Why Sleep Training Is A Feminist Issue

Interior of nursery.

Mothers are two and a half times more likely than fathers to cover the nightshift of caretaking.

Arianna Huffington has deemed sleep the next big feminist issue, because women are significantly more sleep deprived than men. Without enough sleep, she argues, we cannot reach our full potential as a sex: “A nation of sleepy women is even less capable of greatness.”

Childfree women or those with older children can take steps to ensure the ideal eight hours a night. They can rearrange schedules and readjust priorities, as Huffington urged them do in her sleep challenge of 2010.

But what about the parents of babies and small children? What can we do? This is the demographic most affected by sleep deprivation, unsurprisingly, and it is women rather than men who bear the brunt of it. According to one study, mothers are two and a half times more likely than fathers to cover “the nightshift of caretaking.” A crying baby is the number one noise likely to stop a woman from sleeping; for a man, it is a car alarm going off, followed by the howling of the wind and the buzzing of a fly.

While this gender imbalance might be understandable in light of evolution and the realities of breastfeeding, it still means women are the group most at risk for the depression and other health concerns that stem from the sustained lack of sleep for which early parenthood is notorious. Broken nights are an inevitable byproduct of having a very young baby who needs continual nourishment. But they are less inevitable, less a physiological necessity that is, as the baby gets bigger and older.

Enter sleep training.

Sleep training is defined as “the process of helping a baby learn to get to sleep and stay asleep through the night.” Often it involves some degree of “controlled crying,” whereby a baby is left in his crib to cry and, ultimately, fall asleep on his own.

Should every mother of an eight month old, who is still waking five, six, seven times a night because of an obvious sleep “crutch” (e.g. being fed or rocked), make the baby cry-it-out? Of course not. Sleep training is a wholly personal decision, influenced though it is by cultural factors. For many mothers, it just isn’t a viable option: a baby’s perceived distress will always trump their own. Equally, however, we must stop vilifying the mothers who do choose to sleep train.

Far from the battle cry of this recent article, which claims that cry-it-out teaches babies to “panic silently and detach from those whom nature intends for them to trust,” we do not need a “moral imperative” to “end” it. Critics of sleep training frequently enlist studies (such as this one) that are conducted with abused or neglected infants or that assess the impact of being left to cry on a daily basis for months or years at a time. But done responsibly and in the context of a loving, stable parent-child relationship, sleep training isn’t dangerous or damaging. It can actually be beneficial.

The evidence is pretty clear. Writing for Slate, Melinda Wenner Moyer comprehensively analyzes the scientific literature on the topic. She explains why the results of oft-cited studies such as this one fail to make an adequate case against sleep training, based on a baby’s cortisol levels. And she explains how clinical trials such as this one, which shows that 6-year-olds who were sleep trained as babies are no different emotionally and behaviorally from those who weren’t, can be used to make a good case for it.

Overall she concludes: “It’s not just that there is no evidence of harm in crying-it-out—there is some solid evidence of no harm. When sleep training works, and research suggests it often does, it can provide long-term benefits for the entire family.”

Against this backdrop of no harm, it is interesting to consider why crying-it-out has become such a problematic, hot-button issue in today’s parenting climate—and for the extent to which this is true, see any online forum that discusses the practice. Our own mothers, after all, were hardly agonizing over a crying baby at bedtime. Dr. Spock, for one, advised them simply to say goodnight and not look back.

But our generation’s version of motherhood is a different beast from our mothers’. The current tendency is toward intensive parenting and the over-sentimentalization of children. We are more anxious about our kids than ever before, because we view them as “emotionally priceless.” We put untold pressure on ourselves to give them every advantage and, as a result, we imbue each parenting decision with the power to produce long-term, irrevocable consequences. In this atmosphere, leaving a baby to cry for any reason is viewed as a maternal failure to meet certain non-negotiable needs, even if such around-the-clock vigilance is to the detriment of our own physical and mental health as caregivers.

Cultural attitudes toward sleep training have changed over time and they are likely to change again. This is why it is a feminist issue. Contemporary theories that assert crying-it-out is morally wrong, despite evidence to the contrary, can have a profound effect on the women who aren’t lucky enough to get a baby who sleeps well—or to have the help, hired or otherwise, to manage the fallout for them.

The backlash against crying-it-out shames the mothers who choose it in order to perform and succeed at work. It shames the mothers who choose it in order to maintain the sanity and psychological balance they need to be better, more patient and nurturing parents. It makes women feel unnecessarily guilty about wanting the sleep that is critical for their own well-being.

Professing it unnatural or un-maternal to leave a baby to cry in a controlled way in order to instill healthy sleep habits is a strike against feminism’s effort to allow women to have young children and function fully at the same time. It consigns them to suffer the undeniable negative effects of sleep deprivation for as long as it takes their children’s sleep problems to resolve organically.

Framing sleep training as an ethical misstep, the province of “bad mothering,” is not just a benign offshoot of the so-called “Mommy Wars.” It is a stance that sets us back as an entire gender.

Lauren Apfel is a writer and mother of four (including twins). She blogs at omnimom.net and is the debate editor for Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Related Links: