Infant Sleep and the Experts, Part II

When my daughter was first born, I thought she would never wake up. She seemed to sleep all the time. Then at three months it seemed she opened her eyes, saw the world, and decided she liked it so much she never wanted to sleep again. Thus the sleep battles began. In spite of much yawning and rubbing of eyes, she would alternately writhe in our laps in the rocking chair or lie smiling and cooing and swiping at our faces. Once soundly asleep, we would put her down and she would wake up ten minutes later.

This led to much frustration and reading of books on my part. At six months we are making some progress toward restful sleep for the whole family, though this may be due in equal parts to our daughter’s developmental maturation and implementation of the knowledge gained through my research. But having invested so much time and energy in the pursuit, I decided to share my thoughts in the hope that others might profit from it as well.

In the previous post, I discussed helpful information I gleaned from March Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, as well as the points on which I differed from each author’s position. The parenting author whose overall philosophy I have found most helpful, intuitive, and sensible is William Sears. (His wife, Martha Spears, RN, is listed as co-author on most of his books, but as they are written primarily in the first-person from his perspective, I will refer to him as the author.) I appreciate Sears because he emphasizes attachment and respect for natural processes, while he has the scientific background and knowledge of an experienced MD.1

Sears warns readers against methods that purport to supply parents with the one “right” method for raising their children.2 He is also firmly opposed to any approach that advises letting babies cry themselves to sleep, devoting an entire chapter of The Baby Sleep Book to the topic. Among other objections, Sears argues that this practice dulls parents’ sensitivity to their babies’ needs, undermines babies’ trust in their parents, engenders disturbing rather than pleasant associations with sleep, and contradicts a mother’s biologically programmed impulse to pick up her child when it cries (2005, 206-07).

Beyond these basic principles, Sears’ approach to sleep seems quite flexible; essentially anything goes, as long as it works for everyone in the family. If baby naps best on your lap, fine, as long as you are prepared to sit still as long as baby sleeps. He advocates co-sleeping, also known as the “family bed,” but offers alternatives for parents who can’t sleep with a baby in the bed (2003, 347). Sears encourages families to experiment, and he acknowledges that most will try a variety of sleep strategies before settling on one that works for them (2002, 75).

In contrast to Tracy Hogg’s proposal in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer (see Infant Sleep, Part I) that parents should promote independence from birth and employ from the beginning the patterns they intend to pursue through toddlerhood and beyond, Sears emphasizes that babies need to be dependent. He asserts that well attached babies develop age-appropriate independence more quickly than insecure babies because they have a bedrock of confidence in their parents’ availability and predictable care (1994, 30).

Sears is much less interested than some other infant sleep experts (and perhaps than most parents of infants) in getting babies to sleep through the night. Many of his books and articles include lists of reasons why babies wake at night (i.e. small tummies that need frequent filling, teething, hidden medical issues), and he advises parents to try to adjust their attitudes and lifestyles to accept this until their children are older (2002, 58-67).3 Many sleep experts would say, of course, that nighttime waking is not inevitable. But many parents, even advocates of sleep scheduling and crying it out, have told me their babies go through cycles of frequent night-waking even after they appear to have become accustomed to all-night sleep. On the other hand, Sears acknowledges that unrestricted night nursing is simply not practicable for some families and offers strategies for helping parents move their babies toward longer nighttime sleep patterns.

In Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Marc Weissbluth asserts that a well-rested child does not need sleep aids, like white noise, motion sleep in swings, solids at bedtime, and so forth in order to go to sleep and stay asleep (147-48). This sounds reasonable, but this magic point of ideal sleep is difficult to achieve, in our experience. In pages 20 to 29 of The Baby Sleep Book, Sears recommends a variety of such strategies for dealing with reluctant sleepers. He concludes a similar chapter in The Baby Book with the following words:

“These going-to-sleep-and-staying-asleep techniques are temporary strategies. Your child will eventually learn to leave your bed, go to sleep and stay asleep on her own, and adjust to a regular bedtime. As with the other aspects of attachment parenting, the need to be parented to sleep lasts such a short while, but your message of love and security lasts a lifetime” (366).

This may not be the message all parents want to hear, but it is one I can live with. Those who want a step-by-step plan for getting their baby to sleep may not find it in Sears (an objection I have run across in a couple of reviews of his publications), but for me more structured programs just increased stress and anxiety.

I found the case studies in The Baby Sleep Book especially helpful, as they presented a variety of solutions for families with a variety of sleep difficulties. By contrast, a sleep schedule, earlier bedtime, and not being afraid to let the baby cry seemed to solve the problem for most of Weissbluth’s patients. I also respected the fact that Sears acknowledges the strategies that didn’t work for some families. Some issues just weren’t resolved until the baby was older (2005, 92).

In the last chapter of Healthy Sleep Habits Weissbluth critiques Sears’ Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep (1995), which I have not read. Weissbluth charges that advocating the family bed and breastfeeding is the basis of the book and that the author gives only a nod to the varying needs of different temperaments and age-specific sleep patterns of infants. Perhaps Sears has changed his approach since 1995, but, as indicated above, I did not find this to be true of the Sears books I have read. Also, Weissbluth says Sears recommends use of “a strong hypnotic prescription drug call chloral hydrate to knock out your child,” should “natural” methods fail (307). If this is true (and it seems completely inconsistent with Sears’ overall philosophy), Sears has abandoned the recommendation, as no trace of it appears in these latter-mentioned books.

All three authors advocate some degree of routine, whether it is putting your baby down for naps at a certain time each day, establishing a daytime activity pattern, or maintaining a consistent set of steps when putting baby to bed at night. I found this difficult at first, but it is emerging over time, starting with bedtime and naptime rituals. Again, I found Sears’ philosophy most helpful–letting the pattern that suits each family emerge, rather than trying to impose the same routine for everyone.

Sometime my performance-oriented, hyper-conscientious side inclines me to think that parenting is a precise science, and unless I get it exactly right, disaster will result. But in my more rational moments I realize that that is not the case and that loving parents with wildly different parenting styles have produced many healthy, happy children and adults. Ultimately, all three authors have something to offer, and the relative value of each approach will depend on individual parents and children and their respective temperaments and needs. I found the least to differ with and the most helpful, realistic advice from Sears.

*Come back for a summary table comparing these authors’ positions on issues such as co-sleeping, pacifiers, nursing to sleep and so forth.

1. Sears devotes one chapter of The New Baby Planner to explaining his conception of attachment parenting. In a nut shell, it is the process of developing a parent-child relationship that enables parents to interpret and meet their child’s needs and provides the child with a sense of security and trust that her needs will be met. I have an adopted sister, thirteen years my junior, who was first a foster child, and have been through training and done extensive reading in preparation for becoming an adoptive parent. Sears’ philosophy rings true with my own observations and experiences in this domain.

2. Although he does not refer specifically to Ezzo’s materials, Sears warns parents against methods that twist scripture and claim to be “God’s way” for raising children (1994, 8). I find it interesting that Sears is a Christian yet embraces a philosophy that is radically opposed to Ezzo’s, underscoring the danger of claiming scriptural authority for something that is not clearly delineated in the Bible.

3. Sears also explains in chapter 3 of The Baby Sleep Book why babies’ sleep patterns make putting them down awake and expecting them to fall asleep unrealistic, unless the baby has a particularly easy-going temperament.

Hogg, Tracy, with Melinda Blau. Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Sears, William, and Martha Sears. The New Baby Planner. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.

Sears, William, and Martha Sears. The Baby Book, revised ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Sears, William, and Martha Sears. The Baby Sleep Book. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

Weissbluth, Marc. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, revised ed. New York: Fawcett Books (The Ballantine Publishing Group), 1999.

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