On last week’s episode of Vanderpump Rules, Lala Kent, the unsung shero of the season, tells her friend Scheana that she likes to suck on a baby bottle of milk and honey before bed because it calms her down. "I’m on a very low dose of my anti-anxiety medication, so when I do feel like my heart’s beating a little fast, I need my baba, and I put warm milk and honey in it," Lala says in a confessional interview. "It soothes me, like I’m a baby."
If it strikes you as somewhat atypical that a 28-year-old woman likes to drink milk from a bottle to relax before bed, that’s fair. But, haven't you heard? We're in the era of sleep — bedtime products are now a $80 billion industry. People are using wearables and apps to track their REM cycles; they're creating bedtime rituals to calm their minds and (hopefully) prevent insomnia; and high-profile figures like Ariana Huffington are attracting crowds and selling books encouraging people to "sleep your way to the top."
Sure, using a bottle is a pretty literal way to "sleep like a baby." But, at the end of the day, is a nightly routine that includes essential oils and blue light blockers, or strategically timed daily naps — all of which are increasingly in vogue for adults — that much different than some of the strategies parents use to sleep-train babies? Maybe Lala has a point. If maximizing sleep is in, why don't we just submit to the fact that many of us are essentially sleep-training ourselves?
Take weighted blankets, which are all the rage right now. (Not convinced? They've become worthy of coverage in The New Yorker.) Weighted blankets are supposed to provide a swaddling-like experience to help quell anxiety. When you swaddle a baby, the point is to prevent babies from being startled awake, says Natalie Barnet, PhD, a pediatric sleep behaviorist in New York City. In theory, the same concept could apply to adults using weighted blankets, and plenty of adults have made that leap: Last year, a Kickstarter campaign for a Facebook-famous weighted blanket went viral and raised $4 million in a month. The creators claimed the blanket could help improve sleep quality and treat anxiety and PTSD (though they've since adjusted their claims to say the blankets can be "used" for those conditions).
If maximizing sleep is in, why don't we just submit to the fact that many of us are essentially sleep-training ourselves?
Beyond bedding, many people now rely on white noise machines — which were originally designed to mimic womb sounds — to fall asleep. You don't have to look hard to find white noise podcasts, Spotify playlists, and apps geared toward adults looking to improve the quality of their shuteye. One white noise enthusiast on New York Magazine's The Strategist said she's "addicted" to her white noise machine, and even compared the sensation she gets when using it to "a warm cup of milk."
From a science perspective, it makes sense why these tactics are trendy, says Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, renowned baby sleep expert, and founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a smart-tech and parenting solutions company. Dr. Karp is famous for creating a technique he calls "the 5 S’s," (swaddling, side or stomach position, shushing, swinging, and sucking), which are ways parents can imitate the experience of being in the womb for their babies, thus calming them down for bed. See, very young babies aren't able to self-soothe, so their parents have to do it for them, Dr. Barnet says.
"When you do [the 5 S's], you flip on a switch and activate the reflex that calms them in seconds and helps with their sleep," Dr. Karp says. As babies grow up and mature, the reflex goes away, because babies learn how to soothe themselves, Dr. Barnet says. But that doesn't mean you stop feeling soothed by these things. You may feel relaxed sitting in a gently rocking car, laying in a swaying hammock, or listening to the sounds of the ocean. "All of that is interrelated to the life you had in the womb," Dr. Karp says.
Many companies have figured out ways to capitalize on these sleep triggers. Bed Bath & Beyond features white noise machines for adults as a "Healthy Living Trend" on their website. On Sears' site, the product description for a $110 horseshoe-shaped body pillow boasts that it's perfect for side-sleepers because it aligns your hips, neck, shoulders, and back in the fetal position "for a deep, restful sleep." Even Under Armour got on the bandwagon and launched a line of Tom Brady-endorsed breathable PJs that are supposed to "maintain a comfortable temperature while you sleep," which has been a selling point for baby pajamas for years.
So, where does all of this leave Lala and her bottle? According to Dr. Barnet, everyone creates their own sleep associations, and although using a baby bottle may seem unusual, she doesn't think it's much different than people sucking their thumbs into adulthood, which is arguably less bizarre-seeming. For babies, sucking on a bottle or pacifier helps to reduce tension, and "allows them to ignore the rest of the world," Dr. Karp says. For adults, sucking may be a tension-reducer like wiggling your foot or tapping. "It looks like a nervous habit, but it's really the way we calm ourselves," Dr. Karp says.
If you're an adult who struggles with sleep, it's not going to hurt to consider one of these babyish sleep techniques. But, even with these tools, you should still try to maintain basic habits that you know help you sleep well, like avoiding caffeine in the evening and exercising, says Raj Dasgupta, MD, FAASM, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. "Sleep hygiene will always be the foundation, and then all these things are pieces of the puzzle that will help people with insomnia," he says. And if what works for you is a baby bottle, you might as well own it.