The XX Factor

This Gothic Tale of Sleep-Training Is a Perfect Illustration of Why Parents Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Doing It

A nightmare, except everyone’s awake.

Ali Kerem Yücel/Thinkstock

Stories about the struggle to get one’s child to sleep tend to strike two chords: humor and woe. Parents mostly complain about exhaustion, laugh at the strange instructions given to them by experts this exhaustion has inspired them to consult, or both. Rarely do such tales resemble horror stories, but such was the case in an Oct. 7 New York Times essay on sleep-training, in which one mother’s bedtime peregrinations sound like they belong in a collection of Brothers Grimms’ fairy tales or stories by Edgar Allen Poe rather than in modern-day Brooklyn.

In “Our Sleep Training Nightmare,” Lisa Selin Davis describes the harrowing experience of trying to get her 7-year-old daughter to sleep through the night. “We are the family your pro-sleep-training pediatricians warn you about,” she begins, sotto voce. She then goes on to describe how her older daughter began to have trouble sleeping when she was 2. She would scream in the crib, so they moved her mattress on the floor, and would lay with her for up to two hours until her mind and body relented. That didn’t work, so they let her sleep on their bed, and then brought her mattress into their bedroom and let her sleep on their floor. “Every iteration, because she—because we—needed sleep.”

It didn’t work. The little girl had tantrums and would still take hours to fall asleep. Things weren’t better by age 3, and their doctor made two benign recommendations—they should make a book with pictures of bedtime and give her Sleepytime tea—and one that was far more severe: lock her in her room. The doctor said it had worked for her, in the course of one night. Still, they couldn’t do it.

Another year passes, another doctor is consulted: Get a huge stuffed animal, play classical music that resembles a heartbeat, and lock her in her room. Again, they couldn’t do it. A few years pass, their older daughter is still sleeping in her parents’ room, and their younger daughter, 2 and a half years old, inquires why. Again, they are back at a specialist. Again, they are told to lock her in her room. Instead, they allow both girls to sleep with them for awhile, and then they try to encourage independence by bribing them with a bunk bed and rewards of videos and sugar if they stay in it. It works until, five months later, it doesn’t, and things take a turn for the gothic.

One night her daughter “appears at the side of the bed, a living ghost, clutching her monkey lovey and staring with a haunted look on her face.” Selin Davis has finally had enough—“This is how they torture terrorists!” she blurts out one night—and she decides to, yes, lock her older daughter in her room.

I bring her inside, and the lock hisses shut. She pounds on the door. After two hours, there has been no change in the screaming, except once, when she says, Is anybody there? Did you all leave?

I would never leave you, I tell her through the closed door, going off script. Never. I love you. I just want you to sleep. This is what the doctor said to do.

She screams the entire night. She writes “I’m sorry” on scraps of paper and slips them under the door. My body feels poisoned. Could every professional be wrong? My instincts say yes, but I’ve never really been on speaking terms with my instincts.

She tries it for two more nights with the same outcome. “All night. Screaming.” (“And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?”)The resolution, mutually agreed upon by Selin Davis, the doctor, and, presumably, the child, is that locking her in won’t work. They return to their old ways, and the mother takes comfort in the not entirely logical revelation that she is “parenting the child [she wants] her to be, and not the child she is.” Children are both who they are and who we help them become.

The moral of this grim tale? Help your children establish good sleep habits before it is too late. Based upon what we’ve just learned, 7 definitely seems too late to apply techniques geared for younger children who are in a completely different developmental phase. At that point, as some suggest, the root anxiety, amplified by sleeplessness and/or never having learned to feel comfortable falling asleep on one’s own, has become the problem and must be treated—during the day.

But perhaps the deeper tension at hand here, the one that makes this more than just a farce of contemporary indulgent parenthood, is the widespread, deeply held, and insidious belief that sleep-training is cruel. Pointing this out isn’t a dig at co-sleeping families, but at the philosophical byproduct of that practice, which promotes the idea that resisting a child’s instinct (in this case to not sleep on his or her own) is somehow unnatural and therefore destructive.

Discussing the story this morning, one of my colleagues, mentioned that as a mom she could see herself having a “hard and steely heart” and allowing her child to cry it out. I spoke in similar terms when talking about getting our son to fall—and stay—asleep in his crib, when he was 3 months old. “I must be a cruel, cold mom, but I could handle the crying,” I’d explain to whomever inquired. It took two nights, maybe three. Yes, I know I am lucky, and I don’t assume I will have the same experience with child No. 2. Still, I think the previous success will inoculate me from any feelings that being OK with a crib-bound child’s crying is a sin. It’s not, and no longer will I see myself as the host of some emotional deficit because of it.

I suspect some of this resistance to helping our children sleep on their own comes from the language we use to describe it: sleep-training. We don’t eat-train, read-train, or any other basic-life-skill-train our children. Why then, when it comes to sleeping do we couch the experience in such militaristic terms? Teaching your children to sleep well, and on their own, isn’t an act of cruelty or excessive discipline; it is necessary for a well-lived life. It won’t be easy with every child, and what works for one will not necessarily work for another, but in the end it is a gift we should feel good about giving.