When Did Sleep Training Become Popular? A Complete History


baby with pretend glasses on laying on a book like reading it.

Despite having been studying (and using) various sleep training methods for over a decade now, I realized the other day that I didn’t know much about the history of sleep training. So I decided to look it up – including the answer to this question: when did sleep training become popular?

Sleep training has grown in popularity since its inception during the Industrial Revolution. Sleep training saw a significant rise in popularity that followed methodology advancements in the 1950s and 1980s. Sleep training’s popularity has continued to rise with online content since 2009.

Ready to dive into the history of sleep training, including its popularity? Let’s do this.

Sleep Training First Became Popular in the Industrial Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s, sleep training wasn’t really a thing. Or if it was, it wasn’t mentioned much in literature.

To date, I’ve never seen sleep training mentioned in any literature prior to that. And I’ve read medieval literature in two languages (I’m a nerd, but that’s a story for another time). Chaucer didn’t cover sleep training.

In any case, it makes sense that sleep training first became a thing during the Industrial Revolution. Because it’s at this time in history when people begin having a set and very rigorous schedule. Factory shifts were regularly 12-16 hours long each day. And workers were regularly overworked – often working 5-7 days a week.

On another nerdy side note, if you want to read a good book on this time period, go read “The Jungle,” published in 1906 by journalist Upton Sinclair. Maybe don’t read it while sleep-deprived, though. 😉

Now, thankfully unions started coming into play (and that helped workers gain some more control over their schedules), but exhausted workers still needed a way to get more sleep – especially if they had babies at home. Enter sleep training.

In 1894, Dr. Luther Emmett Holt published his book called “The Care and Feeding of Children” (you can read it here online for freeOpens in a new tab.) where he first introduced the term “cry it out”. His exact words were:

How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper, habit, or to be indulged? It should simply be allowed to ‘cry it out.’

Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, The Care and Feeding of Children, 1894

At around the same period, another book was published. This was the book called “Psychological Care of Infant and Child” by John B. Watson. These two are the first books in the parenting world that mention the need for self-soothing and sleep training.

Exhausted parents were overjoyed to have an option – even if results varied widely. After all, cry it out isn’t a one-size-fits-all sleep training method, no matter what the year is. Don’t worry – the advancements of the 1950s and surging popularity are next.

Sleep Training’s Popularity Rose with Advancements in the 1950s

During the 1950s, sleep training experienced another boom in popularity. This is mostly due to the fact that new parenting experts came to the forefront. Now, some of these experts are now no longer seen as such.

But at the time, these experts were seen as a welcome change to the idea of letting your child cry it out – or sit in the pram (stroller) for most of the day. So while Dr. Spock isn’t a venerated parenting expert anymore, he was seen as a healthy change to the sleep training front during that time period.

In any case, the 1950s is when sleep training began to have more options.

There were still those who tried to paint anything other than cry-it-out as a problematic thing – going so far as to say that anything else would lead to raising communist-loving juvenile delinquents.

Even so, most parents were glad to have more options, and sleep training saw a good-sized rise in popularity.

Sleep Training’s 1980s Helped Popularity Even More

During the 1980s, sleep training’s popularity saw another rise. After all, now it had been 30 years since the time of Dr. Spock – and some experts were actually able to see results of studies based on sleep training. Psychologists, pediatricians, and doctors all had data to share.

And as each expert presented their findings (usually along with a new sleep training methodology), the popularity and options available to the public continued to grow.

This site uses referral links from advertising partners. As an Amazon Associate, I can earn from qualifying purchases.

Dr. Marc Weissbluth (the author of “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy ChildOpens in a new tab.” – available on Amazon) was one such pioneer during this time period. He did years-long studies as a pediatrician and first started publishing his findings in 1982 in the journal “Sleep.” And the first edition of his book was published in 1987. For comparison, his book’s 4th edition was published in 2015.

Another pioneer during this time is Richard Ferber, M.D., whose Ferber methods are still very popular to this day. The latest, 2006 edition of his book is called “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.” It’s also available on Amazon.

The 1980s were a welcome improvement to sleep training’s study and methods – and because of such, it saw a huge rise in popularity.

Sleep Training’s Popularity Continues to Rise Since 2009

The next big rise in popularity for sleep training started in 2009 (ish) with the growth of online content and social media. And, thanks to Google Trends, we can actually see it. Google Trends keep track of search queries to see how popular things are.

And, starting in 2009, sleep training’s popularity has more than doubled. It’s been steadily growing ever since.

For comparison, the yellow point is searches related to the Ferber method. it’s been seeing a gradual decline in popularity, although it’s still right on par with sleep training.

screenshot of Google Trends comparing four terms: sleep training, cry it out, Ferber, and The Happiest Baby on the Block.
Sleep Training’s popularity as measured by Google Trends from 2004-present.

In other words, it’s still pretty safe to say that the Ferber method is one of the most popular methodologies for sleep training.

However, why has sleep training seen such a rise in popularity since 2009? It’s because of blogs, websites, and social media. This is when blogs started really covering sleep training – and when more parents got involved in the sleep training methodology and the overall industry.

Granted, there’s some give and take on the exact timing. I didn’t start with sleep training until 2010. But this is when the number of options skyrocketed. Think about how many sleep training blogs there are – including this one. If you want to see some of the best sleep training blogs, make sure you check out the list of my favorites.

There are now even more sleep training methods, studies available, and other options. Now sleep training has a ton more accessibility and popularity than it used to. And that’s a good thing.

Who Pioneered Sleep Training?

Major sleep training pioneers include:

  • Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, 1894 – he coined the term “cry it out.”
  • John B. Watson, 1890s – wrote “Psychological Care of Infant and Child.”
  • Dr. Spock et al., 1950s – add more options to the sleep training repertoire.
  • Dr. Ferber, 1980s – he added a kinder, gentler cry-it-out option that used attachment parenting styles.
  • Dr. Marc Weissbluth, the 1980s – he did multiple studies on sleep and sleep training.
  • With the advent of online sleep training content, there have been multiple sleep training experts and gurus. Each has made their own contribution to the field, and there would be far too many to list individually here.

Many parents and sleep training experts continue to further the field. I mean, hey – you’re here reading about what I’ve found on it, so I’d say perhaps we count, too!

When Did Sleep Training Start?

Sleep training, in its modern understanding, dates back to the 1980s. That’s when it started to be seen as a parenting technique or tool to be used in helping the family sleep better, anyway.

Before that, it was still a concept. But it wasn’t always called “sleep training,” as it was more related to the whole cry-it-out concept as first engineered in the late 1890s. It did evolve over the next 6 decades, thankfully. That way, by the 1950s, the then-experts could start nudging things towards what sleep training is today.

In fact, if we want to look even further back than the first coined usage of “cry it out,” there are manuals and records kept by German doctors back in the 1830s who encouraged parents to be slower about responding to a screaming baby. For more information on that, please be sure to check the third source (in the Sources section of this article) for that citation.

What Advances Have There Been in Sleep Training?

The biggest advances in sleep training have happened in the last 40 years. They are realizing that sleep training is an individual, family choice with as many options available because there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Families need to find and use what works for them. That’s the hands-down biggest advance in sleep training.

But to get to this point, we really do need to acknowledge the previous advances in sleep training prior to the 1980s. So let’s take a step back into the Industrial Era again.

In the industrial era, the world changed dramatically. Families were moving to cities and working at factories. Extended families (and the support that came with them) began to diminish. Families (and women) were often on their own.

Mothers became more isolated, lost their built-in support system, and lost all that traditional guidance from female figures in their families. This made parenting stressful, to say the least. So looking at the history, it’s not a big surprise to me that sleep training started to be a thing – even if it started as a desperate cry-it-out as suggested by a doctor who didn’t know what else to suggest.

Experts at that time also began to realize the importance of the mother’s well-being and quality of sleep. In the 1900s in Germany, Marie Susanne Kubler and Dr. Otto Kohler agreed that mothers needed around 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep – or they might experience problems with milk supply.

Since many babies wouldn’t sleep 8 hours in a row to allow for this, this was characterized as a serious problem for the well-being of both the mother and the child.

In the 1950s, Dr. Spock and other child development experts began to realize that the overly authoritative culture (that had been growing since the Industrial Era) wasn’t working. They began exploring more options.

In the 1980s, Dr. Weissbluth and Dr. Ferber began publishing new studies on sleep. Their research was new in that it offered more than just theories. They offered actual, clinical evidence.

Things definitely changed in the past few decades. We’ve seen a surge in the rise of experts who discussed this topic. Starting from the 1980s, some of the most popular books speaking of sleep training showed, including:

  • What to Expect When You’re Expecting
  • Toddler Taming
  • BabyWise
  • The Baby Whisperer
  • To see my favorite sleep training books, make sure you read this article next.

In 1993, Dr. Philipp Niemes pointed out the importance of sleep for babies and mothers. He advised that nighttime rest needs to be enforced as soon as possible. He went as far as to say that a child should not be picked up at night but soothed using other methods.

With the advent of online content, the latest advance in sleep training is the idea that all of the sleep training is off-kilter. The rationale is simple: babies know how to sleep. Parents need to stop making things overly complicated – and just let their children sleep.

What Sleep Training Methods Have Proven Outdated?

The biggest sleep training method that’s proven to be outdated isn’t actually a sleep training method, but rather an outdated parenting technique. And it’s this: that of an overly authoritative parenting role.

Parents do need to be the authority. But being overly authoritative – where it’s “my way or the highway, pal!” (or “children should be seen and not heard,” as it was often quoted) has proven to be too extreme for babies and toddlers.

Instead, parenting authority needs to be tempered with love, empathy, and understanding. And as long as you’re able to do that, most of the modern sleep training methods are doable. You just have to find the one that works for you.

A Brief History of Popular Sleep Training Methods

Now, just in case you’re wondering about the history of some of the most popular sleep training methods, let’s go over that, too. Because it’s kind of fascinating!

Sleep Training MethodBrief History
Ferber MethodDeveloped by Dr. Richard Ferber. First published in the 1980s. Most recent edition of the book is from 2006.
Chair methodDeveloped as an offshoot of the Ferber Method.
FadingDeveloped as an offshoot or combination of Ferber and Weissbluth methods.
Tears-Free (No-Cry)This term encompasses multiple methods that minimize or eliminate crying. It’s developed since the 1980s.

To read more about how to do each of these methods, make sure you check out my complete guides to each.

There you have it – a short history of sleep training and some of the best options for parents who want to try it all!

Final Thoughts on Sleep Training’s Enduring Popularity

Sleep training is a popular topic. I think it’s one that we don’t talk about until we need it – which is often far too late. But when we don’t need it, it’s not something we can really know how to prepare for it. At least I didn’t know how to!

That’s why sleep training our first was such a surprise. We didn’t expect him to have such difficulty sleeping. And it’s got to have a genetic component because each of our four kids had amazing difficulty sleeping until they were well past a year old – and weaned.

However, it makes me glad that sleep training options have continued to expand – and that it’s a topic we can talk about. That way, we can remove the stigma and shame associated with it.

After all… things have changed a lot since the 1800s. We do everything much differently than our ancestors did – including sleep. And we, as humans, haven’t had time to evolve or adjust yet. We keep inventing new things to adjust to!

Which is fine. Until that happens, we’ll use the tricks that sleep training has to offer us. And that way, we can all get enough sleep to function. Hang in there, friends. You can do this.

Sources

  1. “The Curious History of Sleeping Through the Night.” SYNAPSIS, 10 July 2018, medicalhealthhumanities.com/2018/07/10/the-curious-history-of-sleeping-through-the-night/.
  2. Doucleff, Michaeleen. “Sleep Training Truths: What Science Can (And Can’t) Tell Us About Crying It Out.” NPR, NPR, 15 July 2019, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/07/15/730339536/sleep-training-truths-what-science-can-and-cant-tell-us-about-crying-it-out.
  3. The History of Sleep Training in Germany – PhD in Parenting. www.phdinparenting.com/blog/2011/5/9/the-history-of-sleep-training-in-germany.html.
  4. “The History of Sleep Training.” Integrity Calling, 2019, www.integritycalling.com/blog/the-history-of-sleep-training.

Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too. To read more about me, click here.

Recent Posts