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Is a Solid Night of Baby Sleep an Issue of Nature or Nurture?

Is a Solid Night of Baby Sleep an Issue of Nature or Nurture?

While we may get tired, we will likely never get tired of the conversation about babies and how they, or how they don’t, sleep. Stumble into the child/parenting section of any book store and you will find dozens of titles espousing all sorts of theories about how to get your newborn (or toddler) to sleep like little lambs. Dinner party conversations, among the new parent set, are often dominated by testimonials and dogmatic advice on how to reclaim your midnight hours from a child that simply cannot, or will not, sleep through the night. We love talking about it almost as much as we hate being woken up night after night. Some parents (and child development experts) are confident that, with the right adjustments and approach, any baby can, and will, sleep through the night. While others think that it is more of an issue that some young children are just wired to wake up, and wake up often. Is it nature, or nurture?

Now a group of Italian researchers from the Centro Nazionale di Epidemiologia, in Rome have collected data on the sleeping behavior of 314 18-month-old twin pairs, and have come up with some moderately comprehensive ideas about whether it is nature or nurture. It’s the parent’s fault. Researchers interviewed the parents of the twins (they did not observe, which may foster a bit of a credibility gap) about the child’s sleeping habits (whether they slept through the night, co-slept, etc), and they found that “environmental influences” (i.e. choices made by parents) were almost entirely responsible for whether the toddler twins were sleeping in their own room or with their parents. Genetics, seemingly, had nothing to do with it. In addition, sleep duration was substantially influenced by shared environmental factors, but genes did play somewhat of a role in whether the twins consistently woke up during the night.

The research, while I am sure was expertly done; does leave some unanswered questions, as well as a lingering taste of skepticism in the beleaguered minds of parents everywhere. The conclusion of the study states, “Most sleep disturbances during early childhood are explained by common shared environmental factors, and behavioral interventions adopted by parents and focused on modifying sleep behavior could contribute to solving sleep disturbances in this age group.” But then it goes on to state, “influence of genetic factors should not be underestimated” and lends credence to the idea that genetic factors can override even the best sleep facilitation. So which is it? Are we back to square one with the “shushing” and the “Ferberizing?” For all of the seasoned parents out there, what is your particular take on the nature vs. nurture fight when it comes to sleeping through the night? Is every child his/her own unique being with its own personalized sleeping challenges or abilities? Or is there a way to insure good sleeping habits in our children, at least most of the time?

Read more: Babies, Family, General Health, Parenting at the Crossroads, Pregnancy, , , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


+ add your own
4:25AM PST on Feb 5, 2013

Thanks for sharing.

2:08AM PDT on Jul 24, 2012

I think its a mix. wouldn't waste too much time thinking about it

2:05AM PDT on Jul 24, 2012


9:50PM PDT on Jul 22, 2012


9:50PM PDT on Jul 22, 2012


9:50PM PDT on Jul 22, 2012


3:46AM PDT on Jul 22, 2012

thanks for sharing

8:29PM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

thanks :)

9:01AM PDT on Apr 16, 2011

Thanks for this article. I think it is a mix of both.

3:48AM PDT on Apr 16, 2011

It is probably just a mixture. Why worry so much? I'm sure concern is noticed by the smallest child.

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