Elusive baby sleep miracles remain elusive

GO TO SLEEP, LITTLE BABY Scores of books promise to teach you how to get your infant to sleep for hours on end. What doesn't promise that? Science.

Lisa Rosario Photography/Flickr

After Baby V joined our team, one of the first things people would ask is, “Are you getting any sleep?” (The answer was, and is, no.) The recurring question highlights how sorely lacking sleep is for new parents.

Capitalism noticed us tired parents, too: Countless products beckon exhausted families with promises of eight, 10, even 12 hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. You can buy special swaddles, white noise machines, swings that sway like a moving car and books upon books that whisper contradictory secrets of how to get your baby to sleep through the night. (If you don’t have time to read them all, mother-of-twins Ava Neyer helpfully breaks down all of the advice for you.)

As the owner of a stack of such books, I was intrigued by this recent review:

“Behavioral sleep interventions in the first six months of life do not improve outcomes for mothers or infants: A systematic review.”

Excuse me? The Sleep Sheep, the Baby Whisperer and the Sleep Lady lied to me?

At the behest of the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research, Australians Pamela Douglas and Peter Hill combed through the existing scientific literature on sleep interventions looking for benefits. These interventions included delaying responses to infant cues (also known by its cold-hearted name of “crying it out”), sticking to a feeding or sleeping schedule and other ways that aim to teach a baby how to fall asleep without the need to eat or be held.

After analyzing 43 studies on infant sleep interventions, the team concluded that these methods weren’t beneficial for babies younger than six months, or their mothers. The studies didn’t convincingly show that interventions curb infant crying, prevent sleep or behavioral problems later or protect against maternal depression, Douglas and Hill write in the September Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Each one of these studies comes with baggage. Some tested older kids. Some conflated sleeping problems with feeding problems. Some were overzealous in attributing an improvement of mothers’ moods to sleep intervention. These problems, coupled with the lackluster results of the studies, led Douglas and Hill to conclude that there’s no good evidence for sleep interventions in the first six months of life.

And beyond the lack of benefits, these interventions can bring unintended harmful consequences, the researchers argue. Tinkering with sleep too early can lead to more maternal anxiety, a premature end to breastfeeding and even a heightened risk of SIDS if the baby is required to sleep in her own room.

The angst inspired by books preaching the benefits of these interventions is a serious side effect that shouldn’t be ignored, Douglas and Hill wrote. For me, those books definitely had a dark side. I read each foolproof method for getting my baby to sleep. And when she didn’t cooperate, I worried about it.

Of course, my manic reading wasn’t all bad. We did pick up some tips:  We learned how to swaddle Baby V into a tight little burrito. We figured out that the oscillating fan setting on a white noise app occasionally soothed her. And we started a bedtime routine with a bath, books and songs. Those things seemed to help us get through some rough nights.

But I remain skeptical about the existence of a sleep miracle for young babies. If one existed, by now it would have elbowed out all the competition and all of our babies would all be peacefully sleeping like the little cherubs on the book covers.

Only in our dreams.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine

From the Nature Index

Paid Content