The Kids is the science-based parent column of Slate, which evaluates the latest research on children's health, development and well-being.
A new statement about parents has been around social media this week, and it was a doozy. "Smarter children need less hours of sleep and wake up all night, complaints experts," reads the title of a piece published by the Australian website Healthy Mummy. The piece, based on a BuzzFeed 2015 article, has now been shared 363,000 times on social media. Thursday Irish Independent went on board with a similar song entitled "Because it's really a good thing if your child does not sleep at night".
The arguments of these articles, and the hypotheses on which they are based, are so badly imperfect, I almost do not know where to start. But the richer reference is the central statement, summarized in this quote by the University of Bristol development physiologist, Peter Fleming: "There is absolutely no evidence that there is any benefit to anyone of have a baby who sleeps longer and consistently. " In fact, there are quite a few tests. We begin with this 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal, where 60 parents kept a sleep diary when their children were 12 months and 18 months and then the researchers tested the mental abilities of children as children little ones. They found that "higher percentages of total sleep occurring at night, at 12 and 18 months, were related to better performance in executive tasks." There is also this 2011 study in which New Zealand researchers tracked the sleep of 52 children for a week using sensors and diaries and parental questionnaires, finding that "sleep efficiency, and having a higher percentage of total sleep at night, were significantly correlated with age and with the stages of cognitive and motor development ".
In 2017, researchers examined the entire scientific literature on the subject, concluding that there is a "positive association between sleep, memory, language, executive functions and general cognitive development in infants and young children in development" . " A number of animal studies support the idea that sleep promotes memory, learning, and better cognition: sleep deprived animals during childhood, for example, end up with cerebral cortices smaller than adults. In conclusion, "the scientific literature on infant sleep completely contradicts the ridiculous claims made in these articles," says sleep counselor Arielle Greenleaf, founder of Expect to Sleep Sleep Consulting, based in Massachusetts.
There is also a clear advantage for parents when children sleep better. As I explained in a previous column on sleep training, numerous clinical studies have reported that interventions that help children sleep better at night reduce the risk of maternal depression by a factor of three.
So it is unclear why Fleming believes there is "absolutely no evidence" that a better infant sleep would offer "benefits for anyone." It is not clear why the piece of Mummy Healthy bears that "gifted children need less hours of sleep to operate their peers" to do ", because no study comes close to backing up this statement. (It is worth noting that the site he seems more interested in weight loss techniques and nutritional products than the publication of sound journalism.) If ever, since intelligence is related to a longer sleep, it would be more reasonable, though not entirely accurate , arguing that talent probably children need sleep more than their peers.
There is no doubt, it is a tantalizing message for exhausted parents: that your suffering can eventually produce a superior child, and since this is apparently beyond your control, you should give up and go with the flow – no matter how little you fall asleep get.
But there is also an underlying imperfect hypothesis in these pieces. Fleming says that waking up at night is normal, but "does not match our expectations 21 -century". In fact, Fleming misunderstands our expectations of 19 century. Parents who practice sleep do not expect or want their babies to sleep all night without ever waking up; we know that children inevitably wake up, just like adults do, because that's how sleep cycles work. The goal of sleep training, on the other hand, is to help children and children develop ways to soothe the car and go back to sleep without needing a parent to keep, feed or sing for them. And it allows us to get the sleep we need, and to be better parents in the morning.
Fleming's main and most offensive point is provided through a quote at the end of BuzzFeed and independent articles. "If we go back to the evolutionary history of humans, children spend all their time in close and continuous contact with their mother, they are transported everywhere," he explains. "If the child is constantly with the mother, the idea that they need to sleep for long periods of time does not really arise." Aha! This is the misogynist knot of the problem for him, therefore: mothers no longer carry their children around. Now, mothers have the audacity to do things like work and put their children in a nursery school . If only mothers reorganize their lives around their children and not vice versa, sleep schedules would be questionable. But this is an absurd proposal coming from someone who finds it just as simple to reorganize basic facts about sleep science to make people feel guilty.