Ignoring: There Is Such a Thing As Free Sleep
By Bryan Caplan
New parents’ number one complaint has got to be sleep deprivation. When you’ve got a newborn, some disruption is inevitable. But parents’ sleep often suffers for years. I’m pleased to report, then, that children’s sleeping problems (and therefore parents’ sleeping problems) can usually be solved simply by ignoring them.
The old-school version is known as “standard ignoring” – if your kid refuses to sleep, you just let him cry himself out. The softer version is known as “graduated ignoring” or the Ferber method – if your kid refuses to sleep, you wait for a predetermined period, briefly comfort him if he keeps crying, then leave. Over time, you increase the predetermined period.
There’s a whole literature on ignoring experiments, but this one is particularly nice because it also measures both effectiveness and side effects. The researchers recruited parents with kids with sleep problems, and randomly assigned the kids to (a) standard ignoring, (b) graduated ignoring, or (c) wait-list.
Effectiveness: All of the kids initially averaged 1 or fewer “good bedtimes” and “good nighttimes” per week. After just one week of treatment, kids in the Standard Ignoring treatment rose to 3.83 good bedtimes and 2.29 good nighttimes; kids in the Graduated Ignoring treatment rose to 3.69 good bedtimes and 2.55 good nighttimes; wait-list kids stayed unchanged. After three weeks, Standard Ignoring kids were up to 5.36 good bedtimes and 3.43 good nighttimes, Graduated Ignoring kids were up to 4.92 good bedtimes and 4.91 good nighttimes, and wait-list kids stayed unchanged. At the two-month follow-up, the Standard Ignoring kids had 5 good bedtimes and 4.46 good nighttimes per week, and the Graduated Ignoring kids had 6.47 good bedtimes and 6.38 good nighttimes per week. (There’s no further data on the wait-list kids).
What about side effects?
[O]nly positive side effects were associated with both treatments… Relative to WL [wait-list] mothers, StdI [Standard Ignoring] mothers experienced reduced distress about parenting and were less likely to use verbose discipline strategies; they showed significant pre-post improvement in both areas. GrdI [Graduated Ignoring] mothers reported better interactions with their children relative to WL mothers, and showed significant pre-post changes in this area. No side effects were observed on measures of general child behavior problems, marital functioning, or parental depression.
If ignoring is so great, why doesn’t everyone do it?
Parents in this study who were assigned to the standard ignoring treatment were not more likely than graduated ignoring parents to drop out of treatment; in fact, 82% of all families completed treatment. Parents who dropped had younger children (22- vs. 29-month-old children) and expected to have more difficulty complying with treatment. Drop-out parents told us that they could not ignore their children’s crying regardless of the treatment to which they had been assigned… For treatment completers, however, graduated ignoring was easier to implement, particularly during the nighttime, and contrary to suggestions from previous research… graduated ignoring did not prolong treatment by training children to cry longer.
Bottom line: A few weeks of ignoring can easily buy parents extra years of good sleep. And they don’t even have to bite the bullet of standard ignoring; graduated ignoring is about equally effective. Now that’s what I call a deal that’s too good to pass up!