The Curious History of Sleeping Through the Night

Arden Hegele // “Do you have the guts to sleep train?” my pediatrician asked me at my baby daughter’s two-month well visit. The practice, Tribeca Pediatrics, is, I think, the only one in the world to recommend sleep training as early as eight weeks–a controversial stance that I hadn’t appreciated when signing up. (At 34 weeks pregnant, I was naively satisfied with the criteria of “clean and bright,” “takes my insurance,” and “on call on weekends.”) In three nights, the practice promised, my two-month-old would sleep “ten to twelve hours without eating.”

“Sleep training” is the practice of letting the baby fall asleep by crying, and it’s usually recommended to begin at four months or more. (For the uninitiated: newborn babies wake up a lot — every two hours — and the phrase “sleeping like a baby” provokes in a new parent only mirthless laughter.) The principle is that through this baptism of fire, the baby will learn to sleep without supports — “sleep props” like swaddles, pacifiers, or even the breast — and at each waking, to learn to “self-soothe” back to sleep. As I’m discovering with everything infant-related, strong, polarized opinions among professionals and parents abound without much evidence-based research. (There have been a few scientific studies of sleep training: see here, here, and here.) Advocates argue that this method develops independence in the baby; meanwhile, restful nights are a godsend to the parent (the rates of maternal depression have been shown to drop dramatically after sleep training).  Opponents maintain that sleep training results in premature weaning; more perniciously, left to cry alone at length, the baby might come to perceive the parent as unreliable and even experience trauma. Ultimately, this would result in an insecure attachment style shaping all the child’s relationships throughout the life course. The stakes of infant sleep, then, are fabulously high.

Rather than venturing into this particularly hostile front of the modern mommy wars, I want to consider instead the history of sleep training and its cultural significance. According to my own mom (an MD), the term “sleep training,” with its positive implications of discipline and learning, is of relatively new coinage (“We would just have said the baby cries herself to sleep”). It turns out she’s right: “sleep training,” meaning “training the baby to fall asleep independently,” dates to 1997: this cornerstone of contemporary parenting is, in essence, a twenty-first century concept. (More on that later.)

But the topic of letting the baby cry has been debated in child-rearing manuals since the nineteenth century. As early as the 1830s, German doctors encouraged mothers not to “rush to comfort the baby immediately, but should instead see if it resettles on its own,” though they did encourage parents to soothe their infants both day and night. With the advent of germ theory in the 1880s, mothers were encouraged not to touch their crying babies for fear of spreading disease. And, with the publication of Dr. Luther Emmett Holt’s The Care and Feeding of Children (1894), the term “cry it out” entered the lexicon:

“How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper, habit, or to be indulged? It should simply be allowed to ‘cry it out.'”

In recommending that I let my baby cry through the night at two months old, then, my pediatrician was simply offering a longstanding recommendation in Western childrearing practices–albeit its most extreme, precocious version (the practice is in New York, after all). Whether motivated by fear of disease, fear of coddling, or simply a desire for a good night’s rest, sleep training is here to stay.

What’s interesting, though, is the underlying assumption behind sleep training–the idea that a baby should sleep through the night, whether at two months, four months, or whenever. When left to their own devices, adults don’t sleep through the night. In his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005), historian Roger Ekirch shows that our expectation of unbroken sleep is an anomaly: across cultural contexts and throughout history, people have almost universally adopted a “segmented sleeping pattern,” in which a “first sleep” is followed by a “waking period” of one to two hours and then a “second sleep.” Drawing on “diaries, court records, medical books and literature,” and cultural contexts from ancient Greece to modern Nigeria, Ekirch found over 500 references to such a segmented sleeping pattern.

The curious thing, then, is why we expect adults–never mind infants–to sleep for eight or more hours without interruption. Ekirch suggests that references to the second sleep began to dwindle in the late seventeenth century, to disappear completely by the 1920s. He attributes this rise of the unbroken night’s sleep to improvements in street and domestic lighting, and to the coffeehouse phenomenon in Western Europe.

But, since the first infant manuals to recommend sleep training date to the 1830s, it seems that the industrial revolution might also have something to do with sleeping through the night. This period saw both the emergence of shift work in factories, and the entry of women into the labor market (2/3 of British women worked outside the home). Because women could not bring their infants to the factory floor, the result was a crisis in childcare: then, as now, childcare outside the home was expensive, costing a quarter of a working-class woman’s salary. A mother’s ability to work safely during twelve-hour shifts depended on her ability to sleep soundly through the night; meanwhile, with babies left all day with “older siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and dame schools,” early weaning was, in fact, a desirable outcome for a working mother.

The current fascination with sleep training seems to me to be a modern evocation of an old industrial pressure for new mothers to return to work quickly — in other words, it’s a crutch to cope with inadequate maternal time off. The scholar Jill Lepore makes a similar case for the rise of bottled breast milk (tellingly, the first patent for a baby bottle dates to 1841, within a decade of the first “sleep training” manuals). Lepore writes of the modern working mother’s challenge to follow pediatric recommendations:

To follow a doctor’s orders, a woman who returns to work twelve weeks after childbirth has to find a way to feed her baby her own milk for another nine months. The nation suffers, in short, from a Human Milk Gap. There are three ways to bridge that gap: longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps. Much effort has been spent implementing option No. 3, the cheap way out.

Sleep training, like pumping, is a successful makeshift solution to a cultural systems failure. But what’s even more striking is that, since around the turn of the twenty-first century, both sleep training and pumping milk have taken on an almost sanctified status within new-mother circles. There are websites dedicated to exclusive pumping as an alternative to breastfeeding. Meanwhile, sleep training gurus Marc Weissbluth (Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, 1987) and Richard Ferber (Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, 1985), with their more or less draconian approaches to letting the baby cry, have enthusiastic followers among parents and pediatricians, including my own. While sleep training is no doubt an effective parenting technique, it seems to me important to consider its origins in nineteenth-century industry, and to question the motives behind its twenty-first century resurgence and rebranding. Baby may be a “good sleeper” after all–just not in our time.

Header Image: Giovanni Bellini, Madonna in Adoration of the Sleeping Child, ca. 1475.

 

 

 

 

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