When Alex P. got pregnant, she made a decision to retreat from the digital world as much as possible. She knew all too well that once algorithms picked up on her pregnancy, that’s the content she would see. She also knew conversations online could negatively influence her expectations of birth. But what she didn’t expect was the barrage of motherhood-related content that would follow her postpartum, too.
Alex was caught off guard by the challenges of getting her baby to sleep. She knew a lack of sleep would be part of early parenting. She didn’t expect her son to be six months old and still not be able to sleep through the night. Exhausted and bleary-eyed, she went looking for solutions to ease the burden of constant sleep deprivation.
A first-time mom who gave birth during the pandemic, Alex didn’t have much of an in-person network to seek support from and turn to for advice. But online, there was no shortage of free advice from people claiming to be baby sleep experts or consultants. Following the old adage, “sleep when the baby sleeps,” is nearly impossible when the baby isn’t sleeping anywhere but on you. Online baby sleep experts promised Alex something different.
“I literally got to the point of terrible sleep deprivation and had hallucinations in the middle of the night.”
Baby sleep isn’t some novel parenting problem invented by chronically online millennials and Gen Z. In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber wrote the bestselling book “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” later updated in 2006, detailing his method that advises allowing babies to cry for a specific period of time before comforting them. (Here’s an explainer.) The argument over whether the Ferber method and other “crying it out” methods are good or bad parenting rages on today, getting especially heated on social media, as documented in recent features in The Cut and Slate.
Authors like Ferber once set the terms, but with a lower barrier to entry online, anyone can become an influencer on any side of the debate. Popularity is handily conflated with credibility, and insider tips — you too could have this life! — are easily monetized. For parents who decide they do in fact want to pay for baby sleep advice, a profitable — and unregulated — sleep-training industry of individual influencers and branded consultants has emerged, wooing desperate new moms with the promise that their sleep woes can be solved with a credit card and a click.
For Alex, it started with learning a few basic tips from free posts. Make sure you have a sound machine. Swaddle your baby (only safe until they show signs of rolling). Implement a strict bedtime routine, or at least set the foundation for it at an early age. Do not make a habit out of car naps, stroller naps or nursing your baby to sleep. Follow age-appropriate wake windows. (What’s a wake window? More on that in a minute.)
The advice was helpful to some extent, but Alex’s baby still wasn’t sleeping through the night. The free content she started off with, however, often included the suggestion to download an ebook, or purchase an online course, to learn more. So she did.
“I didn’t really have much guidance from people that I know and trust,” she said. “I was truly just trying to look at my son from a standpoint of like, OK, well, here’s what babies are supposed to do, and here’s what these experts are telling me.”
One of the accounts she followed was Taking Cara Babies, run by former labor and delivery nurse turned sleep expert Cara Dumaplin, who offers free advice on baby sleep — videos, memes, reels — to her 2.4 million followers on Instagram, and another 26,600 on TikTok. Want to go beyond the free tier? The free content almost always points to her online courses, which range in price from $39 to $99.
“When you’re desperate and sleep deprived, it’s so easy to lose your sense of skepticism and critical thinking.”
Taking Cara Babies is arguably the most popular online baby sleep influencer, but she’s far from alone. There’s also Hey Sleepy Baby’s Rachael Shepard-Ohta, who also offers free resources on social media, in addition to packaged videos and PDF guides ($129–$499). For an even more personalized experience, a “certified” Wee Sleep consultant (on Instagram, you can find them with the branding built into their handles, like “@weesleep_YourNameHere”) can provide you with in-person or virtual real-time support for at least $499. For parents who want someone to spend the night, that can cost up to $1,645.
In total, Alex estimates she spent $300 on sleep courses. Her son kept waking up. Alex’s sleep debt quickly accumulated and began to affect her mental health as she blamed herself for not getting her son to sleep the way the courses said he would, or could.
“I literally got to the point of terrible sleep deprivation and had hallucinations in the middle of the night when I would actually have suicidal ideation,” she said, tearing up on a phone call. “I was thinking that I might as well just end it because I cannot help my son.” (If you are in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.)
Taking Cara This Baby
In a soft, soothing voice, Dumaplin tells her audience of exhausted parents that “with the right tools, you can enjoy both your sleep and the joy of parenthood.”
The Taking Cara Babies “Will I Ever Sleep Again?” video costs $99 and comes with a 50-page ebook and supplemental materials like sample schedules, routines and checklists.
“Parents, you don’t have to feel frustrated, overwhelmed and exhausted,” she says. “You deserve to enjoy your baby’s first years.”
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Like Alex, I also found myself following Taking Cara Babies as a new parent. I think I cried a little the first time I watched one of her videos. I was four weeks postpartum, and for the first time, I felt like somebody had advice for me that went beyond “sleep when the baby sleeps,” which wasn’t working. After a 36-hour labor that ended in a C-section, nothing could have prepared me for the unrelenting exhaustion I faced next. I had never wanted to sleep so badly before in life, and I couldn’t. A tiny baby needed me to feed her every two hours, and she would only sleep while being held. Sometimes I embraced the “contact nap,” as it’s called. But most of the time, I needed a break to shower, scrub the spit-up and milk off my body, and maybe, finally, take a much-needed nap myself.
I thought I had gone in prepared. I had taken the free parenting classes offered to me during pregnancy, where the difficulties of baby sleep and parental sleep deprivation rarely came up. I had participated in my prenatal care “centering” groups. I had read Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby on the Block” and tried to memorize the 5 S’s for soothing babies. Like many first-time moms, I expected the first few weeks would be hard, but that my baby would be sleeping through the night within two or three months.
“If I paid them money, if I just did this one thing, in two weeks he’ll start sleeping better.”
Once I found myself living those sleep-deprived days, I was desperate for someone to help me. To teach me how to get my baby to sleep. So I bought courses. I joined Facebook groups. I followed influencers. I emailed my pediatrician. Some advice helped some of the time. But a deeper frustration brewed inside me: Why did I have to cobble together advice, and pay for courses, ebooks and videos in the first place?
One sleepless night, five and a half months postpartum, after I had returned to work and my baby was once again waking up every two hours, my husband said, “How did we get to a point in parenting where we have to pay $180 to learn how to teach our baby to sleep?”
Through baby sleep accounts like Taking Cara Babies, I was exposed to an expanded vocabulary of terms and concepts — like the aforementioned “wake windows” — that would come to dominate my conversations postpartum.
A “wake window” is the amount of time a baby spends awake between stretches of sleep. Wake window recommendations, based on age, are a key part of many baby sleep programs like Dumaplin’s. Think of it as a Goldilocks method: As wake window proponents explain it, too long of a stretch between naps and the baby becomes overtired and can’t calm down; too short and the baby isn’t tired enough to go down for a long stretch of sleep.
Alessandra Calderin had also never heard of wake windows before she had her baby, but she soon became obsessed — and frustrated.
At three months postpartum, when the baby still wasn’t sleeping through the night, Calderin began tracking her baby’s nap times meticulously. At four months, she was using a blackboard in the nursery and a journal to jot down his schedule. She experimented with different wake windows, trying to determine the perfect length of time for her son to stay awake so he would fall asleep for the next nap.
“We were trying to figure out wake windows, trying to figure out how many feeds at night were normal, and everyone’s numbers are wildly different,” Calderin said. “When you’re desperate and sleep deprived, it’s so easy to lose your sense of skepticism and critical thinking and hand over your agency to someone who swears they know better.”
“I was looking at my unique and complex human being as if he was a math equation.”
A search on PubMed and Google Scholars shows zero references for the term “wake windows” in infant sleep. Medically trained sleep scientists, like Dr. Pedram Navab, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist who is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told Salon he never heard of a “wake window” in clinical training. He asked if perhaps it was something new.
“I’ve never heard of these terms before,” Navab said. “I wrote a chapter on sleep physiology of children [and] I never used that term.”
On Instagram, there are nearly 6,000 posts with the hashtag #wakewindow. Google searches for “wake window” have grown exponentially since 2004. A doctor trained in sleep medicine’s lack of familiarity with a ubiquitous online term might not seem like a big deal to a person who hasn’t been trying to get an infant to fall asleep and stay asleep. It might hit differently for someone who has spent a great deal of time and effort tracking and experimenting in hopes of cracking their baby’s sleep code.
In an interview, Dumaplin told me she doesn’t know where the term “wake window” originated, but that she’s also heard it referred to as “nap gaps.” She said the point of wake windows is to manage sleep pressure.
“We know, as adults, when you’ve been awake so long, adenosine is a chemical that builds up. And the way to dump out that adenosine is to sleep,” Dumaplin said. “The younger we are, the shorter amount of time it takes for that sleep pressure to build.”
Dumaplin said wake windows are intended to ease the burden of living by a strict nap schedule. She also acknowledges that for some, it’s “overwhelming” and “too much math.”
Alex P. said she now regrets her intense focus on her own baby’s wake windows.
“I was looking at my unique and complex human being as if he was a math equation,” she said.
The baby sleep industry also dedicates a significant amount of attention — and SEO — to navigating “sleep regressions,” when a baby starts waking up more after they had seemingly outgrown that phase. The so-called four-month-sleep regression is a frequent subject of Instagram posts — and of course, there are courses to purchase on how to navigate through or overcome it.
How scientific are these methods?
Wake windows, sleep regression — how much of this baby sleep advice is actually supported by science?
Newborns have to be fed every two to three hours, around the clock, until they reach their birth weight, if they lose it. It can take about two weeks. After that, babies don’t always start sleeping for longer stretches. Research says it’s normal for babies to still wake up multiple times during the night, even in months 6-12, when many think they should be sleeping through the night. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers found that by six months, only 43 percent of infants were sleeping through the night (defined by eight hours of uninterrupted sleep).
Some say formula-fed babies sleep longer stretches. But one study published in Breastfeeding Medicine found no difference in rate of night wakings between breastfed and formula-fed babies. In the study of 715 mothers with infants between the ages of 6 to 12 months, 78.6 percent still regularly woke at least once a night.
“The truth was a lot of it was out of my control.”
So while research suggests that an infant consistently getting 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night is not necessarily the norm, it is what parents are desperately trying to achieve when they turn to online sleep influencers and start buying consultations, classes and other materials.
Part of the reason is their own health. Medical professionals unanimously agree that sleep is essential to good health. And it doesn’t take long for the effects of sleep deprivation to set in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not sleeping for 24 hours has comparable physiological effects to a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent — and it’s illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08 percent. In October 2021, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine published a statement in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine underscoring the effects of sleep deprivation and the burden it can place on society.
“Short-term sleep deprivation, long-term sleep restriction, circadian misalignment, and untreated sleep disorders can have a profound and detrimental impact on physical health, mental health, mood, and public safety,” the researchers wrote.
“It’s hard to know whether the person you’re paying really is a qualified expert.”
For exhausted parents, baby sleep experts make plentiful sleep seem like a possibility again. And for some families, it might be — online reviews for many sleep consultants show positive results. But others express disappointment with the process and the results.
Alex P. came to feel she was being sold a false promise of improved sleep: “If I paid them money, if I just did this one thing, in two weeks he’ll start sleeping better.”
And Calderin said she felt like if she could just follow the advice she had bought into better, then things would work out. She describes it as clinging to “an illusion of control.”
“The truth was a lot of it was out of my control,” Calderin said. “There were things that helped, some sleep training techniques — setting up sleep shifts with my husband, and allowing my baby’s unique rhythms to inform our schedule despite the expert recommendations.”
The only thing she knows “for sure” that helped was time.
“A bit of a popularity contest”
Alex takes responsibility for her purchases. But she also felt like, at the most vulnerable time in her life, it was difficult not to buy into the advice.
“I feel like it was predatory and targeted marketing,” she said. “You have these people who have millions of followers and [are] purported experts, and of course they all share positive stories.”
And for those disappointed parents, there’s little recourse. Who do you complain to? Online baby sleep consultants are part of a growing and unregulated industry that is unaffiliated with traditionally trained, licensed and certified sleep medicine scientists and researchers.
Navab, a sleep scientist who trained as a fellow at the Stanford Sleep Center, finds it problematic that the baby sleep industry — populated with people promoting themselves as experts who don’t have trained backgrounds in sleep science — exists at all.
“There are no national guidelines for being a sleep consultant,” Navab said. “I know everybody has their own little rubric, but there’s no governing board to make sure that these are valid sleep consultants.”
There is no authoritative baby sleep consultant board to certify that consultants have been properly trained and licensed. Registered nurses in the U.S., for example, have to pass national board exams, and, depending on the state they work in, complete certain requirements regularly to renew their licenses. Even in a discipline as varied as yoga, teachers get certified through the Yoga Alliance.
“There’s no governing board to make sure that these are valid sleep consultants.”
In a field that doesn’t require professional licensing or certification, credibility often hinges on follower numbers and word-of-mouth referrals. However, there have been attempts within the industry to establish standards. Enter the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants (APSC).
Today, many baby sleep consultants, like Dumaplin, use the APSC’s badge as a sign of credibility. Membership requires a professional reference from another sleep consultant and a website that includes a complete description of services, pricing and professional branding. Additionally, members must complete training from a list of approved programs or have already logged at least two years and 500 consulting hours as a “professional” sleep consultant. Many of the approved trainings are created and sold by other association members.
Brittany Sheehan, a sleep consultant based in Los Angeles who is also on the board of directors of APSC, told Salon she joined the association because it was the only group that she knew of “holding consultants to a high professional standard.”
Sheehan — whose services range in price from $129 to $950 — says she has heard from clients who have worked with non-member sleep consultants who have recommended unsafe sleeping practices for kids.
“I had a client once say, the person told us to give him candy in bed,” Sheehan said.
That was a rare extreme complaint, she admits, but more commonly Sheehan would hear about issues with other consultants giving confusing information, or clients feeling unsupported without the promised follow-through. ASPC membership is at least one level of professionalism, albeit a relatively accessible one, that sleep consultants can show they have cleared.
Katelyn Thompson has been a sleep consultant for six years. She co-founded The Collective for Family Rest and Wellness, another training program recommended by the APSC, which costs $4,500 and has graduated 59 students since June 2021. Thompson told Salon that she and her co-founder spent five figures of their own money to hire experts and create an “evidence-based” course to train aspiring baby sleep consultants in part because the industry is unregulated.
“The fact is right now anyone can throw a slideshow together, sell it for whatever they want and then say you’re certified at the end,” Thompson said.
Jennifer Martin, the president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a professor of medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles, said the emergence of a robust marketplace is a sign that parents need help. She said she’s glad there’s an increase in awareness of infant sleep, but that “like a lot of things online,” a lower barrier to entry comes with risks for consumers.
“It’s hard to know whether the person you’re paying really is a qualified expert,” Martin said. “It’s a bit of a popularity contest.”
According to Martin, the best place for parents to seek help with baby sleep issues is from their pediatrician. From there, they could be referred to a specialist who is board certified in sleep medicine.
Ultimately, Martin maintained, babies eventually sleep. As they grow, night wakings will decrease. And the “regressions” that parents obsess over online “tend to resolve on their own” if they maintain practices that sound pretty basic and familiar to adults, too: a consistent schedule, a bedtime routine, and a quiet, cool, comfortable place to sleep.
“Sometimes I think parents spend a lot of money and then attribute the improvements that they see to a coaching program,” Martin said. “When it’s just a normal part of development.”
But for parents who want — need — their child to fall asleep so they can sleep, too, waiting it out might not feel like a viable option.
“I see and I hear that criticism, and I’m like, ‘oh, my gosh,’ will you please watch my class? Please watch my class.”
As a newborn, Aly Hunckler’s son slept well. But when he was about five months old, that changed. (There’s that sleep regression.) Hunckler was working full-time and needed her sleep. She tried a book, “The Sleep Sense Program — Proven Strategies For Teaching Your Child To Sleep Through The Night,” by Dana Obleman. In the book, first published in 2005, Obleman advises parents to first “eliminate sleep props” such as nursing to sleep or pacifiers, and to set up a routine for bedtime to make sure the baby “always knows what to expect.”
Hunckler said some recommendations from the book were helpful, but they didn’t solve her baby’s problem with frequent — sometimes as often every 30 minutes — night wakings.
This went on for three months. In some of her online mom groups, she’d see recommendations for sleep consultants. At a breaking point, she decided to try one. Hunckler spent over $500 for a one-on-one consultation and a personalized plan. The plan the consultant gave her was “word for word out of the [Obleman] book.”
Hunckler said the sleep consultant argued that she hadn’t tried the suggested method from the book with her, that it could be a different experience, and guaranteed that in three weeks her then-eight-month-old would be sleeping through the night. That never happened. The consultant also suggested Hunckler drive her son around to get him to take daytime naps.
When Hunckler confronted the sleep consultant about her dissatisfaction, she told me, she was offered a free week of consulting instead, which she said she never received. Then, Hunckler said, the consultant (who is no longer in business) “tapered off” communication. She later received a message that her son had “graduated” from the sleep program.
Hunckler described the experience as a “scam.” Eventually, she just brought her son into bed with her so they could both get some sleep. (Salon reached out to this consultant, but did not receive a response in time for publication.)
Charging for information customers could find on their own is a common complaint I’ve heard about sleep training consultants. According to some parents — including Alex P., a customer of Dumpalin’s — Taking Cara Babies course is “repackaged” Ferber Method, or “graduated extinction,” popularized by Richard Ferber’s book.
Dumaplin pushed back on that complaint, saying that her method is much more “holistic” and expansive than the Ferber method alone, parts of which she does incorporate into her course.
“We’re looking at feedings throughout the day, we’re looking at the amount of daytime sleep, we’re looking at bedtime routines,” she said. “I see and I hear that criticism, and I’m like, ‘oh, my gosh,’ will you please watch my class? Please watch my class. You can get it. You can get your money back. But just watch that. Because if you watch my class, it’s simply untrue.”
Dumpalin also points to her policy of offering full refunds within 30 days for unhappy customers.
“There’s no scam here,” she said.
The business of moms helping moms
And in some cases, the information sleep consultants offer is familiar by design. Hunckler’s consultant’s now-defunct website said she had been trained by Obleman, the author of the book she read. Obleman told me via email that hiring a “Certified Sleep Sense Consultant” as opposed to just buying her book is “similar to hiring a personal trainer for fitness goals.”
“While many people can benefit from online workout programs, others prefer a more personalized, hands-on approach,” Obleman said.
It costs around $10,000 to be trained by Obleman’s program as a “Certified Sleep Sense Consultant.” (It’s unclear if Hunckler’s consultant was indeed “certified” in Obleman’s methods or the extent of her training.) Wee Sleep, another branded training, costs about $8,000. On the lower end, aspiring sleep consultants can expect to pay between $2,000-$4,000 to become “certified” in a brand’s methods. (Again — that’s not the same thing as being a board-certified medical practitioner.)
Dumaplin isn’t affiliated with a larger brand — she’s a very high-profile solo operator. (A representative couldn’t give me specifics on the size of her business, but would tell me Taking Cara Babies has “been a resource to millions of people worldwide”.) Dumpalin told me she has never taken a business class. She didn’t develop a business plan for Taking Cara Babies. She said she simply wanted to share information online after experiencing her own sleep problems with her baby and seeing exhausted moms show up to their six-week postpartum appointments when she worked in an obstetrician’s office.
“I never set out with financial goals. My husband’s a pediatrician, he’s the breadwinner,” she said. “Then this little app started showing up, Instagram, where millennials started getting all their information because this village that we used to have where your mom and your aunt and your sister and your best friend just surrounded you after you had a baby no longer existed.”
This is a common thread in sleep consultant origin stories: They started doing this work to help other moms.
Anne Del Valle’s first son would only fall asleep while nursing, and he woke up five to eight times a night. She called herself a “human pacifier” and reluctantly started co-sleeping before realizing she needed to make changes before going back to work.
Founded in 2011 in Canada, Wee Sleep sells consulting packages to parents priced from $299 to $1,645, promising a 98% success rate in getting babies to sleep through the night in two weeks or less. Del Valle paid the Wee Sleep $8,000 fee to take their consultant training herself.
“He was my first baby that I ever coached,” she said. “And it was life-changing; I think night two or night three, he slept through the night and he was taking naps. I felt like a new person.”
“The fact is right now anyone can throw a slideshow together, sell it for whatever they want and then say you’re certified at the end.”
Wee Sleep sells its consultant training as a gateway to a flexible career that doesn’t require a parent to choose between spending time at work or with her baby. That was part of the attraction for Del Valle, who worked in the fashion industry at the time.
“It wasn’t going to be the type of job and industry that was going to allow me to mom and parent the way that I wanted to,” she said. “I essentially started my sleep coaching career on the side nights and weekends learning, working with families, all while returning to work after five months and being in my corporate job.”
Del Valle said it took about a year to earn back her initial $8,000 investment from the training, which she chalks up to not being able to fully dedicate herself to building her business that first year. (Del Valle is no longer affiliated with Wee Sleep; she’s since branched out on her own.) By year three as a sleep consultant, she had a profitable business.
She also felt like she had a purpose, which Wee Sleep also touts as a benefit of joining their ranks. On their website, Wee Sleep says their sleep consultants can make a positive impact on people’s lives, “which means you’re NOT willing to hawk overpriced essential oils or recruit (and risk alienating) your extended family and friends,” a nod to the multi-level marketing schemes often sold as the ideal mom side job.
Other sleep consultants I interviewed had similar stories. Brittany Sheehan, one of the APSC board directors, was previously the brand director for Birchbox. When she was six weeks pregnant, a co-worker who had just become a parent fell asleep in a meeting.
“And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I cannot be that person, I need my sleep,'” Sheehan said. “So I just started reading everything I could about baby sleep, and I’m just a data nerd in general, and I kind of cobbled together my own sort of methods based on the things I was reading. And my son was sleeping through the night at three months.”
Sheehan started sharing what she learned with friends, texting them her tips late at night. She ended up launching her own sleep consulting business during the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown, after completing training from the Cradle Coach Academy.
“I realized, you know what, maybe I could not just be texting my friends and coworkers late at night and giving them advice on what I’m doing. Maybe this could be my job,” Sheehan said.
In some ways, that’s the industry model in a nutshell: Mothers, desperate for sleep, go online and find other women who provide the targeted advice and support they need, for a price. Some of those women have paid other women to train them in specific methods. Build up enough original material and success, and you too can start a baby sleep consultant training program, selling the dream of a flexible, family-centered career to moms who have finally gotten some sleep and want to help others do the same.
“Your heart is just begging to serve”
By now, you might be asking: Where are the dads in this story?
There’s no mistaking the target audience for the majority of the online content. The color palettes are feminine. “Mama” is directly addressed. The predominant aesthetic gives off — for lack of a better term — major sorority vibes.
Even if it’s off-putting to some — Alex P. said she found the language used in online baby sleep circles, like “we’re all family here” and “It’s all good, mama,” to be “almost patronizing” — it’s clearly landing in front of its intended customers.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I cannot be that person, I need my sleep.'”
Melissa Perry, a sleep consultant and owner of the Cradle Coach Academy — where Brittany Sheehan did her training — told me that marketing plays “a huge role” in sleep consultant success levels, and she did so in explicitly gendered terms.
“It connects and resonates to a mom who’s scrolling on her phone, because it’s her world outside of her world,” Perry said.
The only man who’s taken Perry’s training, she told me, was a radio show host who had been receiving a lot of questions about infant sleep he couldn’t answer.
Perry believes women are drawn to the field because they want “to serve and help others.”
“It has a lot to do with finding a purpose after they feel like for a few years they’ve been kind of stuck silent or they’ve been in this home and they want to contribute to a family,” she said.
Perry’s Cradle Coach Academy website — featuring serene photos of blissful mothers in minimalist, well-lit home offices, working with their children at their side — explicitly addresses mothers with that pitch: “You’re here because you’re searching for more. You’re here because your heart is just begging to serve.”
The pitch to become a “Pediatric Sleep Consultant” becomes more explicitly about money further down the page, listing average earnings of $1,800 a month for about 25-30 hours of work up to $6,000 a month for those “willing to hustle, connect, and build a business.”
There is a socioeconomic aspect at work here that can’t be overlooked. In sociologist Samreeta Amrute’s paper “Go the F*ck to Sleep: Well-Being, Welfare, and the Ends of Capitalism in US Discourses on Infant Sleep,” published in South Atlantic Quarterly, she analyzes the discourse around infant sleep through that lens. “A closer look at infant sleep practices suggests that making sleep into a type of work is also a means of producing middle-class identity,” she writes.
The baby sleep industry — on both the consumer and aspiring practitioner level — is built around the assumption that “good mamas” will do a lot of research to formulate strong opinions about how often and when babies should sleep, and also be the ones doing the work to make it happen, much like the “best” way to feed a baby. In the digital age, that work also includes using the internet to research and outsource household tasks that would otherwise be out of reach financially — using Task Rabbit, Uber or Stitch Fix instead of employing personal assistants, drivers and shoppers. Turning to Instagram and TikTok when they’re desperate to hack baby sleep, these parents find a relatable influencer waiting to lead her fellow “mamas” gently through a marketing funnel, from free tips to paying for videos, ebooks and worksheets.
“You’re here because you’re searching for more. You’re here because your heart is just begging to serve.”
If the United States had universal paid parental leave, one argument goes, maybe women in two-income households wouldn’t feel they have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to learn how to get their babies to sleep just weeks after they are born. But sleep deprivation isn’t easy for anyone, whether they work outside of the home or not. Other solutions could include insurance coverage for night nurses or even just more in-home postpartum care. The Snoo, a pricey rocking device, has recently received FDA approval as a medical device, the first step to getting it covered by insurance. Adult sleep disorders are researched and treated as mainstream medicine, with sleep studies and equipment like CPAP machines also covered by insurance. Why don’t babies get more support and solutions? Because they don’t have to report to work the next day?
The pressure of the clock
Maybe we should accept that trying to get babies to bend to the will of capitalism is absurd. But for many of their mothers, the clock starts ticking as soon as the baby is born: Only a few short months to figure it all out — while going through the biggest life transition, mentally and physically — before maternity leave ends and they have to go back to work.
In theory, the cost of a baby sleep consultant could be worth it to address stress stemming from that back-to-work countdown. But following someone else’s instructions to the letter might be causing even more anxiety. I reached out to Amy Brown, a professor of child public health at Swansea University, who conducted a study on the maternal mental health effects of baby books that promote strict routines. Brown and her co-author found that the content of the books only “worked” for one in six babies. When this happened, mothers felt more confident in their parenting and also had lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. However, for those who had babies where the promoted routine didn’t work, it wasn’t the wasted money and time that weighed heaviest on the mothers.
“Many felt more anxious and miserable about their baby’s behavior,” she wrote in an email. “Some even blamed themselves thinking that they had ‘failed’ to get their baby into a routine. Stress, anxiety and depression were much higher in this group, and feelings of self-efficacy lower.”
Brown acknowledges that existing stress could have drawn the mothers in her study to the experts in the first place.
“But when we looked at how they described the books made them feel, it was clear that the experience of being sold the idea that there was a solution and then that the solution simply not working just made everything worse,” Brown said.
“Some even blamed themselves thinking that they had ‘failed’ to get their baby into a routine.”
This was certainly the case for Alessandra Calderin, Alex P. and more women I spoke to while reporting this story. In the end, the lack of nuance and the information overload, driven by consumption and hustle culture, did more harm than good for this cohort. Calderin said one of the most stressful parts of online baby sleep communities is how polarized it is: People shouting to do it this way or else. For example, the people who claim that if you don’t sleep train, your baby will never sleep.
For Alex, it wasn’t until she went on a trip with another mom with a baby that she realized every baby is different, and what works for one might not work for another.
“And it was just fascinating to me to literally observe a real-life baby — it sounds kind of comical — but to see that he didn’t have the same pattern or needs as my son,” she said.
That’s when she realized there’s no “math formula” to crack baby sleep. “Once I stopped trying to force the timing and the schedules and the course information on my son, and just went with the flow, it started radically getting better.”
A stark difference from the early postpartum days when she was constantly stressing out about how to get him to sleep, and “forcing” wake windows on him.
Dumaplin — who said she only wants to help people feel like they’re not alone, to tell them they aren’t doing anything wrong and there’s nothing wrong with their baby — said if Taking Cara Babies “causes you anxiety, makes you feel like a failure, makes you feel like you’re not good enough, please unfollow me.”
Alex unfollowed all of the accounts she found unhelpful on Instagram a year ago.
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