250 Years of Advice for Getting Your Baby to Sleep

You’d think after 250 years of obsessing over the subject of getting babies to sleep we would have it figured out by now.

When my oldest son was a newborn, I quickly realized how ill-prepared I was for the realities of sleep deprivation. The first few months of his life I was mentally and physically exhausted, attending to multiple night wakings which often required a couple of hours of rocking or singing before he would go back to sleep. He would then be up for the day at 5 a.m., at which point my husband would take over.  My son seemed wired to be more active and need less sleep than other babies, and, much to my chagrin, his night wakings continued well into his third year, at which point we had another newborn to deal with.

My mom, who came to help out when both babies were newborns, offered her take. “You need to put that baby on a schedule,” she said, as I nursed him for the second time in two hours. “Mom, it’s not like how it was when I was a baby,” I snapped blearily, opening my well-thumbed copy of Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book. “We aren’t going to let him cry it out.”

Was I doing it wrong? Were our assumptions about how to get our kids to sleep–and how much sleep we were entitled to, as their parents–the products of new scientific knowledge, or simply of an ever-more-demanding “parenting” culture? Now that my kids are older and I’m past the trauma of years of sleepless nights, I’m able to revisit these tenderest of questions. What better place to start than a review of 250 years’ worth of advice for getting your baby to sleep?

The first parenting guides were written by physicians and took a decidedly medical approach toward the advice they offered. Infant mortality was high, and the quality of a baby’s sleep was thought to correlate to health and life outcomes. William Cadogan’s 1749 An Essay on the Management of Children from their Birth to Three Years of Age urged mothers to take control from the moment of birth:

“By Night I would not have them fed or suckled at all, that they might at least be hungry in the Morning. It is this Night-feeding that makes them so over-fat and bloated. If they be not used to it at first, and perhaps awaked on purpose, they will never seek it; and if they are not disturbed from the Birth, in a Week’s time they will get into a habit of sleeping all, or most part of the Night very quietly; awaking possibly once or twice for a few Minutes, when they are wet and ought to be changed.”

In The Physicial Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife and Mother, written in 1878, Dr. George H Napheys shared this dire warning about the dangers of co-sleeping:

“A foolish mother sometimes goes to sleep while allowing her child to continue sucking. The unconscious babe, after a tune, looses the nipple, and buries his head in the bed-clothes. She awakes in the morning, finding, to her horror, a corpse by her side, with his nose flattened, and a frothy fluid, tinged with, blood, exuding from his lips. A mother ought, therefore, never to go to sleep until her child have finished sucking.”

And Pye Henry Chavasse wrote this poetic prediction about the unhappy lifelong consequences of not letting a baby sleep alone in Advice to a Mother on the Management of her Children (1878):

“If, whilst in cradled rest your infant sleeps.
Your watchful eyes unceasing vigil keeps
Lest cramping bonds his pliant limbs constrain,
And cause defects that manhood may retain.”

But what about the practical issue of babies crying at night? Luther Emmett Holt, the pediatrician who first promoted the concept of “crying it out” in his 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses  simply advised mothers to use a knitted band to protect the infant’s abdominal organs during extended crying sessions. In answer to the question “What should be done if the infant cries at night….Is it likely that rupture will be caused from crying?” Holt writes, “Not in young infants if the abdominal band is properly applied…It should simply be allowed to ‘cry it out’ This often requires an hour, and in extreme cases, two or three hours.”

By the early 20th century, families were living further away from each other, and moms began to turn to books and magazines for support. A primary directive of parenting advice at this time was to avoid spoiling a child, especially by any sort of interference in their sleep. Sleep was increasingly being described as a key parental battleground, and it was up to the mother to triumph over the baby hellbent on winning. William and Lena Sadler’s 1916 book “The Mother and Her Child,” is emblematic of advice from that era:

“We have seen so many beautiful babies go to sleep by themselves without any patting, dangling, or rocking, that we encourage and urge every mother to begin right, for if the little one never knows anything about rocking and pattings he will never miss them; and even if the baby is spoiled through extra attention which sickness often makes necessary, then at the first observance of the tendency on the part of the child to insist on the rocking, or the presence of a light in the sleeping-room, or the craving for a pacifier, we most strongly urge the mothers to stick to the heroic work ofletting him cry it out.

Parenting guides of this era were highly influenced by the Efficiency Movement, whose intention was to identify and do away with wasteful practices, and whose values extended into the parenting realm. As a result, mothers were encouraged to create rigid timetables for feeding and sleeping from the moment of birth.

“Plan a clock for baby,” instructed Helen Kinne and Anna M. Cooley in their 1917 textbook for homemakers, The Home and the Family. “He will grow and have better systematic care. This might be his clock, or schedule, for the first six months, after he is a few days old…A physician should recommend the schedule.”

Ignore the advice of these experts at your child’s own peril. If you disturb baby’s sleep, you are “laying the foundation for future nervousness, neurasthenia, and possibly hysteria,” wrote the Sadlers. Put him to sleep past six and “he will, before his time, become old, and the seeds of disease will be sown,” warned Chavasse. Sleep advice even extended into the appropriate type of light a baby should have in it’s room. In 1804, William Buchan shared these alarming warnings: “Care should be taken not to expose infants in bed to an oblique light, or they will become squint eyed. If the light come upon them from one side, their eyes will take that direction, and thus they will get the habit of looking crossways.”

Rigid approaches to parenting persisted until the arrival of Dr. Spock’s “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” which was first published in a more relaxed post-World War II America, and which for 52 years was only outsold by the Bible. Although Dr. Spock promoted a more responsive relationship between mother and child, urging mothers to follow their intuition, his advice concerning sleep was fairly standard: “put the baby to bed at a reasonable hour, say good night affectionately but firmly, walk out of the room, and don’t go back.  Most babies who have developed this pattern cry furiously for 20 or 30 minutes the first night, and then when they see that nothing happens, they suddenly fall asleep! The second night the crying is apt to last only 10 minutes. The third night there usually isn’t any at all.”   

In 1986, Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems ushered in a new era of sleep training for a growing population of households with two working parents by systematizing the “cry-it-out” method, which promoted a technique of allowing babies to cry in lengthening intervals before intervening.

By the time I had my kids, attachment parenting à la Dr. Sears-style had grown in popularity and was being touted as the best way to bond with your child. Sleep, attachment parenting-style, meant sharing a bed with your baby and nursing on-demand through the night, sometimes for years.

Today, “sleep training” has become a cottage industry consisting of books, blogs, homeopathic remedies and even sleep consultants offering conflicting advice. Science plays a role now, as it purportedly did two hundred years ago, in much of the new advice related to sleep. Some sleep scientists are particularly interested in examing the role that cortisol, the stress hormone, plays when an infant is left to cry itself to sleep. Does an infant experience trauma because they associate a parent leaving its bedside with abandonment? Are the long-term health effects of poor sleep worth the potential risks associated with having a baby cry itself to sleep? The arrival of each new book is a talisman for parents, offering its own cozy promise of a baby, freshly bathed, massaged, read and sung to, sleeping peacefully through the night.

Here’s what happened to me. As new parents, my husband and I found ourselves unable to follow the attachment parenting methodology of sleep without going completely insane. With our oldest son, we ineffectively cobbled together advice from different places, becoming bewildered and exhausted travelers looking for a mythical land of sleep. In the end, all the sleep advice in the world seemed to boil down to two simple options: you let your baby cry, whether in intervals or not; or you soothe it to sleep. By the time our second son was six months old, we had had it. We decided to follow the advice of all those rigid parenting guides of yore: we let our baby cry.

Within two days, he was sleeping through the night. I guess I should have listened to my mom, after all.