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Time’s poor science reporting on AP sleep habits

Would you be surprised to learn that Time Magazine published an article criticizing bed sharing and staying with a baby or toddler until he’s asleep?  Me neither.  Would you be surprised that the “science reporting” involved was pathetic?  Me neither.  How about the fact that the story is framed in an inflammatory, accusing manner?  Not a shock, huh?

This was back in 2008.  Time put out an online article with the headline How not to Get Baby to Sleep.  The article reports on two different areas of study, but discusses them in tandem to make its point: If you’re present when your baby falls asleep, or bring them into your bed, you will cause significant sleep problems.  This in turn is “associated with an increased risk of being overweight and having emotional and behavioral difficulties in adolescence and adulthood.”

The referenced study discusses parents being present when the child falls asleep, taking the child into the parental bed, and giving food and drink upon night waking, and describes these actions as “maladaptive parental behaviors” . (I don’t know if the study authors are just presumptuous, judgmental jerks about cosleeping, or if “maladaptive parental behavior” is an actual, defined term of art in this field.  Regardless, I felt like I needed a barf bag nearby for use every time I read it.)  Of course, the first two “maladaptive” behaviors are common practices of attachment parenting.  According to Time, these behaviors “led to disrupted sleep — bad dreams, short sleep time and delays in falling asleep — in children of preschool age.”

The clear message of the Time article is, “If you cosleep, you’re causing your child’s sleep problems and probably dooming them to a fat, stupid, anti-social adulthood.”

The problem is, the cited study actually comes to almost the opposite conclusion:

Findings support the hypothesis that maladaptive parental behaviors develop in reaction to preexisting sleep difficulties. Further, early sleep difficulties are more predictive than parental behaviors in explaining [bad dreams] and foreshortened [total sleep time] beginning at age 50 months. Results are interpreted in light of early emotive/physiological self-regulation problems. . . .

When controlling for early sleep factors, most parental behaviors no longer predict future sleep disturbances ([bad dreams], [total sleep time]) or remain predictors only in interaction with prior [sleep onset] difficulties.

The study found that it first appeared that cosleeping and staying while a child falls asleep might be causing sleep disturbances, but when they controlled for early sleep difficulties, it showed that parent behaviors had almost no effect on sleep problems.  The one effect that remained was that taking a child into the parental bed upon night waking was associated with a sleep onset time of more than 15 minutes.  So if you’re really concerned that it might take your toddler 16 minutes to fall asleep instead of 14 minutes, you might want to worry about that.

(And actually, given that the study relied on questionnaires filled out by parents, how reliable is this?  How do parents who aren’t present at sleep onset determining the time until sleep onset?  I think the results would be better summarized as “When parents are absent at sleep onset, they assume their kid fell asleep faster.”  Who would have thought that it seems shorter when you’re downstairs watching Game of Thrones than when you’re in the dark, singing “Toora Loora Looral” for the twelfth time in a row!)

But it’s not good marketing to write an article that says some kids are born worse sleepers, and that parents wind up lulling them to sleep or cosleeping more often, but that there’s nothing you can really do about it.  People want to have directions on how to fix infant and toddler sleep problems, and the ammunition to judge those smug, freaky AP parents who don’t let their babies cry themselves to sleep.  Subtle, equivocal results just aren’t sexy.

And this speaks to the larger issue of the diminishing quality of science reporting.  In a recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella pointed out that every major news article got the “Did dinosaur flatulence warm the Earth?” study totally backwards, no doubt because it’s a more charming, clickable headline if dinosaurs farted themselves to death, regardless of what the science actually says.  He also mentions being interviewed and having reporters feed him quotes.  They didn’t care what their expert source actually thought or what the evidence showed – they just wanted a ventriloquist’s dummy with some letters after his name to mouth their preconceived angle on the story.

Luckily, Emily at Double X Science has a good checklist to run down when you see a showy “science” headline: The Double X Double-Take Checklist for Reading Science News is a great list of suggestions that will help you avoid being taken in when science journalism goes to the dark side.

I suggest you keep that checklist (and possibly that barf bag) handy whenever Time addresses attachment parenting.

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