This article was originally published March 28, 1997.
Slate turns 10 this week, and we're publishing The Best of Slate: A Tenth Anniversary Anthology.In celebration of the book and the anniversary, we're publishing (or, rather, re-publishing) a selection of pieces from the anthology, including this article. You can see a list of all the republished pieces, as well as everything else we are publishing in honor of the anniversary, here.
Every night thousands of parents, following standard child-care advice, engage in a bloodcurdling ritual. They put their several-months-old infant in a crib, leave the room, and studiously ignore its crying. The crying may go on for 20 or 30 minutes before a parent is allowed to return. The baby may then be patted but not picked up, and the parent must quickly leave, after which the crying typically resumes. Eventually sleep comes, but the ritual recurs when the child awakes during the night. The same thing happens the next night, except that the parent must wait five minutes longer before the designated patting. This goes on for a week, two weeks, maybe even a month. If all goes well, the day finally arrives when the child can fall asleep without fuss and go the whole night without being fed. For Mommy and Daddy, it's Miller time.
This is known as "Ferberizing" a child, after Richard Ferber, America's best-known expert on infant sleep. Many parents find his prescribed boot camp for babies agonizing, but they persist because they've been assured it's harmless. Ferber depicts the ritual as the child's natural progress toward nocturnal self-reliance. What sounds to the untrained ear like a baby wailing in desperate protest of abandonment is described by Ferber as a child "learning the new associations."
At this point I should own up to my bias: My wife and I are failed Ferberizers. When our first daughter proved capable of crying for 45 minutes without reloading, we gave up and let her sleep in our bed. When our second daughter showed up three years later, we didn't even bother to set up the crib. She wasn't too vocal and seemed a better candidate for Ferberization, but we'd found we liked sleeping with a baby.
How did we have the hubris to defy the mainstream of current child-care wisdom? That brings me to my second bias (hauntingly familiar to regular readers): Darwinism. For our species, the natural nighttime arrangement is for kids to sleep alongside their mothers for the first few years. At least, that's the norm in hunter-gatherer societies, the closest things we have to a model of the social environment in which humans evolved. Mothers nurse their children to sleep and then nurse on demand through the night. Sounds taxing, but it's not. When the baby cries, the mother starts nursing reflexively, often without really waking up. If she does reach consciousness, she soon fades back to sleep with the child. And the father, as I can personally attest, never leaves Z-town.
So Ferberization, I submit, is unnatural. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. The technique may well be harmless (though maybe not, as we'll see below). I don't begrudge Ferber the right to preach Ferberization or parents who prefer sleeping sans child the right to practice it. Live and let live. What's annoying is the refusal of Ferber and other experts to reciprocate my magnanimity. They act as if parents like me are derelict, as if children need to fall asleep in a room alone. "Even if you and your child seem happy about his sharing your bed at night," writes Ferber, "and even if he seems to sleep well there, in the long run this habit will probably not be good for either of you." On television I've seen a father sheepishly admit to famous child-care guru T. Berry Brazelton that he likes sleeping with his toddler. You'd think the poor man had committed incest.
Why, exactly, is it bad to sleep with your kids? Learning to sleep alone, says Ferber, lets your child "see himself as an independent individual." I'm puzzled. It isn't obvious to me how a baby would develop a robust sense of autonomy while being confined to a small cubicle with bars on the side and rendered powerless to influence its environment. (Nor is it obvious these days, when many kids spend 40 hours a week in day care, that they need extra autonomy training.) I'd be willing to look at the evidence behind this claim, but there isn't any. Comparing Ferberized with non-Ferberized kids as they grow up would tell us nothing--Ferberizing and non-Ferberizing parents no doubt tend to have broadly different approaches to child-rearing, and they probably have different cultural milieus. We can't control our variables.
Lacking data, people like Ferber and Brazelton make creative assertions about what's going on inside the child's head. Ferber says that if you let a toddler sleep between you and your spouse, "in a sense separating the two of you, he may feel too powerful and become worried." Well, he may, I guess. Or he may just feel cozy. Hard to say (though they certainly look cozy). Brazelton tells us that when a child wakes up at night and you refuse to retrieve her from the crib, "she won't like it, but she'll understand." Oh.
According to Ferber, the trouble with letting a child who fears sleeping alone into your bed is that "you are not really solving the problem. There must be a reason why he is so fearful." Yes, there must. Here's one candidate. Maybe your child's brain was designed by natural selection over millions of years during which mothers slept with their babies. Maybe back then if babies found themselves completely alone at night it often meant something horrific had happened--the mother had been eaten by a beast, say. Maybe the young brain is designed to respond to this situation by screaming frantically so that any relatives within earshot will discover the child. Maybe, in short, the reason that kids left alone sound terrified is that kids left alone naturally get terrified. Just a theory.
Afew weeks of nightly terror presumably won't scar a child for life. Humans are resilient, by design. If Ferber's gospel harms kids, it's more likely doing so via a second route: the denial of mother's milk to the child at night. Breast milk, researchers are finding, is a kind of "external placenta," loaded with hormones masterfully engineered to assist development. One study found that it boosts IQ.
Presumably most breast-feeding benefits can be delivered via daytime nursing. Still, we certainly don't know that an 11-hour nightly gap in the feeding schedule isn't doing harm. And we do know that such a gap isn't part of nature's plan for a five-month-old child--at least, to judge by hunter-gatherer societies. Or to judge by the milk itself: It is thin and watery--typical of species that nurse frequently. Or to judge by the mothers: Failing to nurse at night can lead to painful engorgement or even breast infection. Meanwhile, as all available evidence suggests that nighttime feeding is natural, Ferber asserts the opposite. If after three months of age your baby wakes at night and wants to be fed, "she is developing a sleep problem."
I don't generally complain about oppressive patriarchal social structures, but Ferberism is a good example of one. As "family bed" boosters have noted, male physicians, who have no idea what motherhood is like, have cowed women for decades into doing unnatural and destructive things. For a while doctors said mothers shouldn't feed more than once every four hours. Now they admit they were wrong. For a while they pushed bottle feeding. Now they admit this was wrong. For a while they told pregnant women to keep weight gains minimal (and some women did so by smoking more cigarettes!). Wrong again. Now they're telling mothers to deny food to infants all night long once the kids are a few months old.
There are signs that yet another well-advised retreat is underway. Though Ferber hasn't put out the white flag, Brazelton is sounding less and less dismissive of parents who sleep with their kids. (Not surprisingly, the least dismissive big-name child-care expert is a woman, Penelope Leach.) Better late than never. But in child care, as in the behavioral sciences generally, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and trouble by recognizing at the outset that people are animals, and pondering the implications of that fact.