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A good night’s sleep? Let sleeping babies lie

From the Raising Children Network

Every night, there are parents across Australia hoping that their baby will sleep through the night. For parents whose babies don’t sleep well there are serious consequences. When 700 Victorian women were surveyed in 2001 when their babies were seven months old, nearly half the mothers said their babies’ sleep was a problem for them. That ‘problem’ was a serious one for many: postnatal depression was twice as likely for the women who said their baby’s sleep was a problem compared to the rest of the population.

We all cycle through sleep. We start out awake, then fall into light sleep and then deep sleep, before moving into wakefulness and then back to sleep again, up and down like a gentle rollercoaster.

Early on in our lives, we had to learn the skill of falling asleep on our own. When a parent helps a baby or child fall asleep – for example, by feeding, rocking, or patting them – that baby may not get the opportunity to learn that skill. The baby might also develop a ‘falling asleep’ habit that needs that same thing – feeding, rocking or patting – so that they can fall back to sleep, every time they come to the ‘wakefulness’ part of their normal cycle. If a baby develops a habit of needing a parent being with them to fall asleep, that’s often when parents say that their baby’s sleep is a problem for them.

But we can help! Once babies are about six months of age, they can be taught to fall asleep by themselves so they don’t cry out for mum or dad when they wake during a sleep.

One of the fastest and best ways to do this is called “controlled comforting”. In controlled comforting, parents put their baby to bed tired but awake, and leave them to settle for short, increasing periods of time – even if they cry (e.g. two minutes, then four minutes, then six minutes, then eight minutes).

For parents who do not feel comfortable leaving their baby to cry, a more gradual method called “camping out” might be the way to go. In camping out, a parent lies on a camp bed or sits in a chair next to their baby’s cot to settle the baby when he or she cries. Over a couple of weeks, the parent gradually moves the chair or bed away from the cot and out the door, until the baby is falling asleep without the parent in the room.

In 2004, at the Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children's Research Institute, we tested both of these methods with over 300 mums and babies. That study told us that both of these sleep strategies work.

While we know that these strategies work, we also know that it can be hard for parents to listen to their baby cry and not do something. Some parents even wonder if this crying might harm their baby’s development in some way. To help to reassure parents that these methods not only work, but are totally safe, I led a study in 2009 to find out.

The “Kids Sleep Study” saw us get back in touch with the families who were part of the first study in 2004. By 2009, the kids were six years old and had started school. We visited mums and kids at home to collect a whole lot of information about their health and wellbeing. We asked mums about their child’s behaviour, how the kids were going at school and about their own relationship with their child. We interviewed the kids about their own health and wellbeing and collected saliva to measure their stress levels. By comparing these families with families who weren’t given the sleep strategies to work with, we aimed to find out if there were any long-lasting effects for the mums or the kids.

We found that there were absolutely no differences between the families who were offered the sleep strategies those that weren’t. This told us that, for babies older than six months, these sleep strategies work and are safe to use. Parents and health professionals looking for a way to manage sleep when babies are older than six months can feel confident using controlled comforting and camping out.

For more information about children’s sleep and how to manage it, please visit the fantastic sleep pages at the Raising Children Network website, www.raisingchildren.net.au (listed by age group, e.g. newborns, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school-age), or speak to your GP or child and family health nurse.

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