Behavioural sleep treatments and night time crying in infants: challenging the status quo

Sleep Med Rev. 2011 Oct;15(5):327-34. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2010.11.002. Epub 2011 Feb 3.


In Australia, as in many Westernised industrialised nations, the majority of families encourage infants to sleep alone or 'solo' from an early age. Sleeping solo can increase night time crying, which in turn disrupts sleep for both parent and infant. Night time waking and crying are frequently culturally constructed as behavioural sleep 'problems'. The pursuit of solo sleeping is thus achieved through 'behavioural sleep treatments' that teach an infant to sleep alone. Some behavioural extinction treatments necessitate a parent leaving an infant to cry for extended periods unattended, a practice reportedly difficult for parents. Despite parent's anxieties, and the potential (though little studied) stress to the infant, the pursuit of those behavioural sleep treatments are advocated by many psychologists and clinicians as acceptable and necessary interventions. This paper questions this necessity and critically reviews and debates these methods from biological, anthropological and cultural perspectives. Specifically, it considers Foucaultian, Leidloffian, attachment and behavioural perspectives. The central debate in this paper is if and why an infant's nocturnal cries should be ignored. It challenges the aetiology and acceptance of the status quo in the hope of revisiting the underlying belief that these methods are necessary. In doing so, the paper theorises the ways in which current sleep training techniques do or do not satisfy the needs of infants and their parents and questions the extent to which they can be reconciled. The paper posits an agenda for further research in the area that may facilitate the reconciliation of the needs of parents and those of their infants.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Behavior Therapy / methods*
  • Crying*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Care / methods*
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Parents / psychology
  • Sleep Deprivation / prevention & control
  • Sleep*