In the spring of 2014, I paid a woman $200 for permission to let my eight-month-old son cry himself to sleep. Technically, what she did was (1) spend an hour drawing up a “sleep evaluation” based on a “walk-through audit” of my apartment and (2) have a brief chat with my husband and me. Those were nice touches, and they reassured us that she was giving us sound and thoughtful advice based on our particular flavor of dysfunctional exhaustion. But a few days later, as we began sleep training our son, and as the cloud of exhaustion began lifting from my eyes, I realized what had really happened. Her advice had been elaborate and carefully worded, but it boiled down to this: Leave the room. Go get some sleep. Let him cry. It will be fine. I wasn’t mad at her about this, but grateful. I respected her hustle. It was one of the better two hundreds I’ve ever spent.
This woman had billed herself as a “sleep specialist,” and we’d found her online at the recommendation of a friend. Sleep specialists ply their trade in every major city, and if you’re not within driving distance, many of them offer phone, text and online consultations for a fee. On top of our consultation, I paid a little extra to be able to text this woman at 3 a.m. for moral support: “He’s been crying for 20 minutes! Is this OK???” (She would of course say yes.)
Today, I struggle to believe that I was neurotic enough to pay for that add-on (I am very cheap), but severe sleep deprivation is a transformative kind of mind-fuck. And maybe it’s an experience that fewer parents will subject themselves to, thanks to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. The study indicates that infants whose parents “sleep trained” them with the “graduated extinction” method (basically, letting them cry it out) did not exhibit higher stress indicators or behavioural changes than infants who were soothed during their night-wakings.
This study contradicts what many outspoken opponents to “cry-it-out” claim: that letting babies cry themselves to sleep can lead to the production of damaging levels of the stress hormone cortisol, potentially causing lingering emotional problems or, in extreme cases, neurological damage. There have been a handful of studies to support this view, and as a parent, it’s hard to ignore evidence, however thin, that suggests you might be hurting your kid.
It’s in this fertile crescent of contradictory information, debilitating exhaustion and relationship-crippling stress that the “sleep specialist” industry has flourished. And it wasn’t always this complicated, which I’m sure comes as a huge shock. In 1914, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Children’s Services published Infant Care, the first baby-care book ever produced for American audiences. Infant Care recommends that, once a baby is six months old, it should sleep 12 hours without interruption, “save possibly for one evening feeding.” A mother should “assure herself that everything essential to [the baby’s] comfort has been attended to,” but that, “if he is a perfectly healthy baby, she should not go to him when he cries.”
Evidence suggests that until about 30 years ago, most American babies cried it out. In 1974, Jean Liedloff published The Continuum Concept, a (pretty essentialist!) anthropological study of the child-rearing practices of the Ye’kuana people in Venezuela, in which she advocated for some of the parenting approaches—co-sleeping, baby-wearing, extended breastfeeding—that have become associated with “attachment parenting.” In 1985, American pediatrician William Sears began writing about attachment parenting as a theory, which has had an enormous influence on North American parenting, and to which we owe a hearty “thanks a lot, asshole” for getting the bandwagon rolling on the idea that nothing but constant effort and vigilance can keep us from constantly traumatizing our babies.
Sears’ work coincided neatly with a significant wave of mothers working outside the home, making the 1980s the first time in history when some women were expected to both go to work and wake up five times a night to sing to their babies. For generations, American mothers had been advised to let their babies learn to self-soothe by crying themselves to sleep, but suddenly, this was considered not only unhealthy but immoral. The shift in women’s identities that went along with joining the workforce brought yet another rich zone of maternal self-doubt, and attachment parenting was right there with some zesty data to make you feel extra shitty about all the time you spent away from your kids.
Three decades later, I landed squarely into that zone of best intentions, limited energetic resources, and underlying guilt. I’m still not exactly sure why I couldn’t bring myself to sleep train my second son without paying for permission. My older son cried it out at six months and was sleeping through the night within a week. (I should add that I, like many people, consider waking up once at night to deal with your kid basically “sleeping through the night,” and actually sleeping through the night is, in my mind, like having a very low-key, manageable, seven-hour orgasm. These days I’ll wake up from an uninterrupted night of sleep and be like, “Whoa. WHOA.”)
It was something about my second son’s temperament—or some temperamental mirage that I perceived in my haze, I’ll never know for sure—that made me believe he should be treated differently. I was up many times a night with him. For six months, every day started at 4 a.m. My husband was working and I was on maternity leave (and breastfeeding constantly, oh shit waddup), so the whole “take shifts!” bit of chirpy bullshit did not work for us.
But with the sleep specialist’s blessing, we closed the door and let the little guy cry. He did end up protesting at great length, which made us lie in bed fighting about whether or not to go get him. I cried, too. I desperately wanted to soothe him, and I desperately needed to sleep. I thought of what a friend who never sleep-trained her kids had told me once: that ignoring your instinct to go pick up your baby when he cries it is to participate in a mechanized and cold-hearted world. You’re a mother, she’d said. Let yourself be one.
But waking up with my son at night wasn’t making me a better mother. It was making it harder for me to show affection to my kids during daylight hours, because I was so dragged out and self-pitying. I needed to find a way out of the hellhole that we had dug together, and given the mixed messages I was receiving about what’s good and bad for babies, I couldn’t seem to do it alone. It’s a relief to be given permission, whether by Pediatrics or by a stranger you’ve just paid $200 to do so, even if you wish you hadn’t needed it to begin with.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton lives in Montreal with her husband and two sons. She’s 33, her kids are 2 and 5, and she’ll be contributing a semi-regular parenting column called Hey Ma here on Jezebel.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona