New moms and dads not only want their new babies to sleep because they are tired, but also because it is beneficial to their health. In a study called INSIGHT, researchers spent a decade equipping newborn parents with the skills to help their infants sleep throughout the night. Little or no sleep may cause a child to become obese later in life.
The researchers from the Penn State Centre for Childhood Obesity Research trained parents how to respond to infant behaviour states like fussiness, alertness, drowsiness, and sleeping. Training included advice on bedtime routines and responding to night time waking.
Keeping alert for your baby
The INSIGHT study or intervention began in 2012 with researchers training 279 mothers of first-born infants in responsive parenting practices.
Responsive parenting involves responding to children in a timely, sensitive, and age-appropriate manner, based on the child’s presenting needs.
As the INSIGHT study progressed, it led investigators to explore whether the training also affected children who were born later into INSIGHT families, explains Emily Hohman, assistant research professor in CCOR.
“Many parents say things like, ‘Oh, I did everything right with my first child, and then I had no time for the others,'” she says.
Promoting better sleep for parent and baby
The study trained mothers, but responsive parenting skills are useful for anyone who provides care to children. At bedtime, responsive parenting involves establishing healthy routines, responding to children according to their development and needs, and teaching children to soothe themselves as much as possible.
For parents who do not know anything about responsive parenting, Hohman recommends starting by establishing a bedtime. “People sometimes think that if they keep their babies awake with them later at night, then the baby will sleep later. But the research shows that early establishment of a bedtime between seven and eight o’clock will help babies sleep longer,” says Hohman.
Once a regular bedtime is established, research indicates that consistent bedtime routines also promote longer sleep. The routine should be soothing and include things like baths and reading, while avoiding overly stimulating activities like playing. The routine will help the child prepare for sleep. Additionally, infants who are not yet rolling over, can be swaddled to increase their sense of calm.
To help children learn to soothe themselves to sleep, parents are encouraged to put their children to bed while they are drowsy but still awake. Self-soothing is a valuable skill, and the sooner children learn it, the better they and their parents will sleep.
Night time waking is inevitable. Newborns and infants wake throughout the night for many reasons, including hunger. This does not mean that feeding should always be a parent’s first response when their baby wakes. Hohman and her colleagues encourage parents to use “lighter touch” soothing methods like offering the baby a pacifier, words of reassurance, and gentle touches. More engaged soothing, like holding, rocking and feeding, should only be used if the baby remains distressed or shows signs of hunger.
“No one likes to hear their baby cry, and everyone wants to get back to sleep as soon as possible,” explains Hohman.
Helping families everywhere
The study results indicate that intervening with first-time parents could be an efficient way to help multiple children in a family.
“Our outcomes suggest that paediatricians may have a new tool to help promote better infant sleeping and prevent unhealthy infant weight gain,” Hohman says. “Paediatricians 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.”