he writes in Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. "and even if he seems to sleep well there, in the long run this habit will probably not be good for either of you."

Why, exactly, is it bad to sleep with your kids? Learning to sleep alone, says Ferber, lets your child "see himself as an independent individual." I'm puzzled. It isn't obvious to me how a baby would develop a robust sense of autonomy while confined to a small cubicle with bars on the side and rendered powerless to influence its environment. (Nor is it obvious these days, when many kids spend 40 hours a week in day care, that they need extra autonomy training.) I'd be willing to look at the evidence behind this claim, but there isn't any. Comparing Ferberized with non-Ferberized kids as they grow up would tell us nothing. After all, Ferberizing and non-Ferberizing parents no doubt tend to have broadly different approaches to child rearing, and they probably have different cultural milieus. We can't control our variables.

Lacking data, Ferber and other experts make creative assertions about what's going on inside the child's head. Ferber says that if you let a toddler sleep between you and your spouse, "in a sense separating the two of you, he may feel too powerful and become worried.", Well, he may, I guess. or he may just feel cozy. Hard to say (though he certainly looks cozy). Child-care guru T. Berry Brazelton tells us that when a child wakes up at night and you refuse to retrieve her from the crib, "she won't like it, but she'll understand." Oh.

According to Ferber, the trouble with letting a child who fears sleeping alone into your bed is that "you are not really solving the problem. There must be a reason why he is so fearful." Yes, there must. Here's one candidate. Maybe your child's brain was designed by natural selection over millions of years during which mothers slept with their babies. Maybe back then if babies found themselves alone at night it often meant bad news (that the mother had been eaten by a beast, say). Maybe the young brain is designed to respond to this situation by screaming so that any relatives within earshot will discover the child. Maybe, in short, the reason that kids left alone sound terrified is that kids left alone naturally get terrified. Just a theory.

A few weeks of nightly terror presumably won't scar a child for life. If Ferber's gospel harms kids, it's more likely doing so via a second route: the denial of mother's milk to the child at night. Breast milk, researchers are finding, is a kind of "external placenta," loaded with hormones masterfully engineered to assist development. one study found that it boosts IQ.

Presumably most, and perhaps all breast-feeding benefits can be delivered via daytime nursing. Still, we certainly don't know that an 11-hour nightly gap in the feeding schedule isn't doing harm. And we do know that such a gap isn't part of nature's plan for a five-month-old child, at least, to judge by hunter-gatherer societies. Or to judge by the milk itself: it is thin and watery, typical of species that nurse frequently. or to judge by mothers. Abruptly ending nighttime nursing can lead to painful engorgement or even breast infection. Meanwhile, as all available evidence suggests that nighttime feeding is natural, Ferber asserts the opposite. If after three months of age your baby wakes repeatedly, demanding to be fed, "she is developing a sleep problem."

As "family bed" boosters have noted, male physicians, who have no idea what motherhood is like, have cowed women for decades into doing unnatural and destructive things. For a while doctors said mothers shouldn't feed more than once every four hours. Now they admit they were wrong. For a while they pushed bottle feeding. Now they admit this was wrong. For a while they told pregnant women to keep weight gains minimal (and some women did so by smoking more cigarettes!). Wrong again.

There are signs that yet another well advised retreat is under way. Though Ferber hasn't put out the white flag, Brazelton is sounding less and less dismissive of parents who sleep with their kids. (Not surprisingly, the least dismissive big-name child-care expert is a woman, Penelope Leach.) Better late than never. But in child care, as in the behavioral sciences generally, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and trouble by recognizing at the outset that people are animals and pondering the implications of that fact.

This is excerpted from an article originally published in Slate™. Slate™ is a trademark of Microsoft Corp. Copyright 1997 Robert Wright. All rights reserved.