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

For most new parents, sleep quickly becomes an obsession, their most precious commodity. Parents of a newborn will happily trade exercise, sex, and time with friends for 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:

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 10.24.49 AM

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, which 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’s 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

Or order the Kindle edition (a steal at only $2.00!): 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

The Middlemiss Study Tells Us Nothing About Sleep Training, Cry-It-Out, or Infant Stress

Last week, I wrote a post about sleep training and stress, in which I argued that everything we know about stress suggests that sleep training is not harmful.

In response, some people objected that sleep trained babies continue to experience elevated cortisol and significant distress, even after they have stopped crying. In their view, sleep training teaches babies that crying does not help. They haven’t learned to self-soothe or to fall asleep on their own, they’ve simply given up.

What a heartbreaking thought. And one that surely strikes fear in the heart of many parents.

So it’s important to realize that this claim comes from a single small and deeply flawed study of 25 babies, led by Wendy Middlemiss, a researcher at the University of North Texas’s College of Education.

Continue reading “The Middlemiss Study Tells Us Nothing About Sleep Training, Cry-It-Out, or Infant Stress”

Critics of Cry-It-Out Fundamentally Misunderstand How Stress Affects the Brain

Because whether or not to sleep train can be such a fraught decision for new parents, I wanted to share my sleep training story, and to explain why, given everything we know about stress, the argument that sleep training causes long-term harm doesn’t hold water.

Sleep Training My Son

When my son was 4.5 months old, I decided to sleep train him. Even by baby standards, my son was not much of a sleeper. He’d snooze for at most 4 or 5 hours, and then wake up every hour like clockwork, wanting to nurse but not wanting milk, popping on and off my breast and screaming in frustration.

I had gone back to work a month earlier, so napping to catch up on sleep was out of the question. Worse, I was commuting an hour to the office each way.

By then, I had reached the end of my sleep deprivation rope. I was so tired I could barely string two thoughts together. I had to coach myself through even mundane tasks like checking out at the grocery store. Say hello to the cashier. Take out your credit card. Pick up the grocery bags. Leave.

I was terrified every time I got into my car to head to work that I would nod off at the wheel and kill someone, quite possibly myself. I joked with coworkers that driver’s licenses should be temporarily suspended for new parents, but the situation really wasn’t funny.

So there I was the first night of sleep training, dripping sweat as I listened to my son’s cries. Minutes ticked by, each seeming longer than the last. I pondered whether the Ferber method included soothing every five minutes just so that you would realize only five minutes had passed.

But I was determined to stick this out, to get it done. Doing it halfway was worse than not doing it at all, I reminded myself over and over. If I were to give in, I could teach my son that crying for 30 minutes was what it took to get mommy to pick him up.

That night, he woke two more times, but never again cried more than 15 minutes. The next night, he cried for 10 minutes at bedtime, conked out, and slept until morning. That morning we greeted each other with a smile, and for the first time since his birth, I really felt like smiling at his freshly woken little face.

Although by all appearances, sleep training went well for us, some critics of cry-it-out methods would contend that I was an inadequate parent who had permanently harmed my son by leaving him alone to cry.

The Cry-It-Out Controversy

“An emotionally available parent would probably not let their baby cry it out,” claims Dr. Teti, a researcher at Penn State.

Dr. Narvaez writes in Psychology Today:

“Letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons.”

When someone tells you that you have permanently damaged your child, it’s hard to shake off, no matter how much happier you and your baby seem once you start getting some solid rest.

Thankfully, as someone who has studied the effects of chronic stress in animals and in people, I knew that claims like Dr. Narvaez’s are not supported by data and instead rest on a fundamental misreading of stress research.

Continue reading “Critics of Cry-It-Out Fundamentally Misunderstand How Stress Affects the Brain”