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Sleep training: Life preserver for parents or "symptom of capitalism"?

Todd Warnock
Getty Images

Well, I'm back. After a lengthy parental leave, when publication of the Planet Money newsletter decreased in frequency, I'm now working full-time and the newsletter will go back to being published weekly.

As always, I will continue to do my best to provide you with insights from the field of economics and keep you informed about what's going on in the economy. And, don't worry, this newsletter is not about to become all about babies. This week, however, it is. Now that I'm a working parent, I want to take just one brief moment to complain on behalf of all of us. Like millions of parents before me, I've discovered it's hard to be productive when you're sleep deprived.

There's a ginormous mountain of studies that find that sleep deprivation is a serious drag on productivity. One recent study by economists Joan Costa-i-Font, Sarah Fleche, and Ricardo Pagan estimates that each additional hour of sleep per week increases the probability that a person is employed by 1.6 percentage points and increases a person's weekly earnings by 3.4%.

Another study by economists Pedro Bessone and colleagues finds that it's not necessarily just the quantity of sleep hours that matters for productivity, it's also the quality of sleep. This checks out, personally.

The Modern Dilemma of Juggling Career and Kids

In some ways, the problem of sleep deprivation hurting productivity at work is a contemporary one. More than ever before, families have two parents who work outside the home. Historically, many women stayed at home and bore the brunt of baby-induced sleep deprivation. Today, more often than not, there are two drowsy parents who must go into work the next day and — not speaking from personal experience at all, ahem — may get into small tiffs at around 3 a.m. over whose turn it is to comfort or feed their crying baby.

Plus, thanks to efforts to combat Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) — which, we should note, seem to have been extraordinarily successful — parents are now instructed to avoid co-sleeping and to do things like put their babies to sleep on their backs as opposed to their bellies. While such measures have been found to reduce the risk of SIDS, they also may make it harder for many babies to sleep because many of them naturally want to sleep on their parents or their bellies.

Sleep Training

For today's parents, there's a tantalizing solution to the problem of sleepless babies: sleep training. For many, "sleep training" is a mere euphemism for the most infamous and controversial method: Cry It Out. Basically, you put your baby in a crib or bassinet in a separate room and don't come back until the morning. If they cry, so be it. The idea is they will learn to self-soothe and become good sleepers.

Not all forms of sleep training are so severe, but most do involve some tolerance for crying and, because of this, many categorize most approaches broadly under the umbrella of "cry it out."

In her bestselling book Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool, economist Emily Oster reviews the evidence on sleep training and concludes, "The bottom line is that there is simply a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting that 'cry it out' is an effective method of improving sleep."

That said, sleep training is pretty hard, strategically, physically, and emotionally. That's why there's a whole cottage industry of high-paid sleep trainers, books, consultants, podcasts, influencers, and so on, who help parents with all this. Recognizing that sleeplessness is a problem for employees to be the most productive, companies like Meta (aka Facebook) have begun subsidizing the cost of sleep training coaching for their workers.

The Online War Over Sleep Training

Ever since we had a baby — and apparently started googling baby-related stuff — my wife and I have found our social media feeds to be jam-packed with baby-rearing and sleep training content.

For example, my wife was targeted with a post from a baby sleep consultancy called Taking Cara Babies that marketed their services to us (and our employers). "It's true! Taking Cara Babies has a way your company can give you the gift of sleep (which will help you thrive as an employee). For more information to send to your boss or HR department, head to my stories or comment."

It seemed pretty innocuous. But the most liked comment was the following: "Wish we had actual parental leave like the rest of the modern world so we weren't forced to sleep train and get back to work like good little capitalists."

It turns out this sentiment can be found across the internet, in comments, on sites like Reddit and X (formerly Twitter), and by influencers. There's a large community of parents who disparage sleep training — and, in particular, any form of cry it out — as basically a cruel practice that sacrifices our babies' well-being on the altar of capitalism.

Whole Mother Therapy, which provides online therapy to parents, for example, argues on their blog that "Sleep training is a symptom of capitalism—it cuts parents off from the natural attachment and nurturance that is essential for infant and baby development."

"Sleep training is breaking your child's mind and nervous system to fit into the productivity model capitalism requires," tweeted an X user named ℍℝ.

But is not wanting to be really sleep deprived only driven by economic concerns? If I had the luxury of not working, I probably would still want to be well-slept. And aren't there a whole bunch of countries that have capitalist economies — but, at the same time, robust safety nets — that give parents greater opportunity to stay home and be sleep-deprived without having to go into work? I'll let you be the judge.

One of the biggest schools that opposes sleep training, or at least strategies that tolerate baby crying, is known as attachment parenting. This approach advises parents against letting babies cry on the grounds that crying is an expression of distress and that it's unnatural and cruel to not do everything in our power to prevent it. I have friends who pursued attachment parenting. They not only refused to let their babies cry at night without intervention, but they also let their babies sleep in their beds (which, by the way, is not recommended by health experts for at least the first six months of your baby's life). And let me tell you, years later, their kids are still interrupting their sleep. Not for us.

Emily Oster points out that sleep training has sizable benefits for parents. She cites a randomized controlled trial that found that mothers "were less likely to be depressed and more likely to have better physical health" months after sleep training their babies. "This finding is consistent across studies," Oster continues. "Sleep-training methods consistently improve parental mental health; this includes less depression, higher marital satisfaction, and lower parenting stress."

But what about the baby's mental and physical health? In reviewing the literature, Oster finds no credible evidence that babies' long-term well-being is impaired by sleep training. "Fundamentally, the argument against sleep training is theoretical," Oster argues. She admits that it'd be better if we had more studies on this. "And yes, it is possible that if we had more data, we would find some small negative effects," she admits. But, at the same time, she says, it's also possible that, by promoting good sleep hygiene, sleep training could actually be a benefit to babies. She concludes that "You'll have to make a choice about this without perfect data."

As for us, we've pursued a strategy that you might call sleep training lite. Basically, when our baby cries in the night, we either feed him if it's been a while since he's eaten or we hold his hand and sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to him while he stays in his crib. Honestly, it worked really well between months 4 and 7. But recently, he started teething, and... well, we're both really tired. Take that, capitalism.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.