Advice books are a tough sell these days, so it may seem especially risky — if not altogether reckless — to promote one as a decidedly “non-advice” book. But that’s just what the coauthors of “The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource For Your Child’s First Four Years” are doing; and, as it turns out, they may be onto something big in rejecting the “Do This, Not That!” approach that is a staple of the advice book category. If all the positive reviews on Amazon and Barnes & Noble are any indication, readers are already embracing the book for its flexible, non-preachy and empowering core message: “that there is no one right parenting decision among the many that must be made,” according to co-author, mother, biologist and science journalist Emily Willingham.
“This is a resource, not a guidebook,” echoes her writing partner, Tara Haelle, a mother and veteran science journalist. “Experiences vary so much that to try and write an advice book for millions of readers seems ineffectual and presumptuous. It’s simply a book of information.”
Fortunately for parents everywhere, the information the duo provides is backed by a wealth of complex scientific research that addresses the promise of the book’s straightforward title. Much of what is presented overturns the many long-standing myths that well-meaning family members routinely foist on newbie parents. Much more of it dispels what currently passes for fact on the Internet.
“Learning about the science of a particular issue is only one element that can and should factor into the decisions parents and families make,” notes Haelle. “But there will be a wide range of other factors that are also important given a family’s history, faith, culture and personal needs.”
Among the most important of these inevitable parental decisions that the book addresses — and that is relevant to this site — centers on sleep and sleep training. Just how much sleep can the parents of newborns anticipate getting? And how much can they reasonably expect from an infant as it develops?
Here’s what the authors had to say about navigating a difficult child-rearing period that they readily concede is “one of the toughest,” particularly for first timers.
So why is sleep training an infant such a difficult issue? Why don’t newborns exit the womb knowing how to sleep like older children and adults do?
Haelle: In general, it comes down to the development of a circadian rhythm, which is regulated by different hormones and helps us tell the difference between night and day. One of the most important of these hormone regulators is melatonin, and melatonin takes it cues from light. When you’re in the womb there is no light, no environmental queue to induce a fetus to be awake or asleep. Once it’s in the world, melatonin becomes an influencer, but it takes time for an infant’s levels to adjust and normalize.
In the womb, the fetus doesn’t really have a set sleep pattern beyond the mother’s. Often it’s the opposite of hers; because, the fetus may be more soothed and sleepy when the mother is moving around than at times when she is inactive. It varies, but the bottom line is that melatonin, which plays a major role in our circadian rhythm, takes time to adjust to light stimulus.
How much can parents influence and help the development of this circadian rhythm in their infants?
Willingham: I think some of what can be done to facilitate that from a “nurture” point of view is to have the entire family participate in a schedule. Some of what has to do with relaxing and drowsiness before sleep has to do with a nightly practice that signals we are now winding things down. This doesn’t have to be so rigid or elaborate. It’s just about toning down the visual and auditory stimuli. I think you can begin as soon as possible but while guarding yourself against unrealistic expectations. What most people experience as the weeks go by is that things take on a kind of schedule. People need to be careful about rigidity and communicating rigidity to their children, which can be counterproductive.
Haelle: Everything has to be looked at from the perspective of development. As human beings, we are always developing — especially at that younger stage. One way to think about that is by comparing it to walking. Humans are hominids that walk, but the pace at which we do so varies dramatically. Some children walk a year or so before others. The development of a child’s circadian rhythm is no different in that it doesn’t occur at the same point for every child.
You describe the period following a newborn’s introduction into the home as a “deep, dizzying fatigue” that can create all kinds of anxieties and emotional breakdowns. What is the root of all that?
Willingham: We have an unrealistic expectation that an infant will sleep through the night sooner than any infant mammal will generally do through the night on average. When we can’t get them to do that, we feel a sense of our first parental failures. And I think it’s incredibly important for people to do their best to relax and go with the flow — especially in the first weeks where the parents and infant are in an adjustment process — and to take things as they come without trying to force a sleep situation.
Haelle: It’s important to note that human beings, as primates, did not sleep through the night before the invention of artificial light. We actually slept in two or three parts, and there was something called “second night.” We’d go to bed when the sun set, and then, at about one or two in the morning, we’d be up for a couple of hours. Then we’d go back to sleep before waking up again a little after daylight. In a sense, our babies are actually doing what humans had been doing for millennia at the same time we’re try to get them used to an artificial structure. It might help parents to think if it in those terms.
You also describe the period following a newborn’s introduction into the home as a “robust decline in marital satisfaction across the traditional period of parenthood.” Does science show that decline as a factor of biology?
Willingham: No, I don’t see that as something that’s inevitable or driven biologically. There are a lot of sociocultural factors that go into whether there is tension around that relationship — everything from the fact that, traditionally, the father has to leave the house to the fact that we no longer live in multigenerational villages that can provide the kind of support that frees a mother up and encourages her to engage in other relationships.
It was surprising to learn that, contrary to popular belief, it is the father (within a traditional family structure) who gets less sleep. Why is that the case?
Willingham: Yes, the parent who spends most of the night with the infant probably feels they’re the ones experiencing less sleep. But if there is the typical situation where the mother stays home and the father goes to work all day (that’s not everyone’s situation), then, theoretically, the mother will have a better chance to get a little more sleep while the infant naps, whereas the father has to commute to work, be awake throughout the workday and doesn’t have the opportunities for down time. Ultimately, the research shows that over a 24-hour period, on average, mothers will get a little more sleep than fathers.
Much of the chapter on sleep is focused on the issue of bed sharing, which many parents practice despite the risks associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or suffocation as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Your take was that it depends on the family situation as a whole, correct?
Haelle: The bed-sharing question is a very fraught issue because there are risks as it is, but there can be additional risks (not accounted for). For instance, if it means that a parent is not going to get adequate sleep and then that sleep deprivation becomes detriment to the parent and/or child’s safety.
What’s most important to realize is that there are risks and benefits to every decision we make, and the way that they get translated into what works best for our family is going to depend on the circumstances. There will be people who are not happy with our discussion with that because it doesn’t tow the party line in terms of what the AAP recommends, although it is very much in line with other agencies and public health authorities. It’s challenging for pediatricians to come up with a broad public message for the population that accounts for the diversity within that population. What parents need to know is that if they are going to bed share, there may be an increased risk of suffocation or SIDS. But there are protective and risk factors on either side of the decision.
Speaking of SIDS. You present the statistics that shows it is exceeding rare (2,300 cases each year in US). Does that mean our fears are overblown?
Haelle: It’s not my place to dictate what parents should and shouldn’t worry about, but it’s worth knowing that the absolute risk of their child dying of SIDS is very low. That doesn’t mean it’s not a terrifying possibility parents aren’t going to occupy themselves with. SIDS is still a concern because we don’t know how to prevent it, and because it is still one of the leading causes of infant mortality. It’s good to know that there are a number of things that parents can do to reduce the risk of SIDS, but they can do all of those things and the child can still die of SIDS. It’s not their fault that they didn’t do enough.
What’s the dividing line between holding back from comforting a crying child so it learns to self-sooth versus letting it “cry it out.” What’s the difference?
Willingham: A lot of that depends on the child. I think it helps if you time what you’re doing so that you put them down when they are in this nice, drowsy settling-in state. And if you get lucky during those periods where they start to get aroused but can get back to that drowsy state, they will start to pick up on resetting themselves. But each time the child cries, you have decisions to make: How long is this crying going to go on? How significant is it? Will they do it for a couple of minutes and then just go to sleep or go on for a long time? So there are a lot of variables that go into the continuum that spans from a child who is sleepy and can self soothe all the way up to a child who is pretty frantic at being left alone. The takeaway message is you have to try to learn how to read your child and to understand when you cross a kind of line of diminishing returns.
If you had to select only one piece of critical advice for parents to takeaway from this book, what would it be?
Haelle: I think it’s that every single child is different — that’s the most important thing. What parents are prone to doing, whether they want to or not, is comparing their child to other children. Often it’s not even the parents seeking out the comparisons; it’s the family and people around them saying, “When your father was that age…” or “When you’re sister was that age…” Everyone has a personal experience to relate and an opinion to share. I think it’s important to realize that all children are different, and to the extent that there are patterns, they are really only simple ones, and you can’t generalize.
Willingham: I think it’s important to remember that an infant will definitely establish a pattern and that this potentially difficult sleep-training period does end. It doesn’t last forever, and it gets better.