Researchers have trained mothers to help their newborns sleep more at night. The methods work both for firstborns and consecutively born children. The corresponding study was published in Pediatrics.
Sleep in infancy affects childhood obesity rates, emotional regulation, and cognitive development. Studies also show that sleep-deprived parents are more likely to develop depression and be involved in traffic accidents than those with more sleep. Improving infant sleep is thus crucial for family health and wellbeing.
The current study was conducted after the INSIGHT study- an acronym for ‘intervention nurses start infants growing on healthy trajectories- which began in 2012 with researchers training 279 mothers of firstborn infants in responsive parenting practices.
Responsive parenting teaches parents to respond to children in a timely, sensitive, and age-appropriate way based on their needs. It includes establishing a regular bedtime between 7 and 8pm, alongside a consistent bedtime routine including things like baths and reading, and avoiding overly-stimulating activities such as ‘rowdy play’. It also includes helping babies learn to soothe themselves to sleep, by putting them to bed while drowsy but still awake.
The method further suggests that when infants wake in the night, ‘light touch methods such as words of reassurance and gentle touches should be the first response. ‘More engaged’ soothing such as holding, rocking, and feeding should only be used if babies remain distressed or hungry.
While the researchers found that firstborn children to parents taught these practices tended to sleep longer at night, they wanted to see if the same held true for children born afterward. This comes as, after the first child, parents may feel more time-constricted.
To see whether the effects remained for consecutively born children, the researchers examined data from 117 mothers from the original study who went on to have a second child. Around half of these mothers had received responsive parenting training. Each of these mothers filled in a brief questionnaire assessing their second-born's sleep behavior and duration at three, 16 and 52 weeks old.
In the end, the researchers found that second-born children to those who received responsive parenting training slept an average of 40 minutes longer per night than second-born children in the control group. They also slept 50 minutes longer over a 24-hour period, had earlier bedtimes in early life, and were more likely to fall asleep in under 15 minutes.
"Our outcomes suggest that pediatricians may have a new tool to help promote better infant sleeping and prevent unhealthy infant weight gain," explained Emily Hohman, assistant research professor in Penn State’s Center for Childhood Obesity Research.
"Pediatricians typically have a lot of visits with new families. If those clinicians help new parents build responsive parenting skills, the benefits could extend to the parents, their newborns, and any potential future children in those families,” she added.