By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. During a recent visit to a cousin’s home in another state, I was very troubled by a sleeping arrangement for a 14-week-old. Perhaps I’m not aware of common practices today for encouraging newborns to sleep through the night.

The baby is swaddled in a garment designed for newborns, then fed and put into a car seat, which is placed on the floor in a small bathroom – without windows. The fan is turned on to provide white noise, and the door is closed. A blanket outside the door blocks external noise. No monitors are used.

The baby has been sleeping for 10 to 12 hours at night. He appears to be healthy and happy.

But I’m concerned about his being in a sensory-deprived situation, unattended. The parents go to him when he cries, but the entire procedure seems wrong.

I would appreciate your input since I’m expecting a baby in a few months.

A. We share your concerns. This arrangement may interfere with the baby’s safety and development.

With all the measures to block out sound, the baby’s parents may not be able to hear him when he needs them. Adequate ventilation is another basic requirement.

Safe ways of swaddling can help babies settle for sleep and get back to sleep when they awaken during the night. But babies also need a chance to move their limbs to develop their muscle tone and strength.

We would ask whether all this protection against light and sound will interfere with the baby’s developing the capacity to filter them out on his own.

What kind of transition are the parents expecting from such a highly controlled environment to a more natural one, and when?

It would be helpful to know why the parents feel their baby needs these special measures. Was the baby hypersensitive at birth to noise or light? At birth, babies have different levels of tolerance and sensitivity to touch, sounds and sights. Some have little trouble tuning out useless information such as the sound of the dishwasher or a slice of light from a street lamp. Others may be sensitive only to sights, or to sounds, or to touch.
Such differences contribute to each individual’s unique temperament from the very beginning of life. Even infants who start out hypersensitive may become at least a little less so over the years by learning to cope.

We could imagine that without practice at shutting out unwanted stimulation, some infants could become overly sensitive. Later on they might even have trouble focusing their attention in the face of everyday distractions.

Sometimes technology can improve on nature, but there are plenty of examples, such as infant formula, where this just isn’t the case. Often we don’t fully understand the benefits of nature’s design until we’ve tried to substitute our own.

For all we know, human babies and parents may have evolved ways to communicate with each other, such as pheromones, that would require more contact than this closed-in arrangement allows – perhaps even through the night.

In any event, we see no reason why you need to follow your cousin’s example when your own baby is born.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.