Surviving the First Year: Two books to help you understand baby’s sleep

For most new parents, sleep becomes an obsession, their most precious commodity. They will happily trade exercise, sex, and time with friends for just a shot at catching some Z’s–kind of like how a rat with ad libitum access to cocaine will happily forgo food.(Yep, this assumes you’re not in sleep-obsession mode already. If you are currently in third trimester insomnia hell, my condolences. Sadly, the situation is unlikely to improve when your baby arrives.)

In 1943, psychology researcher Abraham Maslow mapped out his now famous hierarchy of human needs. This is reasonable approximation of what most people’s needs look like before having a baby:


And this is what they look like shortly after having a baby:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs transformed to show only the need for sleep
Hierarchy of needs subsumed by sleep


This is why, when expecting my first child, one of the best pieces of advice I got was to start reading up on infant sleep before baby arrives.

Of course, just because this was good advice, doesn’t mean I took it. I didn’t. Instead, I focused my pre-baby sleuthing on how to avoid a C-section. Not unreasonable. But this meant I  ended up frantic Google searching baby sleep while so sleep-deprived that I could barely remember my computer password. Don’t do this!

Have I convinced you yet?

If so, let’s move on to next question: What should you read about baby sleep? The options can feel endless and overwhelming. There are the “no-cry” solutions. There are the people who tell you that introducing solids will get your baby to start sleeping a blissful 8 hours. (It won’t!) There’s the co-sleep until age 7 camp.

Everyone has an opinion. Trying to wade through all the opinions to get to real, evidence-based solutions while so tired you can barely string a sentence together is less fun than dealing with a newborn blowout on a stroller walk in the dead of winter. In short, it sucks.

So let me save you the trouble. Below are two excellent books on baby sleep that do the work for you. They are grounded in real data and offer clear, practical solutions for busy, tired parents.

1. Precious Little Sleep by Alexis Dubief.

Not only is Precious Little Sleep a great sleep reference for parents who want to be able to quickly look something up, it is also a fast easy read and often laugh out loud funny.

Like so many parents, Alexis Dubief began researching baby sleep after giving birth to her first child, a boy. Her son refused to sleep without being held. This is a pretty common newborn sleep demand that works great for your baby. But for you, not so much.

Now, after years of researching and helping tired parents, helping others get their babies to sleep better has become her self-proclaimed super power. And it really is.

Her book outlines how to get babies to sleep better using a variety of methods. She delves into both “no-cry” and “cry it out”–two terms she personally eschews, noting (correctly) that babies often “fuss” during no-cry methods and that babies experience lots of parental presence and soothing during “cry-it-out” methods. She instead calls these SWAPS and SLIPS.

Throughout her book, Dubief draws on a mix of research and direct experience to talk about which strategies work best for which babies (they’re all different!) and at which ages. This is super helpful, because teaching a 4-month-old to fall asleep on their own requires very different tactics than those used with a stubborn sleep-fighting toddler.

Although newborn sleep is what sends most parents into a deep zombie-like fog, Precious Little Sleep also covers naps and strategies for bedtime with older kids.

As a parent of older children, now 4 and 6, I appreciated her no nonsense, practical tips for ending the endless cycle of bedtime requests (more cuddles, more water, more stories): Fill their emotional bucket before bed, set firm limits, and starting an hour before bedtime, move them from high energy activities and bright light to low energy activities and low light.

Her book is full of clear guidance like that, making it a wonderful go-to reference for your baby’s later years as well.

Get it here: Precious Little Sleep: The Complete Baby Sleep Guide for Modern Parents

2. The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year, by one of my favorite bloggers, Alice Callahan.

With a PhD in nutrition and postdoctoral training in fetal physiology, Alice Callahan is obviously super smart, but in a totally low ego, unshowy way.

In this book, she delves deep into the scientific literature on hot button parenting topics like breastfeeding, introducing solids, and vaccines, then surfaces to interweave her evidence-based conclusions with practical experience in a clear, sensible, and nonjudgmental voice.

This means that for navigating common parent concerns, Callahan is the ultimate trustworthy guide. She provides copious references, clear examples, and lots of practical tips. Her writing on infant nutrition, in particular, is bar none.

But back to sleep… While her book covers a lot of common first year questions, her two chapters on sleep (“Where Should Your Baby Sleep?”) and (“In Search of a Good Night’s Sleep”) provide the best data-based summaries I have ever encountered on how to reduce the risk of SIDS and how to help your baby to sleep better, longer and to fall asleep on their own (what Callahan calls self-soothing). Those two chapters are worth their weight in gold. (Or more to the point, worth their weight in long extra hours of uninterrupted sleep. Wouldn’t you trade gold for that?)

Parents who want to know the data behind the recommendations, to get advice without being talked down to, and who want to understand why they’re being told what they’re being told by their pediatrician should check out The Science of Mom.

Get it here: The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year

Author: Amy Kiefer

As a former research scientist and proud mama of three little munchkins, I love digging into the research on all things baby-related and sharing it with my readers.

7 thoughts on “Surviving the First Year: Two books to help you understand baby’s sleep”

  1. Amy – Do you have an opinion on the merits of two popular books on this topic: “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “Babywise?”

    My wife and I are expecting our first in July and this topic is already a significant source of worry for us. So we are reading as much as we can. But you’re right, the conflicting opinions are a bit overwhelming.

    p.s. Thank you for the book recommendations and for this very thoughtful blog. I stumbled across you during our very early days of pregnancy when miscarriage anxiety was at its height. Your research was reassuring then and has been on a number of topics since.

  2. Thank you for these recommendations! I’m expecting #2 and keen to repeat the success we had with my first (EBF, slept 7am-7pm from from 13 weeks). For him I followed the advice in “The Good Sleeper” by Dr. Janet Kennedy. It’s rooted in the physiology of baby sleep and has sensible advice for teaching your baby to self-soothe and connect his/her sleep cycles (which is why babies wake up in the first place!). No hack parenting philosophies, just sensible, science-based advice.

  3. The classic research-based sleep books are Weissbluth (Northwestern) and Ferber (Harvard). Why not read it from the original guys?

    1. I guess I prefer the more modern gals 🙂 But more serisouly, it’s a good point. Always nice to see the original work, even if it predates a lot of modern research.

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