How do you get a baby to sleep through the night? We have no idea.

I am often asked why Brain Rules for Baby doesn't include advice on how to get your child to sleep through the night. The omission is deliberate, and my recent answer to one reader's question via e-mail explains the reasoning. I thought you would like to see the answer, too. Thanks for all of your interest in the book. It means a great deal.
-- John

Dear Reader;

You raise an important issue regarding sleep, one of the most critical in the early months of child-rearing. Unfortunately, I cannot give a response equal to its criticality.

If you are having problems with getting your child to sleep through the night, you have probably read everything you could on the issue. In that journey, you might have noticed there are many different opinions about how to get kids to sleep through the night - often by experts in the field. You might further have noticed that these well-established researchers and clinicians often appear to say contradictory things. The advice can almost be put into a continuum. On one end, there are researchers like Dr. Richard Ferber, interpreted as saying draconian things like “let your kid tough it out at night” (that’s hardly a fair characterization, by the way). On the other end is pediatrician William Sears and family who is interpreted as saying “respond to every demand at night” (also hardly a fair characterization). Here are the two references from these seasoned medical professionals, which make great comparative reading for the views they hold:

Solve Your Childs’ Sleep Problems”,

Richard Ferber, 2006


The Baby Sleep Book

William Sears et al, 2005

Why the contradiction? BECAUSE NOBODY REALLY KNOWS HOW TO ADDRESS THE SLEEP ISSUE. There does not appear to be a one-size-fits-all answer, which is why any advice which claims to be THE ANSWER does not pass my “grump factor”, as a scientist. My standard response, therefore, is to appeal to the wisdom of the real expert, the parent – YOU – and say something like “Every brain is wired differently from every other brain. Go out and buy both of these books and expose yourself to the various recommendations. Then determine which strategies (or combinations of strategies) your child – based on your knowledge – is most likely to respond. Try these strategies in a systematic fashion, and progressively design new ones until you find the strategy that does work.”

I have an example of this flexible, deliberate approach in my own child-rearing experience.

It was almost seven months before my eldest child slept successfully through the night. What worked for me was to give him a “modified” Ferber protocol – a gentler version of his recommendation, which took almost a week to execute successfully (I literally took off time from work to do it, relieving my poor exhausted wife).

My youngest child also had trouble getting to sleep. But when I tried my “modified” Ferber strategy, it did not work for him. What did the trick was a modified “Sears” strategy. And it also took about a week to become successful too. Living proof for the fact there is no over-arching strategy that will work for every child.

I wish you well. Solving this riddle is one of the toughest tasks in the early years of child-rearing.

John Medina


Jackie said...

Thanks so much for this post. I wondered when reading your book what your thoughts on "sleep training" would be. My son is 10 months old and we have struggled with his sleep. As you mentioned I have read a ton on the topic and I totally agree - it is different for each child. I've had the toughest time letting my child cry to sleep more often then not but we've learned this works for him and gets him the sleep he needs. When he cries falling asleep or when he wakes up I feel awful and have wondered what it was doing to the emotional side of the brain. Other than sleep he is the happiest kid ever so I guess he's doing just fine.

Unknown said...

Isn't it possible the the baby is just learning how to sleep? Maybe it takes time to learn how to respond productively to the brain being taken over by sleep chemicals. We don't do it very well when we get older, why do we expect a baby to be good at it? In the womb they were up when they were up. Why can't a baby just be up when he/she's up?