Parenting advice about sleep: Where have we been? Where are we going? (Gordon,
M. D., & Hill, S. L. (2009, April). Paper presented at the Society
for Research in Development Biennial Conference, Denver, Colorado.
April 1-4, 2009. (Please email for copy).
For parents and professionals, sleeping through the night has grown
in both importance and urgency as a necessary benchmark for infant as
young as 3- to 6-months of age. Contemporary research contends that
failure to establish unbroken nighttime sleep by 6-months of age may
result in poor daytime behavior, family stress, and sleep problems in
the long-term. The current construction of sleep and its resulting
parenting advice, while rooted in contemporary science, proceeds from a
distinct sociohistorical and cultural context that, over time, has
varied, responding to changing technological, economic, political and
social conditions. Beliefs about appropriate management of both adult
and infant sleep have shifted from a pre-industrial configuration
(communal and broken into phases), to a post-industrial sleep (solitary
and consolidated). The construction of sleep in the U.S. is relatively
unique and both embodies and reinforces distinct cultural values. Some
research has suggested that the mismatch between cultural emphases on
independence and an infants biological need for soothing and parental
presence has resulted in high levels of anxiety for parents and difficulty for infants. While
experts and clinicians agree that sleep is a major area of concern and
source of stress for parents, others question whether sleep advice
itself also contributes to parental worry and anxiety. This paper
examines both qualitative and quantitative data from a survey of
first-time parents (N = 267) about their experiences with sleep advice.
Responses to open-ended questions reveal that, due to the overwhelming
and conflicting nature of available sleep advice, many parents feel
confused about what to do. Data further indicate that one-third of the
parents worried about their infants sleep. Interestingly, their level
of worry about their ability to manage sleep significantly
outstripped their level of worry they report about the sleep itself.
This finding suggests that sleeping through the night may no longer
be a mere developmental milestone, but, increasingly, a symbol of
parental competence. The paper further questions whether there are
repercussions of increases in anxiety for parental functioning.