Photo: Courtesy of the families
In January 2021, Alice Bender made baby sleep go viral on TikTok. While holding her 5-month-old son, Fern, in his nursery, Bender, then 21, explained to her iPhone camera why he didn’t have a crib. “We literally buy these little baby jail cells so that we can just leave our baby in there and walk away,” she said. “I don’t have a crib because I will never enforce my baby to have a bedtime. Babies are people, too, and forcing anyone to sleep when they’re not tired is inhumane. Imagine if your partner locked you in a container you couldn’t get out of and told you you had to sleep even though you weren’t tired. That would be abuse, and you’d probably leave them.”
In the background, a lop-eared bunny hopped on the floor near a piece of white wooden furniture that looks like a crib except it hovers a few inches off the floor and has half a side missing. “The floor bed allows the baby to sleep when the baby is feeling sleepy and get up and move around when the baby’s not,” Bender said.
The post racked up more than 7 million views, made international headlines, and inspired an awful lot of tweets (“Next week on this lady’s tik tok: why I let my 5 month old drive”) before Bender took it down. But she didn’t stop offering baby-sleep advice. In a post from August 2021, she wrote, “There’s no such thing as sleep training.” Bender pointed to the words as music played. “But there is such a thing as training a baby they were left to die.”
A lot of things about this video would be baffling to a parent of the past. (That object in the corner of her living room that looks like a drying rack with a ramp on it? It’s a Pikler triangle, a Montessori-affiliated climbing toy for babies that gained popularity on social media during the pandemic; the model in this particular video retails for nearly $600.) But some details would be familiar. One of the hashtags in the post — #cryitout — refers to a method that was first referenced in The Care and Feeding of Children, a book published by pediatrician L. Emmett Holt in 1894. If a baby is crying at night and nothing seems to be wrong, Holt writes, “it should simply be allowed to ‘cry it out.’ ”
Today, this technique is called sleep training, or graduated extinction, or Ferberization, depending on the exact method, but the general concept hasn’t changed: Babies are born unable to differentiate day from night and unable to soothe themselves, so parents need to teach them to sleep. Bender’s videos showcase a school of thought known as “gentle parenting,” which is suspicious of anything as rigid as “training” your baby. The gentle-parenting approach is to follow the baby’s lead to determine when to sleep and when to wake.
More than a century after the publication of Holt’s book, parents are still fighting this fight. The debate takes place in Facebook groups and Reddit threads and Instagram comments and, especially, on TikTok, where Team Sleep Training is posting its own stylishly curated propaganda. “Before sleep training, I spent hours trying to put him to sleep. Even after trying everything, he still wakes up crying and fussing; it started to affect my mental health,” one mother wrote as MKTO’s “Classic” (“Girl, you’re timeless / Just so classic”) played in the background. The text is laid over video footage from a camera mounted above the baby’s crib; pre–sleep training, it shows the mom lying in the crib with the baby, trying to breastfeed him. “Now I just read him bedtime stories,” she wrote, “put him down in his crib, and he will fall asleep within 15 mins.”
The parents in these videos can be angry or sentimental, funny or despairing, authoritative or unhinged. What unites them is a deep well of emotion fed by too many nights without a break. “Sleep issues for parents are universal,” said Jodi Mindell, the associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a leading pediatric sleep researcher. One study that Mindell and others conducted in six countries — Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, and the U.S. — found that 96 percent of parents said they wanted to change something about their kid’s sleep.
Despite the universality of the problem, though — and an industry that has risen to meet it with smart bassinets, melatonin jelly beans, weighted sleep sacks, OK to Wake! clocks that change color when it’s time to get up, and $1,500 online “sleep schools” — parents are still embarrassed to admit they’re having a hard time. Speaking with dozens of American parents for this story, I heard them express shame, guilt, depression, fear, and anger over how something so “natural” could be so hard. “I’d say it is the hardest part of parenting,” one mother of two, with a third on the way, told me. “I’m scared of the nights. It’s just a dark and lonely time.”
Almost everyone was suffering. Julie, 41, told me that when her son was 3 months old, she was so tired that she forgot his name. She took him to a Mommy and Me yoga class, at which he cried the whole time. Afterward, someone asked the baby’s name. “And I just went like, ‘Here’s … here he is! My little guy!’ It was bad.”
Infants who struggle with sleep tend to grow into kids who struggle with sleep. Heather, 39, a mom of three, sleeps most nights in a toddler bed so she can be in the same room as her 4-year-old daughter. “I’m five-one, so I can just fit,” she said. “It actually feels, in some ways, luxurious because no one’s snoring. No one’s touching me. And I can have the bed exactly as I want it. No one’s in there with me.” Her 4-year-old sleeps in the same room in a twin bed that used to belong to her 7-year-old son, who now sleeps with his father, Heather’s husband, in the guest room.
The baby of the family, who is 1, sleeps in a crib in what used to be the adults’ bedroom. The family’s house is old, and its doorways are narrow; the crib can’t be removed without taking it apart. The queen bed in the master bedroom remains unused because the older children can’t sleep without one of their parents nearby.
Heather said that the toddler bed is a step up from her previous arrangement: sleeping with her head on a bedside table. That’s what she used to do when she had only one kid and he shared a bed with her and her husband. “We would sleep on either side of him in the queen bed,” she said. Their son would lie between them horizontally: “The middle of the H. And so he would gradually push us out. I realized after a while that if I took my pillow and put it on the bedside table, I got, like, an extra foot of room.”
Diane, 36, sleep-trained both of her kids, who are now 1 and 4. When her eldest was around 7 months old, she put her down in her crib at night and left the room. “Almost immediately, she started sleeping through the night,” Diane told me. “It was shocking.” When I asked her how sleep was going for her family now, she said, “It’s awesome. It’s amazing because I let sleep training into my heart.”
Diane is confident in her method, but her resolve is tested whenever she opens Instagram and scrolls through the posts and Reels. “Maybe this is just my algorithm, but I see a lot that are kind of shaming people who do choose to sleep-train,” she said. “Like, ‘This is babies’ natural sleep. If you wanted to be a parent, this is what you signed up for.’ ” (Plenty of TikToks actually put it more bluntly: “If you let your baby cry it out maybe you aren’t ready for kids. #thankyouforcomingtomytedtalk.”) When I asked Diane to take me on a tour of social-media sleep accounts that “made you feel guilty,” she corrected me immediately. “I wouldn’t say it made me feel guilty,” she said. “I know how well it works. But I feel like if I weren’t so firm? If I were on the fence? You know, I see a lot of Instagram Reels and TikToks.”
Both sides of the sleep-training debate come with their own experts; whatever you decide to do, you’re going to be able to find a person with some type of credential to back you up. Parents who find the “cry in crib” approach abhorrent can cite the work of British attachment-parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith, whose Gentle Sleep Book includes sentences like “It is indeed true that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, albeit with torture you don’t get the lovely oxytocin highs that come from snuggly hugs, and parents do at least get some sleep, however fractured,” or Elizabeth Pantley, who writes in her No-Cry Sleep Solution about why she abandoned attempts to let her 1-year-old cry it out: “I was convinced that this was a simplistic and harsh way to treat another human being, let alone the precious little love of my life.” This sort of language ends up in a lot of TikToks.
The emotional appeal of avoiding the “cry it out” technique is obvious: A lot of parents have a really hard time hearing their kids cry. Pantley writes in No-Cry Sleep Solution about an aborted attempt to let her 1-year-old cry it out: “I picked up my cherished baby and held her tightly in my arms. She was too distraught to nurse, too distressed to sleep. I held her and kissed her downy head as her body shook and hiccuped in the aftermath of her sobbing. I thought, ‘This approach is responding to a child’s needs? This is teaching her that her world is worthy of her faith and trust? This is nurturing?’ I decided then and there: they are all wrong. Horribly, intolerably, painfully wrong.”
Many gentle-parenting proponents also believe that leaving babies to cry at night causes permanent emotional damage and keeps them from bonding with their parents. The evidence often cited for this idea, Emily Oster notes in her best-selling book Cribsheet, comes from studies of children in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s who were “left in their cribs for years with virtually no human contact … One of the things visitors noticed in these places was the eerie quiet of the rooms the children were kept in. Infants and babies didn’t cry, because they knew no one would come. The argument is that ‘cry it out’ is the same thing.” After a journey through pediatric sleep research on normally developing kids, Oster concludes: Nope, not the same thing. “Nothing bad happened in any study, and in most cases, the babies seemed happier after sleep training them than before,” she writes. Still, “you’ll have to make a choice about this without perfect data.”
Some of the gentle-sleep parents I spoke with didn’t believe that crying it out would lead to permanent damage. But as long as their children were healthy, they argued, it didn’t seem particularly important for them to sleep in their own beds or to learn to fall asleep on their own. (The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that parents shouldn’t co-sleep with infants because of the risk of suffocation.)
It’s hard enough to raise a kid in this world, this thinking goes, without the added friction of unnecessary or outdated rigidity. Consider our evolving understanding of children and food, for instance: A new generation of experts, such as Virginia Sole-Smith and Jennifer Anderson, stresses that there are no bad foods and that kids are pretty much fine as long as they get enough calories to grow. Why not apply the same flexible approach to sleep?
After Justina, 39, tried unsuccessfully to sleep-train her baby — “It got to a point where she started slamming her head against the crib rail and she’d get a bloody nose” — she reached out to her mother for help. Her mother reminded her that Justina’s younger sister had grown up sleeping in her parents’ bed and napping near the tea station in their Chinese restaurant. “My mom was like, ‘We just did what we needed to do. We were working, and we didn’t have the space, and it’s just not that big of a deal. It’s fine.’ She was like, ‘You guys should do whatever you want to do. You’re such good parents, and it’s up to you.’ ”
All of the parents I spoke to were good parents. Primarily, the ones who chose not to sleep-train seemed more tired — and that, according to some experts, is problematic in and of itself. “Sleep is essential. Like, it’s essential,” said Alexis Dubief, a pediatric sleep consultant who is the author of Precious Little Sleep: The Complete Baby Sleep Guide for Modern Parents and the creator of the Precious Little Sleep Facebook group, which has grown to more than 40,000 members. “The idea that you can kind of power through your children’s lives with no sleep and just coffee and strength of will is a myth. The idea that parenting should be relentlessly exhausting is also just a myth. Human beings cannot function without sleep. The idea that you’re just gonna be exhausted for five, seven years while you’re raising small people? It’s not helpful.”
Without sleep, it’s hard to maintain a sense of self — a part of you held separate from your many responsibilities. Joy, 37, has a 6-year-old who tends to come out of her room repeatedly after bedtime. “It feels like I punched my time card for the day but my boss keeps popping into my living room asking me to do one more thing,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s just my personality or if it’s a way of coping with, like, the horror of how parenting is a 24/7 responsibility that literally never ends.”
This relentless, no-breaks exhaustion is also hard on marriages. When your life becomes consumed by kid-sleep problems, it’s not just that you stop having sex, though it is definitely true that you can’t have sex if each of you is sleeping on a different kid’s bedroom floor. You also bicker more, often in the form of 3 a.m. whisper-fights in the baby’s room. “To the extent that modern coupling is, like, defined by TV shows that you watch together, we don’t watch as much TV together as we did before kids because sleeping intervenes,” Justina’s husband, Sean, 40, told me. “It sounds really sad, but I do wish we watched a little more TV together.”
But still, some parents ask, how can you ignore a child in distress? Dubief recommends that the parent who feels the most anguish hearing a kid’s crying simply leave the house. “Lots of parents feel that they need to sit in the hallway, curled into a fetal position, crying tear for tear with their baby as some sort of penance for their failure to teach independent sleep,” she writes in her book. “Crying in the hallway serves no purpose other than to make you miserable. Worse, it creates the opportunity for the dark strains of guilt to muddle your thinking.”
Craig Canapari, the director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program, argues that we should worry less about the crying itself. “I find the argument that crying harms your child ludicrous. I mean, kids cry all the time, right?” he said. He recalled when his 5-year-old had cried because there was an ant on his doughnut: “I wasn’t worried about him being brain-damaged afterward.”
I have three children, ages 2, 6, and 8. My first daughter was born in 2013, and back then, I shamed myself over my inability to exclusively breastfeed — torturing myself with passages from La Leche books that I’d bought before my baby was born, scrawling the total ounces of breastmilk I was able to pump and the number of minutes my daughter breastfed on each side of a whiteboard. I was a crazy person doing crazy math: The more I suffered, I was convinced, the better off my baby would be.
When I wasn’t trying to breastfeed, I was figuring out how to get her to sleep. She’d been home from the hospital for one day when my upstairs neighbor, the mother of an older baby, texted me to ask if I wanted her Fisher-Price My Little Snugabunny swing. The swing had been taking up most of the living room of her Manhattan apartment. Now it would take up most of the living room of my Manhattan apartment.
Two years and eight months later, when I had my son, we got the now-infamous Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play. The Rock ’n Play rocked a sleeping baby in a slightly upright position and did so automatically if you had the kind that plugged into the wall. In 2019, it was recalled following a Consumer Reports investigation that found it had led to at least 32 infants’ deaths after the babies rolled over in it and suffocated.
Unfortunately — I mean, unfortunately in addition to the deaths — the Rock ’n Play worked really well. In 2019, I was pregnant with my third child, but we’d given away all our baby gear. I met up with a friend to get some of her old stuff. “You probably don’t want the Rock ’n Play?” she said.
“Oh, I want it,” I said.
I would never, ever, use it, I told myself, stashing it in our bedroom. I was simply doing a friend a favor by getting it out of her house. And then, when my new baby was a couple of weeks old, I was tired one day, so tired, and there was the Rock ’n Play.
Just for this one nap, I said. I swaddled her and put her in the Rock ’n Play by our bed and turned it on. I crawled into bed, and I woke up three hours later and she was still asleep. Sometime during that dream of a nap, I thought, Oh, but what if she died? I would never forgive myself. But at least I got the nap.
My husband and I did graduated extinction with all of our kids at bedtime. Starting when they were a few months old, we’d put them down awake and come back to check on them at increasingly longer intervals: five minutes, then 15 minutes, and so on. They didn’t really cry after the first couple of nights. The younger two continued to wake up to eat at night for months after we started, and none of them slept all the way through the night until we moved them into their own bedrooms. Now all my kids are good sleepers, and I had never felt bad about any of this until I looked through gentle-sleep Instagram with Diane.
When I did, I was thankful that it hadn’t existed when I was a new mother. If the pressure to breastfeed had broken my sleep-deprived brain, this would have broken my awash-in-hormones heart.
Baby-sleep TikTok mostly felt weird and chaotic to me, a 38-year-old squarely outside its target demographic and a good 15 years older than many of the mothers whose videos I was watching. (My husband, after I showed him about 15 minutes’ worth of videos: “Are you just mad these young moms are showing you what’s what?”) But baby sleep on Instagram — the social network for old millennials — had a different effect on me.
It wasn’t so much the pithy sayings in pretty fonts that bothered me: “If your biggest problem as a parent is that your child wants to be close to you, you’re doing a great job”; “If sleep training works so well, why is everyone in those Facebook groups so miserable?”; “Sleep represents a massive separation and state of vulnerability. Why would we expect such little people to be okay with facing that alone?”; “Don’t take my baby out of my arms. Ever” — I mean, that is just a person yelling at you.
What did make me feel bad was the reminder, a constant on these accounts, that we can never get this time — parenting young children — back. “Contact napping is the most natural and bloomin wonderful thing in the world and it is one of the most short-lived pleasures you are going to experience with your child,” the British attachment-parenting influencer @thismummystory wrote in one post, referring to the practice of your kid napping on you instead of in their crib. “Because the day will come, way too soon, when they won’t sleep on you like that ever again. When you won’t feel their little body against yours, their arms wrapped tight around you, their breath slow and shallow and you won’t be able to reach down and kiss their hot little cheek.”
One night a few months ago, my 2-year-old started to cry. Most nights, we put her to bed with a stack of books in her crib, and she looks at them and talks to herself and sings until she lies down and goes to sleep. Recently, however, socks have been an issue. She likes to wear socks and shoes to bed and practice taking them on and off. Right before she falls asleep, she usually has a moment of extreme frustration about the seams of the socks not being correctly aligned with her toes. It is inevitably a sign that sleep is near. She screams, “Fix my sock! Fix my sock!” for a couple of minutes, we ignore her, and she conks out.
At that moment, though, I had been looking at a lot of pictures of babies and toddlers sleeping snuggled next to their mothers. When my daughter started screaming about her socks, I felt the extremely foreign urge to bolt upstairs and bring her into bed with me. That was something I hadn’t done since she was a tiny infant, and it would have resulted in a terrible night of sleep for both of us. She is in distress and I am ignoring her, I thought, and I will never get this time back, and one day I will be barren, and she’ll hate me, and all I will wish for is a time when she wanted me so much.
But also? She was in quarantine because her dad and I, who both work full time, had COVID. It was spring, so she was still unvaccinated. At the time, if someone in an unvaccinated child’s home tested positive, our day care required that the child, even if they were asymptomatic and testing negative, stay home and quarantine until six days had passed and the positive person started testing negative. If another person in the house tested positive, the clock started again for the unvaccinated child. Ultimately, she was out of day care for four weeks because one person or another in our house had COVID.
I have not yet found an Instagram account that tackles this conundrum. I found a form of solace, instead, in Emily St. John Mandel’s recent novel Sea of Tranquility, part of which is set in the year 2203 during a pandemic. From that book:
“The blur of passing days: Olive woke at four a.m. to work for two hours while Sylvie slept, then Dion worked from six a.m. to noon while Olive made an attempt to be a schoolteacher and to keep their daughter reasonably sane, then Olive worked for two hours while Dion and Sylvie played, then Sylvie got an hour of hologram while both her parents worked, then Dion worked while Olive played with Sylvie, then somehow it was time to make dinner and then dinner blurred into the bedtime hour, then by eight p.m. Sylvie was asleep and Olive went to bed not long after, then Olive’s alarm rang because it was once again four a.m.”
In Mandel’s vision, two centuries from now, a lot has changed — but working while taking care of a kid? Still impossible.
The debate over sleep has a tendency to become a conversation about everything: marriage, feminism, justice — all of human relations contained within the sound of a baby snoring (or screaming). Some gentle-sleep influencers argue that American parents are victims of a relentlessly capitalist society that devalues them — especially mothers — and that the perceived need to work outside the home prevents them from taking care of their children as nature intended. Under this view, it’s normal for babies and toddlers not to sleep through the night. The problem isn’t that kids are waking up too much; it’s that parents find that inconvenient.
“The truth is our children probably sleep no differently to those in traditional Asian or African villages, or those who lived in our own country two hundred years ago,” Ockwell-Smith writes in her Gentle Sleep Book. The difference, she argues, is in the parents: “The real problem is the disharmony between the primal needs of our young and the expectations and demands of parenting in the modern world.”
The introduction to Ockwell-Smith’s book was written by Tracy Cassels, a parenting consultant who runs a website called Evolutionary Parenting. “People try to argue that sleep training is feminist,” she told me, “because women take the primary burden of nighttime care for kids — and so sleep training absolves them of that burden.” But maybe the solution, rather than freeing both parents to work more, is to have both sexes share responsibility for handling nighttime wake-ups. Feminism, she argued, “isn’t a self-centered view, and it’s certainly not one that should be premised upon a patriarchical view of society that values our productivity.”
The reality, however, is that in many heterosexual two-parent households, the parent who is most affected by bad kid sleep is the mom. (Pediatric sleep research, too, tends to be heavily dependent on reports from mothers.) It starts early. Often, a mom who is breastfeeding becomes, by default, the parent who handles all the baby’s nighttime wake-ups. “My husband was my enemy for this whole time,” Julie said. They lived in a split-level apartment; he slept upstairs in the bedroom, and she slept downstairs in the nursery. “He’d come in in the morning and say ‘How’d it go?’ after just blissfully being an adult in our queen bed. I’d be like, ‘Well, you know, at one he woke up, but then the diaper …’ And I’d be trying to narrate, but it was so boring, even to me. It was so bad. I honestly think the worst thing that ever happened to us was the sleep, and I think he still kind of questions my descriptions of it all. He doesn’t really believe it. He’s like, ‘We had a few good nights!’ And I’m like, ‘There were no good nights. There was not one good night.’ ”
Deborah, 39, needs more sleep than her husband does. She has also noticed that their toddler son needs less sleep than most kids his age. “It would seem like, Well, then my husband can just do more,” Deborah said. “But it really doesn’t end up working that way.” She breastfeeds, and the baby “prefers Mom. If he wakes up in the night, he wants Mom.” When we talked on Zoom, Deborah’s son had been home sick from day care for two weeks, and though she has a career as an anthropologist, she had been with him that whole time while her husband worked. She carried and rocked her toddler as we spoke.
“I wound up in a really traditional role,” she said. “I didn’t think that I would, and I don’t think my husband thought that either. I think we really thought we would be able to have this partnership that would allow us to balance. But overall, it is absolutely falling much more on me.” She gazed at her son, shifting her tone to bring him into the conversation: “It’s not what we bargained for, right? We’re trying to raise you to be a little feminist.”
Jodi Mindell has been studying kids and sleep for more than 30 years; her book Sleeping Through the Night, which was published in 1997, is now a classic of the genre. When we spoke, I asked her what a 2022 edition would look like, imagining that she would talk about how much the science around sleep had changed.
I was surprised by her answer. There are some things she’d add to her book: more on naps, more on twins. But “the underlying mechanics of sleep for babies don’t change,” she said. “They don’t change.” Sleep-training techniques also hadn’t changed: “It’s just a matter of which one feels the most comfortable for you and your baby.”
Indeed, when I extracted myself from gentle-sleep Instagram and delved into several books on the subject, I found that all the recommended advice is surprisingly similar no matter what approach you use.
First of all, what’s most important is consistency: choosing a method that you think will work for you and then sticking with it. Create a bedtime routine, which can be short (PJs, read a book — done). Put the baby to bed at the same time every night, and put them to sleep in the same place where they’ll be when they wake up.
Also, if you want your child’s sleep to be better, you’ve got to prepare for it to suck a little at first because change is hard. The main decision that you have to make is whether you want to get the suck over with relatively quickly or spread it out. Extremely gentle methods take longer. Methods that require less parental involvement may result in more crying initially, but they work fast: Usually, they take two weeks at most. Once your child is able to fall asleep alone, other issues — night wakings, naps — become easier to manage and tend to resolve on their own.
Instead of trying to find some consistent solution, though, parents often end up fighting or just muddling through. “We prepare people to fail. We tell them, ‘You know what? You’re not going to sleep a lot in the beginning. Just expect that!’ ” the celebrity pediatrician Harvey Karp told me. “And you know, in the meantime, people shoot their brains out while they’re waiting for things to get better.” Over Zoom, he mimed shooting himself in the head as wind chimes jingled gently in the background.
All the parents I spoke to said they were searching for ways to be slightly less miserable. That, to me, seems more urgent than worrying about hashtags for various parenting philosophies. Those things never helped anyone get to sleep.
Seung Lee is the father of two kids, ages 2 and 5. When the children were babies, “my wife was nursing,” he said. “So it sort of made sense that she would be the one to get up at night. But that would be awful for her.” Lee and his wife broke the night up into shifts. During his, he fed the babies their first overnight bottles. “It made sense for me to do that,” he said.
Lee and his wife didn’t follow any baby-sleep social media. They sleep-trained, and they tracked their first son’s progress using an app. There was so much data. Lee wanted to document this time in some way — “lots of late nights and early mornings together” — so his son would know it had been important. But what was he going to do, show him a screenshot? He decided to knit a blanket: “When you graph out all that data, it’s in a rectangle. A blanket could represent that data in a way that you can sort of read.”
The resulting “Sleep Blanket” is gray and blue. (Lee later made one for his daughter in gray and purple.) It is a visualization of his son’s sleep from birth to age 1. Each row represents one day. Each stitch represents six minutes of time, awake (gray) or asleep (blue). You “read” the blanket from left to right, top to bottom. At first, the awake and asleep patches are completely random — showing the normal sleep pattern of a newborn who does not know day from night. Over time, the gray and blue sections consolidate. Row by row, you can see Lee’s son go from random naps, to three regular naps, to two regular naps and 12 hours at night. It is a commemoration of a baby learning to sleep. The finished blanket, which his son cuddles up under every night, consists of 185,000 stitches.