BabyGeek: Infant Sleep “Rules” Don’t Work

I’ve been sleep deprived since April 2001, when our oldest was born. Since then, I’ve tried every “trick” in the parenting book. And nothing seems effective at “making” my

Ah, sweet sleep

kids sleep better. They’ve all evolved into being better sleepers over time.

That’s why I’m so interested in the line of research discussed in this study. Penn State scientists found — despite common parenting advice — that parents’ EMOTIONAL response to their children at bedtime was much more successful than any specific behavioral “trick” in getting children to sleep.

As a shrink, I tell parents that babies absorb their emotional messages. Parents are often surprised when I tell them that even the youngest babies sense their emotions — but it’s true.

In the shrinking world, we’ve been struggling internally for years over the predominant theoretical orientation — Behaviorism, and its spin-offs — and the power it holds over the way we do our work. Those of us who work with very young children understand that simple behavioral and operant conditioning simply doesn’t apply with the little ones. That’s why “Ferberizing” and related approaches are often ineffective. ¬†FIRST, babies need to feel emotionally (and physically) safe. Other learning can proceed from there. But sleep is an inherently scary proposition, and often triggers resistance and regression in children. It’s a weird and scary thing to transition into a sleep state.

So the fundamental message of this research at Penn State is both obvious to me — and very reassuring — as an Early Childhood specialist. I’m eager to see what else they discover in this line of inquiry, and I’ll be sure to share it with you.

Here’s a link to some of my “getting to sleep” advice. What’s yours?



Dr. Heather
The BabyShrink

Welcome to, where parents turn for open, honest and direct answers to questions regarding their babies, toddlers and children up to age seven. Dr. Heather, the author of BabyShrink, is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. She's also the mother of four young children, which gives her the unique ability to respond to parents' inquiries about the social, emotional and behavioral development of your children from both clinical and practical points of view.

Posted in BabyGeek: Child Development Research, Sleep & Nap Issues Tagged with: ,
7 comments on “BabyGeek: Infant Sleep “Rules” Don’t Work
  1. katepickle says:

    I am so often bewildered by all these books and sleep training routines that seem to have totally disregarded the basic child development theory of ‘trust vs mistrust’. Advocating CIO for a young baby just seems to go against this and makes such little sense.
    Learning to go to sleep is a difficult thing, even some of us adults are still not very good at it. Getting angry or punishing a child, withdrawing your love or attention…. if someone was this mean to me as an adult when I am struggling to go to sleep it would make matters much worse!

  2. Dr. Heather says:

    Thanks Yolanda! I agree — that’s why the simplistic parenting “checklists” don’t work. Aloha!

  3. Yolanda @ One Family Table says:

    Excellent insight! I think we individually get caught up with what worked or didn’t work with our own kids, and yet each child is so unique. Sometimes we need to step back and reconnect with the big picture. Parenting rarely is black & white.

  4. Dr. Heather says:

    Hah! I’m so totally there with you, Polly! I had one baby self-potty train at 19 months, and 2 others who lingered on into 3 (or 4……) without fully mastering it. We’re somewhere in the middle with baby #4, but I’m taking it in stride. (But I did realize recently that I have been buying diapers at CostCo — WITHOUT A BREAK — since 2001!!!!!)

    Thanks for stopping by and everyone — go check out Polly’s site! She’s great!!

  5. Polly says:

    Great post on this new finding. It makes complete sense to me! I got a good laugh with your opening about how you’d tried every trick in the book and they still didn’t work for sleeping. I’ve been feeling the same way about potty training my youngest child (who is now 3 1/2). She’s FINALLY catching on after me trying to get her potty trained for more than 6 months. Someone recently asked me professionally to teach a parenting workshop on “How To Potty Train in 3 Days.” I had to decline, I was not the child psychologist for teaching that class! LOL! Thanks as always for your great advice and for keeping it real! Take care!

  6. Dr. Heather says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Yes, having success in mastering fear is important. As you might have seen in my posts, I’ve used some version of CIO myself. But it really comes down to HOW and WHEN it is implemented — too early isn’t good, and temperament is key. The research is just really interesting to me because it points out the PARENT variable that is crucial to success. So, your CIO might have worked well because you sent a supportive and confident emotional message to your child. Right?

  7. Michelle Rand says:

    I agree that it comes down to fear. I also believe that part of our jobs as parents are to teach our children how to deal with the fear, and not let it consume them. I personally was successful with the “cry it out” with my toddler, and it continues to be an example of something she can be proud of where she conquered her fear.

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  1. […] Infant Sleep “Rules” Don’t Work – The title’s a little misleading, since it’s not saying that techniques don’t do anything.¬† It’s simply saying that your attitude towards the child matters most of all (which is advice you’ll find in most sleep books). Rate this: Share and enjoy:MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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