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Baby sleep techniques like “controlled comforting” are among the most controversial parenting topics.
Anna Price followed up an original Murdoch Children's trial that helped improve babies’ sleep to measure any impacts on children five years later.
“When managing babies’ sleep, there was a great deal of uncertainty in the community about whether it is ok to leave your child for short periods of time, as in controlled comforting,” says Anna of the original trial, led by Harriet Hiscock.
Now embedded in Victoria’s free maternal and child health service, the program uses different methods to help babies older than six months resettle without sleep associations such as feeding or rocking.
Parents choose which techniques they want to use. Options include “controlled comforting”, where parents go in and out of their child’s room at regular, short intervals. Another method, “camping out”, involves parents staying in their baby’s room on a stretcher or chair and gradually moving out over a number of nights. Both methods help babies learn to fall back asleep unassisted.
“We found that this brief sleep program had no long-term effects,” Anna says of the children followed up at six years of age, whose mental health, wellbeing, parental relationships and cortisol (stress) levels were measured.
“This told us that the program, which improves children’s sleep and mothers’ wellbeing, is safe to use in the long-term.”
The concerns about techniques like controlled comforting, Anna believes, stem from brain development research showing that severely neglected children who are not touched or cuddled for months or years can have poorer health and development outcomes.
“It’s understandable that parents worry about how quickly they should respond to their children. However, the short intervals used in these sleep techniques are totally different to long-term, sustained neglect,” she says.
“One of the best bits of advice my supervisors gave me was to emphasise the evidence,” she says. “Big community-based studies like this give us evidence about what works for the community as a whole. This means the findings are based on facts, not opinions. This is really important for emotive issues like babies’ sleep, where parents want facts about what works and is safe to use.”
Anna went on to investigate optimum sleep duration in babies and children, finding a huge range of normal sleep times. For example, infants sleep anywhere between 10 and 18 hours over a 24-hour period. A subsequent study showed that school-aged children who go to bed earlier have better quality of life, but this research has raised more questions that need answering.
“We are hoping to reassure parents about the big range of normal sleeping patterns. Ultimately, what matters is that your child is happy, able to pay attention, and has enough energy during the day.”
Anna, who has a 15-month-old, found her research gave her an extra confidence boost as a parent of a newborn.