Infant and Toddler Sleep: Cultural Values VS Instinct and Scientific Evidence


Photo: Om Baby Center

Pamela Moran, MSW, LSW

One of the biggest struggles and stressors for new and not so new parents are sleep issues…how much sleep should they get, how do I get them to sleep, where should they sleep, how can I get more sleep while also getting things done and having time to myself….and the list goes on. Interestingly, these questions and concerns are relatively new for parents, and are specific to western culture. And for babies and toddlers, these issues are irrelevant. They already know all of this. They have already been doing it for nine months in-utero. They already know how to sleep, when to sleep and how they feel most comfortable and safest while sleeping. How have we come to have such little trust in them and in ourselves as parents?
Based on all the overwhelming cultural chatter about what is “normal” regarding sleep, it is no wonder most of us have become victims of all the fears that surround these issues. Will my baby become overly dependent? Will they sleep with us forever? Will they ever sleep through the night? What will others think? Is there something wrong with me as a parent? Could it be our fear that drives us, both as parents and as a culture? What if it is our culture that has actually created all these struggles and fears? In Western society we have come to value self-soothing , self-sufficiency and early independence for babies and toddlers.In the mid 20th century, it was pediatricians, who had little if any part in the care of their own infants, who were providing authoritative advice to parents as to these sleep questions. Their recommendations were based on the values of our culture, not on knowing what babies need, or on instinct, much less on any scientific evidence. These values for infants are all based on how we want infants to be, not on how they actually are, or on their actual needs as infants. In fact, humans are the most highly dependent, for the longest period of time, of all infant mammals, on their caregivers, for their basic needs. A tremendous amount and quality of caregiver attention and interaction is required for the infant’s brain to develop optimally, for intellectual, social, emotional health, as compared to any other mammal infant. Dr. William Sears motto is, “Show me the Science! Childrearing is too valuable to be left to opinions alone”.