Family

My Exhausted Year in Instagram’s Anti–Sleep Training Rabbit Hole

I still don’t know who’s correct about “cry it out.”

An infant sleeps peacefully inside the Instagram logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

In late September, professional sleep consultant Chrissy Lawler, known by the Instagram handle the.peaceful.sleeper, livestreamed herself sleep training an infant named Charlotte. According to the posts, the baby—newly 5 months old, but born five weeks early—belonged to a longtime friend, who had taken the rest of her family to Disneyland for the weekend. In the videos, Lawler uses a version of the Ferber method: putting the baby down to cry in a crib for lengthening intervals, before returning to reassure her. Between the check-ins, the camera zooms in on the baby monitor, which shows Charlotte splayed and wailing in a crib that we’re told has been set up in Lawler’s toy closet. “24 minutes of protest night one,” went one update. “Not bad for learning a skill that will benefit her forever. Protest is uncomfortable but it is part of growth and it is worth it!”

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These stories captured the attention of the growing anti–sleep training movement active on Instagram. Even parents who didn’t necessarily have a problem with sleep training were perturbed by this episode, the details of which accumulated into something that felt villainous: a very young baby, separated from her family, crying alone in a space not her own, her anguish captured for a wide audience as a kind of advertisement. (“We can tailor a plan to you and your babe to get great sleep,” Lawler interjects midtraining, with a link to her consultations, the most intensive of which start at $499.)

When I finally watched the video, I was surprised by my own reaction. I had seen a lot of anti–sleep training videos on Instagram by then. Yet, strangely, after consuming so much content about the horrors of “cry it out,” in watching Lawler’s video I found myself more weirded out than horrified. Lawler’s peppy enthusiasm for the task was bizarre, and her use of the euphemisms protesting and sleep learning felt like clever, if spurious, rebranding. But the baby’s recorded cries, which I played on the lowest volume so as not to attract my own child’s attention, did not incite in me the same world-ending feelings of doom that his do. Of course, it was not my child, and I wasn’t there. That’s why, after all, Charlotte’s parents had let someone else do this for them (or perhaps paid her to do so).

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Right after my child was born, my Instagram feed, responding to my browsing, was overtaken by posts about baby sleep. Blond women, not unlike Lawler, doled out commands about schedules and swaddles while a mysterious, if fetching, lump dozed on my lap. This was a time of effortless newborn slumber that I would quickly come to miss. Soon, my baby was waking every couple of hours, a habit he continued for most of his first year.

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A wakeful baby is a tale as old as time, but a parent up at night with a glowing world of information at their fingertips isn’t. Once confined to child-rearing books and unsolicited remarks from relatives, sleep advice has become a lucrative business. Recently, at the Cut, Laura Hazard Owen, whose kids are a bit older, delved into the world of TikTok sleep advice. I think it’s fair to say that Owen’s piece tilts toward the pro-training side of the dial. She spoke with several authors of sleep-training manuals as well as to parents who’d sleep trained (those she quotes are well rested, happy) and those who hadn’t (tired, and sleeping in uncomfortable configurations). I’m here not to make a wholly anti-training argument—I’m still not entirely sure what I think—but rather to explain how anti-training accounts spoke to me in the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep, except for me and my baby.

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And it’s not just me. The social media scene that seemed like foreign terrain to Owen was just the water where the parents I interviewed about social media sleep advice this past summer were swimming. Like me, they were mothers in their 30s who’d had their first child in the past couple of years and were finding information on Instagram—what Owen calls “the social network for old millennials” (that’s me)—where sleep specialists (a designation that is not regulated) offer free content as a portal to paid courses, guides, and coaching services.

As with many phenomena located in the place where parenting philosophies and social media overlap, there is little middle ground: On one side are the specialists who say you must sleep train your baby or face a lifetime of sleep disturbance; on the other is the “gentle” or “holistic” camp, who argue that leaving a child to cry themselves to sleep shouldn’t be a rite of passage. As my baby grew and my own REM sleep receded into memory, I began to feel that this fight was a microcosm of American parenthood. Faced with a profound lack of social support, parents became fixated on the choices within their control, creating a rigid ideology around them. In the absence of help, sleep, or mental health, you could at least have the solace of knowing you were right.

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The ubiquity of sleep training in parenting advice for infants can make it seem as natural as cooing at a newborn, as necessary as a diaper change. “Join me in loudly singing the praises of good old cry-it-out!” went an essay on Romper, an endorsement that might seem gratuitous when CIO, in mom group parlance, and its variants are routinely recommended by pediatricians, and a recent survey found that 63 percent of American parents had tried sleep training (only 23 percent didn’t plan to). None of the Instagram accounts that oppose the practice—HeySleepyBaby is the biggest, with a following that approximates Lawler’s, but there’s also IslaGraceSleep, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Resting_in_Motherhood (formerly known as Lilahby Sleep), and Kaitlin Klimmer—have the audience of celebrity sleep trainers like Taking Cara Babies (2.2 million), but they are a growing voice in parenting circles. Rarely is a sleep question posted in a mom group these days without a commenter making a referral to HSB in reply.

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What makes wading through the sleep-training discourse challenging—besides lack of sleep itself—is that the relevant research is not terribly good. Helen Ball, director of the Durham Infancy and Sleep Centre in the U.K., received so many questions from parents and providers in search of solid info that she started a website to summarize her findings. Though she believes that the research is improving, Ball said that until the past decade, most studies looked at parental perception of babies’ sleep; this is different from studying what physiologically or neurologically happens to a baby during the night. In the sleep-training chapter of her popular book Cribsheet, for example, much-read economist and parenting writer Emily Oster cites research that suggests that “babies seem happier after sleep training than before.” But that happiness is parent-reported—a 4-month-old can’t fill out a survey—as is evidence of longer stretches of sleep. Ball noted that more recent studies that use ActiGraphs (wearable sensors, similar to Fitbits, that capture movement to suggest patterns of wakefulness) rather than parental reporting tend to show that “sleep-trained” babies don’t really “sleep better,” they just wake their parents less. This is a good illustration of how little clarity the research provides. Sleep trainers say that when parents stop responding to cries, babies put themselves back to sleep. Opponents of the practice deem this not self-soothing but the end of signaling; having learned that their cries go unanswered, babies still wake but stop reaching out. To one group, this is a feature; to the other, a bug.

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Studies have not shown that sleep training damages babies in the short or long term, and it’s unlikely a study could ever decisively prove such harm. As with research on other parenting decisions—breastfeeding, school choices, almost everything—it’s impossible to separate out the effects on children of the innumerable factors that lead parents to make certain decisions from the effects of the decisions themselves. Still, sleep-training opponents counter that the absence of evidence is not the same as the absence of harm and that the wide body of research on attachment can be extrapolated from to assume that sleep training has negative effects. I’m sympathetic to this inclination: It can feel as if, because an infant’s mental health is difficult to discern—let alone study—it is assumed not to exist or matter, and plenty of history’s cold-seeming child-rearing advice has been predicated on the idea that it doesn’t. But ultimately, I suspect that whom you choose to believe about sleep training may simply come down to which of the keywords from this debate, as they filter down to social media, strike more of a chord with you: “randomized trial” and “methodologies,” for instance, or “co-regulation” and “nurture.”

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“They’re just trying to sell you something!” is a popular refrain on the anti-training pages, which refute the idea that the wakeful baby is a problem to be solved. Of course, they also have offerings for sale: HSB, for instance, sells courses ($24–$89) and consultation packages (up to $529). (Instead of CIO, they advise on crib transfers, changing sleep associations, tweaking schedules, and sometimes co-sleeping.) But there is some truth to their claims that sleep training is a market-driven solution to a modern problem. As the scholar Cecília Tomori has written, infant sleep wasn’t mentioned in baby manuals at all until the mid-19th century. The sleep advice genre emerged as people migrated away from their families, taking on factory and office work in urban settings, and a continuous night of parental sleep became more critical. The term cry it out famously comes from an 1894 manual by Dr. L. Emmett Holt that claimed, “At five months a child should not be fed or nursed between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M.” Though some of Holt’s other advice has fallen out of favor—he also warned against kissing babies for fear of spreading disease—his claims that night feeds are detrimental past a certain age and that with each night of crying a child will learn to cry less are still basic tenets of sleep training.

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Online opponents of the practice take sleep training’s history as discrediting. A post by one of the more extreme anti-training Instagram accounts, @nurture_neuroscience_parenting, shows four white men—Drs. Holt, Spock, Ferber, and Weissbluth—with a long caption proclaiming: “The doctors pictured above founded sleep training and withholding nurture from babies.” While to advocates a child’s crying in service of sleep is like getting skinned knees while learning to ride a bike—“I can think of several things that involve 24 minutes of protest that do not permanently damage your relationship with your baby!” claimed Lawler in her Charlotte stories—the anti-training “specialists” argue that CIO is harmful to babies’ (and, secondarily, parents’) mental health. In one story, HSB said, “With what we know about attachment and the infant brain, sleep training is likely not IDEAL for most.” Others are less measured: “Teaching children doesn’t happen via fear and separation,” wrote Kaitlin Klimmer.

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New to the morass of parenting social media, I initially found such stridency appealing. It stood in contrast to the placating but unserious “do you, Mama” vibe of many momfluencers. By naming parenting decisions as ethical ones, these accounts endowed care work with meaning; rousing repeatedly to pacify a wailing baby was awful, but calling what you were doing responsiveness made it righteous. When even the AAP handouts given at well-baby visits contain sleep-training advice—instructing parents to “check on, but do not pick up the baby, if she cries at night” (though also, confusingly, to “help your baby when she needs it”)—this defiance of the mainstream felt radical. Or at least as radical as anything marketed on Instagram to desperate, sleep-deprived parents can be.

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My child slept like a baby: poorly, then worse. In his first months, we cycled through strategies and setups—bassinet, co-sleeping, crib, various routines, and an army of sleep associations—and though he sometimes “protested,” as Lawler might put it, we didn’t leave him alone to cry, a line that seemed both random and essential. My feed thrummed with contradictory strategies: Follow cues, nurse to sleep, respond, repeat. Others said to deposit the baby in his crib at appointed times “drowsy but awake”—a state I’d rarely achieved myself—and not to pick him up when he woke. For a long time, the most expedient and only reliable strategy for getting him to go to sleep was to nurse him until his eyes closed, which is what I did.

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According to the sleep trainers, this approach meant my baby would never learn to sleep. But the holistic camp assured me his wakefulness was by design, and that sleep is a biological function that can’t be taught. According to a BBC deep dive on the science of baby sleep shared widely by these accounts last winter, babies wake regularly as protection against SIDS; their frequent nursing, a necessity for newborn stomachs, also builds supply for nursing parents. Sleep varies wildly between babies and throughout the first year: One study found that at 6 months babies woke between zero and 15 times per night, and by 8 months some woke even more. But by age 2, studies show, there’s no difference between sleep-trained and non–sleep trained kids’ sleep, making this a question of short-term strategy—except that each day, let alone each year, is an eternity if you’re sleep-deprived.

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Because so many parents sleep train as early as 4 months—a time frame I suspect has as much to do with the outer limit of parental leave as with the end of the newborn phase—it can be incredibly isolating to still be up with a baby every few hours, months beyond that. One of the benefits of a discourse on infant sleep that goes beyond “cry it out,” parents I spoke with told me, is a reality check on what that sleep actually looks like: Your baby isn’t broken if they’re waking often; they’re just a baby. “I think this whole concept of ‘normalizing infant sleep’ is fairly recent,” a parent named Kara told me, “and I’m grateful to have access to these resources. I might have done the same things anyway, but I might have had more anxiety about them or guilt that I was doing something wrong.”

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Other parents told me they started out following anti–sleep training accounts, intending to take their prescribed approach, but eventually sleep trained anyway. None of them regretted it, and afterward, they could see how the anti–sleep training messaging in their feeds exacerbated their suffering. One of them, Helen, said, “I think equating ‘normal’ infant sleep with acceptable infant sleep,” as these accounts do, “is, in present day, in a country without paid leave and without affordable child care, ultimately not going to resonate with many parents.” Another parent, Kristen, saw these accounts as “preying on women when they’re most vulnerable, sleep-deprived, and unsure of themselves.” But, she said, even though she was confident in her choice, “the mom accounts f—ed with my head and made me feel bad about using ‘cry it out’ methods.”

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To these parents, baby sleep seemed fraught, maybe even political, in a way it hadn’t for their friends who, like Laura Hazard Owen, had kids earlier in the social media era and sleep trained them without much angst. But the parenting pendulum swings fast on social media. Now, “gentle” and “respectful” parenting tips dominate, and philosophies that suggest asking your pre-verbal child’s consent for each diaper change seem incompatible with leaving them to cry at night. (Interestingly, Janet Lansbury, the grande dame of “respectful parenting,” is not opposed to sleep training.) The Instagram advice industry, which rewards more decisive and provocative posts over ambiguity or indifference, has loomed large for those of us who became parents during the pandemic, consigned to Zoom parenting classes and unable to find IRL camaraderie. Social media offers something that can feel like community but is actually the monetization of agreement. No one craves validation like a new parent; it feels the same, even if it’s an algorithm ferreting out consensus to keep you scrolling.

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The intensity with which people sought sleep advice derived not only from desperation but also from a drive for “evidence-based” decision-making. Maybe we had the popularity of Emily Oster to blame for new parents moonlighting as researchers. It wasn’t enough to do what feels right, or even to do what your own parents did: Every choice must be backed by data. This quest for evidence about a topic for which the research is inconclusive often leaves parents more confused. The “gentle” accounts periodically have to assure followers that a baby fussing in their car seat while the parent drives, unable to soothe them, isn’t on par with CIO. People wonder if anything sleep trainers suggest—basics like a bedtime routine or white noise—is a harmful intervention. And both proponents and opponents of sleep training appeal to new parents’ lack of confidence. For every parent like me who despaired over the sleep-training messaging that responding to a baby’s cries would create “bad habits,” there’s a parent whose extreme worry around separation or their child’s experiencing any distress—concerns that can indicate postpartum anxiety—gets validated by the messaging of sleep-training opponents.

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I found something perturbing, and distinctly American, about staunch sleep-training advocates: their dogma of independence, aversion to empathizing with the helpless (no eye contact with newborns at bedtime!), the equating of crying with manipulation and extending care with overindulgence. But the anti–sleep training accounts seemed to embody the other extreme: the expectation of self-sacrifice in a system of paltry support, the spinning of your suffering into some saccharine story (they won’t be babies forever!), a belief in the supremacy of the baby’s well-being over that of the caretaker, usually a mother, that failed to acknowledge the sheer interdependence of early parenting. Did this really help people get any rest?

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Babies may be designed to wake frequently, but adults are not, and after six months of sleep deprivation, I’d begun to fantasize about walking through our apartment’s giant windows. I’d once enjoyed the light that streamed in, but now it only marked the arrival of another thankless day. What was a day when you never slept more than three hours at a stretch? Maternal mental health is often cited as a reason to sleep train, and surely mine was suffering. Yet I found myself, despite my depletion, increasingly disgruntled by the sleep advice I could locate.

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While the holistic accounts have a progressive posture, in reality what they propose—keeping babies near, following rhythms, not schedules—is traditional, the norm for most of human history. Yet this glorification of the past didn’t sit right with me. A post by Resting_in_Motherhood evoked old images of mothers carrying sleeping babies on their backs while they worked, with the text: “Mothers of the past (and many mothers today all over the world) didn’t stress about the perfect nap.” This may be true, but in most other ways, I would prefer to be a mother with 21st-century amenities. Though this global mother was often alluded to in the anti-training accounts I followed—independent baby sleep is not the norm worldwide—these accounts are run primarily by, and presumably for, Westerners, and they trend white.

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Kara, who appreciated these accounts, told me she nonetheless thought a lot about what she called the “unbearable whiteness” of the anti-training movement, which reminded her of “other things, like baby-led weaning” (the practice of feeding babies small amounts of adult food, rather than specialized purees) or “drinking while breastfeeding, that get considered lazy, neglectful, passive, indulgent, or selfish when anyone other than rich white women do it.” But another interviewee, Helen, found these accounts’ appeal to the “traditional” unpersuasive: “I think it’s OK that in America we’ve adapted parenting styles that suit our cultural context,” she said.

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Not to mention that all the “normalizing” in the world didn’t seem to dispel parents’ fixation with their child’s sleep, linked as it was to their own sleep deprivation. The HSB Facebook group was awash in posts from people seeking, through iron testing, floor beds, and the right wake windows, to crack the code of sleep without resorting to CIO. These accounts’ oft-used term biologically normal, to describe how infants sleep without intervention, was off-putting to me. Vulnerability to disease and injury is also normal in babies, but most of us correct for that by vaccinating and using car seats. The sweeping inferences about attachment sometimes felt like a boogeyman, and the anxiety over avoiding harm produced philosophical inconsistencies among the anti-trainers: HSB had an entire guide on transferring your sleeping infant to a crib, but Sarah Ockwell-Smith suggested that such maneuvers were “unsettling.”

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As my parental confidence grew, I began to suspect I’d gravitated to these accounts not because I found their evidence superior but simply because they affirmed an instinct I already had, which was quite personal: The period during which we might be able to meet all of our child’s needs was terribly short; why cut it shorter? My husband and I both had early memories—positive ones, for us—of retreating to our parents’ beds. On a level I wanted to think was ethical but may have been straightforwardly emotional, we weren’t convinced our availability should end at bedtime. Although we pretended to wrestle with the choice—I was not the kind of beneficent mother who “soaked up the snuggles” and assured myself this was just “a season”—I see now that my ambivalence precluded sleep training, which to be effective requires a consistency predicated on the conviction that it’s correct.

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At around 10 months, more exhausted than ever, we moved our baby to his own room, and he immediately began sleeping for longer stretches, sometimes through the night. (When he was born, the AAP recommended room sharing until 12 months; this advice was recently revised down to 6.) Knowing he could do this, even when he didn’t, put to rest our lingering anxiety about our choices. The antis were right: You didn’t need to “teach” a baby to sleep! But it was also true that my first year of motherhood had been irrevocably marked by an exhaustion that sometimes bled into suicidal ideation.

Helen had told me that prior to trying Ferber, she’d agonized about the idea of following a sleep trainer’s advice, until she registered that the anti–sleep trainers were also strangers telling her what to do with her baby. I’d had a similar revelation. Maybe this was a moment all new parents had: the realization that, whatever edicts issued from your screen or doctor or friends, you were the closest thing to an expert on your child that there was going to be.

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A couple of weeks before baby Charlotte was made Instagram infamous, the anti–sleep training camp scored a major public relations win. Author and doctor Gabor Maté went on Joe Rogan’s extremely popular podcast and, in the opening minutes of a lengthy interview, decried CIO. The topic of the conversation, and of Maté’s newest book, was the sources of toxicity in our culture, one of which Maté identifies as our child-rearing mores. “We actually tell parents not to pick up the kids when they’re crying,” he said, which “has an impact on the child’s trust in the world, sense of safety, sense of belonging, and how they feel about themselves.”

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Maté doesn’t use the term sleep training in the interview, but he does talk about Ferber in a blog post from 2017 in which he said he regretted using the method on his own children and recommending it as a family physician. He had come to believe, through reading “neuropsychological research” (he doesn’t cite specific work), that the practice was harmful, and that just because a young baby wouldn’t have “narrative memories” of being sleep trained didn’t mean the experience wouldn’t imprint on them. “The implicit message an infant receives from having her cries ignored is that the world—as represented by her caregivers—is indifferent to her feelings,” he wrote.

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If the gentle camp, with the help of people like Maté, gets its way, it may succeed in positioning sleep training as something like spanking: a parenting practice, once ubiquitous, that time, research, and changing sentiment eventually made unfashionable (which is not the same thing as a practice’s being eradicated). The histories of child rearing and pediatrics are indeed full of practices later widely understood to have been ineffective or even harmful. Holt, the grandfather of sleep training, also advised against feeding salads to anyone under age 10. The effects of sleep training are harder to study than those of disciplinary tactics, and whereas practicing gentle discipline instead of spanking shouldn’t significantly negatively impact parents beyond requiring a mental paradigm shift and different strategies for handling problems, the sleep deprivation you may face by eschewing training makes a serious mark. And even if sleep training is, as some suggest, an unfortunate byproduct of capitalism, a world in which parents have adequate support to survive prolonged sleep deprivation doesn’t appear in sight.

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It might be true that CIO is no big deal, as Lawler suggests; it may also be true that one day we’ll learn that the body does, in fact, “keep the score” in the way Maté describes. Very plausibly, this depends on the baby, its caregivers, and the particular circumstances of each family unit, particularities for which blanket advice makes little allowance. Recently, some holistic sleep accounts have allowed that sleep training is OK in “extreme circumstances.” What exactly those circumstances are—would my old fantasy of walking through the windows, while I was still ultimately able to care for my child, qualify?—isn’t specified, creating more questions than answers. You can find this kind of lack of clarity across the sleep advice landscape: see, on the other “side,” the perplexed questions in mom groups from parents whose sleep-trained infants have become sleep-resistant toddlers.

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The parents I talked to who opted not to sleep train were not the fringe crunchies of TikTok who believe that cribs are prisons; they were interested in gentle parenting and how the small and large ways we regard our children when they’re little might have an effect on the people they become. This was a worldview shared by the parents I talked to who sleep trained, for whom better nights allowed them to be better parents by day.

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My child is now teetering into toddlerhood, at an age and level of cognition when leaving him to cry at night seems genuinely cruel, not to mention pointless. He sometimes sleeps great, and at other times our nights are derailed by teething, illness, or the vagaries of a rapidly developing brain. I despair for sleep when it’s scarce, of course, but as my child is more visibly his own person, my anxiety about my role in creating whomever he becomes recedes a little. Instead of seeking perfect, data-backed, harm-proof choices at every step, I endeavor to remember that try as we might, most people do not remain eternally unscathed. My own mother, of whom I have only glowing childhood memories, was by all accounts responsive, bed-shared for years, and nursed me forever, yet I nonetheless became an adult with a vast profile of neuroses. If it’s not your handling of sleep that messes up your kid, it’ll be something else. These days, it’s that, more than anything else, that helps me sleep.

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