The Sleep Scandal of 2012

March 20, 2012 |  by  |  Medical Wrinkles, parenting
how much sleep do your kids need

“Here’s what a child’s bedtime looks like to couples expecting their first baby: the nursery is softly lit, the child is sweetly sleepy, the last page of Good night Moon has been read. After that comes the final tuck-in, the gentle kiss, and finally, the quiet tiptoe out of the room.

So how often does this happen after the kids arrive? The answer – rounding to the closest zero – is zero.”

This is the opening paragraph to the article Please, Please Go to Sleep in the March 28th edition of Time. The article goes on to discuss the hubub about a February article published in Pediatrics called Never Enough Sleep: A Brief History of Sleep Recommendations for Children which was talked about just about everywhere else.

I’m sure you’ve all been following the Sleep Recommendation Scandal of 2012 as closely as I have right? Right? Hello? Well just in case you’ve been too busy standing in line for Hunger Games tickets, here’s a brief recap.

  • The Pediatrics study analyized historical data about recommendations for sleep vs. ACTUAL sleep and determined that recommended sleep has been decreasing just under 1 minute a year since 1897, and that actual sleep has consistently trailed recommended sleep by ~37 minutes.
  • The study included this not-at-all-inflammatory-to-pediatric-sleep-specialists line: A lack of empirical evidence for sleep recommendations was universally acknowledged.
  • The world of pediatric sleep specialists pooped themselves about it.
  • OK I can’t actually confirm the pooping part but they collectively vomited all over the article en masse. This included one rebuttal co-signed by just about every published pediatric sleep researcher on the planet. And Mars.

One interpretation of the study is that sleep specialists have been pulling sleep targets out of their butts for as long as sleep specialists have existed. And that never, at any point in time, has any parent managed to achieve the level of required sleep for their children. Thus your child’s sleep is a distant windmill and you can tilt at it till your hands bleed but you’re never going to conquer it.

I’m no doctor but I’m also pretty chuffed about this study. Nobody is standing up to defend the 1897 study that suggested your 2 year old should sleep 16 hours a night (although it would be AWESOME if that were true) because Victorian doctors thought so many bizarre things, why single out just one?

But the implication that pediatric sleep specialists (who, to be clear, are DOCTORS who SPECIALIZE in KIDS and SLEEP) have no basis for their recommendations is frustrating. And hinting that recommendations about sleep are bogus and unattainable just gives people room to convince themselves they don’t have a problem.

And that’s a problem.

I often have people tell me, “My kid just doesn’t need that much sleep.” Translation: their kid is barely sleeping. If you press the “my kid doesn’t need that much sleep” people you’ll almost always get regaled with stories of babies who stopped napping at 1, who refuse to go to bed till 11:00 pm and are up with the sun. But it’s OK because that’s “just how their body works.”

Is it really OK? There are two possible truths here.


It’s true.

Yay! I am fully meeting my child’s needs and have nothing at all to worry about. Woo hoo!


It’s not true.

My child is suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and this is a pretty serious issue that impacts their behavior, ability to learn, process sugar, grow, and manage their emotions. This is a problem we need to take seriously and it’s probably not going to be easy to fix.

If I were that parent I guess I know which option I would want to cling to. And I would probably be keen to find a piece of research which suggested it was true. Even if it wasn’t.

I understand why it is a huge challenge to develop a scientific study that determines conclusively how much a child or adult really needs to sleep. And I know that there will always be a great degree of variability in the results (some of us are short/long sleepers). And perhaps I need to accept that we don’t really know how much sleep our children need. But I do know they need a lot. Here are some other things I know.

  • 50% of parents of infants and 27% of parents of school aged kids feel their child doesn’t get enough sleep (source: 2004 Sleep Foundation Study)
  • American children get less sleep then kids in almost all other countries. (source: Time article, Sleep Duration in Young Adults)
  • Even small decreases in sleep can have dramatic impact on your child’s ability to function. (source: Lost Hour of Sleep)
  • Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to childhood obesity. (source: Meta Analyis Short Sleep Duration and Obesity)

There will be a lot of families with chronically sleep deprived kids who will see this study as evidence that they have nothing to worry about. And that’s unfortunate.

I hope that the Sleep Scandal of 2012 results in further funding on kids and sleep so that we can come up with more conclusive research about how sleep impacts our bodies, how much we need, and how critical it is for our children to be happy, healthy, emotionally stable kids. Because there shouldn’t be any debate about that.


  1. I’ve basically been ignoring sleep advice from day one of my son’s life, because the child does not act in any way like the babies the experts describe in their books (and I’ve read nearly all of them, because I was so desperate to get my reluctant sleep to succumb to the Sandman). I have, however, been paying attention to my child and trying to help soothe him to sleep when he’s tired, even if that means taking him for a driving nap when he’s refusing to go down for one. I wish more pediatricians would tell parents to become experts on their children–that’s the way to make sure that your little snowflake gets what he needs.

    • How did you know your pediatrician was off the mark if you were ignoring him/her from day #1?

      To be clear, I have no problem with the car nap. In fact I’ve been meaning to write about the car nap and how it can be a powerful took to break out of an over-exhausted cycle. I used to drive my first around (luckily we live in Vermont where there is no traffic and it’s really lovely) for naps before his reflux was diagnosed and we had that, “So THAT’S why he’s so miserable!” epiphany.

      • It wasn’t my pediatrician’s advice I’ve been ignoring, it’s been the books’ advice. Since my son has never been a good sleeper, I read all the books I could find. Nothing that they described sounded like what was happening with my son. I tried it all anyway, until I got to the point where Marc Weissbluth told me that swing naps and car naps were bad for him. At that moment, I decided I needed to ignore the experts, because otherwise my son would never sleep. And from day 1, I was co-sleeping with my son because there was no other way to get any sleep for him or me–and I was scared to death of it because all I knew was that co-sleeping = BAD. So that’s what I mean about ignoring advice from the beginning.

        As for my pediatrician, she basically told me that co-sleeping kills babies. I had to do my own research on that front, as well, so that I could know how to sleep safely with my son. I had a great advocate in the lactation consultant who ran the breastfeeding support group I frequented. She was able to steer me to reliable information and let me know that babies don’t always fit into neat little categories. Her advice I generally took.

        Ultimately, I feel like many experts are putting their own interpretations and biases and cultural expectations into their advice. For example, a friend of mine had her pediatrician tell her she absolutely HAD to move the crib out of the master bedroom because she would otherwise never get him out of her room and it would be a huge issue. The baby was 4 months old at the time.

        I’m a freelance writer for a living, so I know how to track down information and double check sources. Not all sleep-deprived moms are in a similar position and feel like they should take the advice of those who give it. I’d prefer to see more open-ended advice and education, along with the admonition to get to know your own kid, rather than commandments passed down from on high, which is how many of the sleep books and doctors position themselves. As your post indicates, there’s a lot we don’t know about babies and sleep, although we do know that they often need more than they’re getting. If we gave parents the ability to trust themselves to meet those sleep needs, it would be a much better situation.

        Apologies for the novel!

        • I both vehemently agree and determinedly disagree with what you are saying.

          I don’t want to be a helicopter parent nor do I want to write alarmist things that fill people with anxiety or self-doubt. And like you, I get annoyed with all these fear-inducing articles that fill parenting journals/blogs/etc.

          On the other hand I see people making unsafe co-sleeping choices all. the. time. I’ve met with smart caring parents who should totally know that what they’re doing is not safe. But they don’t. I get at least 1 email a week from THIS site where somebody is asking me if something unsafe is OK to do. They’re looking for my permission which I won’t give them. I’m not a doctor so I’m going to stick with the medically approved safe sleep guidelines 100% of the time.

          I recommend the Sleeping With Your Baby (McKenna) book because it outlines HOW to co-sleep safely even if I’m not as hyped up on co-sleeping as the author is.

          But when I look at how often I see people making unsafe co-sleeping choices and NOT doing the thoughtful research that you’ve done, I get why the AAPs position is what it is.

          ps. Nice post on It Takes a Village

          • I’m glad you liked the Village post.

            I also see people making unsafe co-sleeping decisions, but generally those decisions seem to stem from ignorance based on the fear tactics I see. For example, not long before I had my son, I ran into some college friends who had a 1 year old. They were telling us what a terrible sleeper he was, and how Dad had to sleep with him on a recliner for the first 8 months.

            At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Since then, I’ve been horrified, because I now know that sleeping on sofas or recliners is always dangerous. These were well educated parents who were doing their best based on advice from doctors and books. But since the AAP’s stance is “NO Co-sleeping!” people like my friends end up making more dangerous choices because they think they are complying with the rule. They don’t understand that bed-sharing can be made safe and that co-sleeping with a baby on a sofa or recliner is both unsafe and co-sleeping.

            When Milwaukee put out that ad of the baby in bed with a knife, it solidified all of my views on this subject. We really need to empower and educate parents rather than scare them, because scaring them doesn’t actually fix the problem. If you’re interested, this was my open letter to Milwaukee:


            • Um….(shuffling around awkwardly looking at my shoes)…I wrote about it too.

              I appreciate where you are coming from though. I also don’t know what the answer to unsafe sleep is. So at least there are 2 of us out there trying to draw attention to the problem, yes?

            • I didn’t talk about co-sleeping much when we first started it because I got so much push-back–although I had a lot of those shameful “Yeah, we do it too” kinds of conversations with other new moms. When a nurse friend of my mother’s yelled at *her* because *I* was co-sleeping with my son (and Mom and I live 4 states away from each other), I decided I needed to talk about this and make this something we openly discuss so that we can all make babies and sleep-deprived parents safer. Having actual conversations on this topic is going to do a lot more to help parents–which is why I’m glad I found your blog.

              By the way, I do appreciate your take on the Milwaukee ad–specifically that it was designed for Milwaukee’s population. I still vehemently disagree with their tactics, but it is important to remember that they’re trying to do very basic education in an area that clearly needs something to change. If I were a pediatrician in that area who was heartsick at seeing so many babies die needlessly, I’d be tempted to do a scorched earth scare campaign, too. I just wish it was at least paired with something more nuanced.

  2. Time has been ruining a lot in our country due to what they publish (Ancel Keyes proclaiming saturated fat is the root of our obesity problem – now we are learning that isn’t true) This is another article that will take a generation to stop doing what isn’t benefiting us.

    • I think this is the sort of research that people want to believe because it let’s them off the hook. Meanwhile when the study delivers bad news – like when they talk about how sugar consumption speeds up cancer growth rates everybody jumps all over it, “Science is bunk! I’m not giving up my Eggnog Latte!”

      I haven’t noticed so many articles in Time with bad advice (the one I reference here is pretty benign, it’s the original research that stings). Course I also can’t claim to read Time cover to cover each week (is it wrong to admit that sometimes I’m just looking at the pictures!?!)

  3. Hi ..

    Quick question my 9 week old started accepting her crib for naps if I swaddle her n give her the pacifier. The only problem is it’d never longer than 45 minutes… If she sleeps on me ( on my chest .. on her tummy) she sleeps anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours… Swing is not really an option for us coz we travel a lot due to the nature of my job.

    She’s a bit more happier when she takes long naps n feeds better.. Am I being to harsh by insisting she sleeps in the crib, limiting her naps to 45 min?

    My other worry is that if she gets used to sleeping on her tummy during naps shell have a harder time accepting sleeping on her back at night .

    • Rim,
      Lots of babies sleep better on their tummies. And it sucks when that is the case because it creates this constant temptation to do it. But you can’t. It’s not safe and I can’t recommend it.

      Now sleeping ON you while YOU’RE AWAKE is different from putting her face down in a crib. I get it. As long as you can guarantee that you STAY awake. It’s very easy to lie down on a couch with a cute baby nestled on you and fall off to sleep, especially if you’re hanging out there for 1.5-2 hours. So I would just caution you to be very careful about doing this. Perhaps even get your pediatrician’s take on it.

      So my concern is less about creating a habit and more about making sure that baby is safe.

      If you want to let her sleep on you now and then, and you’re being safe and can ensure that you stay awake, it’s probably OK to do so. However yes if you do this ALL the time, eventually you will teach her that it’s the only way she can sleep. She’s only 9 weeks old so you still have some time to work on things but given the potential safety concerns AND the fact that you could be creating a situation where your baby ONLY sleeps on you, I would encourage you to keep working with the crib more often than not.

      Probably not what you wanted to hear but I hope it helps…

      • Thanks.. I didn’t even realize that it’s a safety issue.. I do fall asleep sometimes with her on me!!

        I’ll stick to the crib n hope that her short naps resolve themselves with time…. She’s actually sleeping better at night for the past three days since I started putting her down n the crib.. She’s sleeping 12 hours n waking up 3 times … Well I wake up.. She eats while sleeping n is back sound asleep within less than 10 min.

        • Rim – please excuse me if I’m a bit militant on the safety issue. I’m not a doctor and so when stuff like this comes up I try to take the hardest line possible. So I would definitely talk to your pediatrician who may be more flexible on the subject.

          Somedays you may both just NEED a longer nap so you don’t need to ALWAYS put her in the crib for naps. Maybe babywearing would be a safe but effective alternative to consider?

  4. This is a great post. My wife is pregnant at the moment, and this post is something that will be very useful for us in the near future.

    Thanks for sharing.


  5. wow! nice work! I agree, experts make recommendations without evidence to support it or without using research to guide their decision-making.

    However, I have found in my work, that there is always a reason why the child is not sleeping. At times it is due to an underlying medical issue and at others it is due to the environment.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Missy, I totally agree with you about why kids are not sleeping. If I had a nickle for every time somebody told me “my kid is just not a good sleeper” I would have a HUGE bag of nickles. Truth is there is almost something going on that results in the “poor sleeper”, it may not be easy to figure out, but it’s there somewhere!

  6. Oh, studies!! They do cause all kinds of problems, don’t they? I have five kids, and while I did have a couple of tough sleep cases here, I always considered sleep as important as nutrition for my kids. The lack of rigor in the science is unforgivable, because it does imply that perhaps this issue is NOT important.

    Wonderful post about the issue. With my own two difficult-to-coax-to-sleep babies, the solution for BOTH was to start the whole process of sleep a full hour earlier. A wise doctor suggested that they might be over-tired and therefore fighting their natural cues to settle down. Worked like a charm. I had babies asleep at 6pm (which was a challenge in its own way) , but they slept beautifully for 12 plus hours.
    Worth it for a happier family. loved this, Erin

    • I actually get frustrated that studies are not publicly available. Seriously, most are funded by our tax dollars so why can’t we read them? (I CAN read them but this is just because I married a college professor and sneak in via his access) So you can’t really share research with people on the internet, and people are left forming opinions from a soundbite in a magazine article.

      And with five kids I would imagine that sleep would be pretty critical just for you to keep your sanity too. 12+ hours a night – good for you!

  7. It’s hard to believe how much trouble people seem to have with this. I know how much my mood/performance/attention span/etc suffer when I don’t get enough sleep – why wouldn’t it be the same for my kids?

    • It’s hard because getting kids to sleep is a major challenge for some people. I don’t happen to be one of those people however because I’m like Iron Man strong when it comes to sleep boundaries. Not so great, however, when it comes to getting them to eat a fresh vegetable. Or cleaning. Or throwing away dirty tissues (yes it IS that gross).

      • Ha!:) My issues are hit or miss. My daughter will tuck herself in to bed if she’s sleepy, but my son will sneak video games and stay up until 11 if I let him get away with it. The baby’s totally spoiled and won’t sleep unless I’m holding her, which is going to be really awkward when she’s a teenager. However, the boy will clean his room without me asking and eat vegetables all day long. The girls, not so much. 😉

  8. I think adults are sleeping less and less as well (and not just cause they have babies who are not sleeping). My youngest is six generally does not wake at night and still i am not getting enough sleep.

    Too little sleep means not only grouchiness but the fact that your body doesn’t have enough down time to heal itself which it does when it is sleeping.

    • Ha, I definitely fall into this camp! I don’t have any kids, but I find the general discussion interesting.

    • I’m the queen of grouchy when I don’t get enough sleep. Sometimes we watch Survivor and I daydream about going on a show like that. I think I would do OK with the physical challenges and could possibly live on 1 banana a day for a while. But the sleep deprivation would instantly turn me into a biting harpy and I would be voted out IMMEDIATELY.

      Guess I’ll have to find another way to get that $1M….

  9. great, great points. I have one easy sleeper, and one difficult sleeper. Yet, I agree how important it is.

    • Congratulations on having at least 1 great sleeper. I have 2 but they were made, not born. And I’m very proud of my hard work on that front. In fact I would put my kid’s sleep right up there on the wall next to my graduate degrees if I could 😉

  10. Having spent 5 years raising and dealing with a terrible sleeper, I can certainly agree that a child who is not well rested it’s disaster on all fronts. I think what’s hard is there is some amount of individuality to it and we are dealing with a group of people who cannot articulate how they are feeling. You raised good points in this.

    • It IS individual. And also – just to give you some context – I used to help people 1:1 in their homes who had self-identified as having a problem getting their kid to sleep. So out of the universe of sleeping kids most of my experience is with the terrible-sleeper variety 🙂

  11. We have a great sleeper, and I’d love to take credit and say we created a sleep-conducive environment with no tv, low lights at sunset, quiet time and a routine that we’ve stuck to since day one, but I think we just got lucky.

    When we take him out of town his sleep is dramatically different, and he stays up way too late, naps sporadically and is the most disagreeable creature. (We don’t go out of town often – 4 times a year.)

    Now show me a study about how bloggers are sleep deprived. We really need to raise awareness on THAT front.

    • Can I just say I LOVE that you acknowledge that you got lucky! Sure you did all the right things to encourage his innate good-sleeperness. But I do get annoyed by parents who take all the credit for their good sleeper. As though they are just better parents than everybody else who can’t seem to get their baby to sleep with any consistency.

  12. I remember reading about how American children are sleep-deprived and thinking, “That’s why people have been looking at me funny.” My kids are both SLEEPERS. All through the night (12 hours+) and at least 2 hours during the day for the 2 year old and at least 4 hours during the day for the 1 year old. I’m sure they aren’t sleeping the whole time, but nobody wants to be the sucker to take them out of the cribs before they are ready.

    Thanks for writing about this. I love your description of the academic/medical community’s reaction.

    • That is AWESOME! Actually I’m right there with you (everybody thinks I’m making this up but my 5 YO still naps on weekends). But most American children are sleep deprived. Like a wine connoisseur I have a finely tuned eye for this stuff. I can spot the non-sleepers at the playgroup just walking in the door. And in my very non-scientific analysis of the situation, it’s often about 50%.

  13. I’m a big believer of ‘more sleep is better’. So my toddler at 2+ still gets a 2-hour nap in the daytime, and 10-11 hours at night. When we were going through his sleep regression period, where slept maybe 9 hours a day, he was a terror.

    Now, he’s mostly an angel. Just like his parents, who are finally getting some sleep.

    So yeah, more sleep is better.

  14. I don’t have kids so I can’t really comment on this except to say I don’t understand why kids don’t like sleep. When I was little I hated to take naps. Now? I would give almost anything to take one. Sleep is glorious.

    • Yep. Course I do all sorts of things (eat Thai food, watch movies where people kiss, read books with no pictures) that my kids think is lame. Napping is just one of the many things I enjoy that they just don’t “get.”

  15. Oh, man. I hope I’m not completely naive, disregarding my kids’ needs. The latest recommendation I remember paying attention to (I know that’s bad, OK!) is 12 hours, which included naps. I think my kids get enough sleep, but I could be wrong. Bed by 8, up by 6-6:30 am. And that’s only because after we get home from work, make dinner, eat dinner, take baths, read stories, and play for a bit, that’s the earliest we can get them in bed. I suppose we could start trying at 5 pm. I tend to believe the experts given it’s their specialty and all, and I’m pretty lucky to have good sleepers – at least I think I have good sleepers.

    • You should put them to bed at 4:00. When they complain you’ll just explain, “You need to go to bed early because your Amish. And that is what Amish people do.”

      “Why don’t you and Dad go to bed at 4:00 too?”

      “Because WE’RE not Amish.”

      (Stolen from a standup routine but I couldn’t pass the opportunity to use it 😉

  16. I am very lucky. I have a 2 year old who has always been a good sleeper.
    He has slept in his own room from day one and we tried to make it conducive to sleep. sleeping 6 hours at 6 weeks (also a good eater then)

    now at 2.5 years he sleeps 12 hours at night and 2-3 during the day.
    Even if he is not sleeping the whole time, he is in his room- so mommy can get time off.

    I am due at the end of the month with #2. I hope she is as good as a sleeper as he is!

  17. This sleep deprivation issue is really thought-provoking. So how many hours a day should we take to make our bodies efficient and active all throughout the day? I hope this will be more conclusive.


    • Probably the answer is going to depend on your body. Personally I’m rooting for some non-invasive test to see how you’re doing. Like a sleep deprivation-O-meter. That would stop all the “is my baby getting enough sleep” questions. Same for adults.

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