For Infant Sleep, Receptiveness More Important Than Routine

July 29, 2010

Many parents understand the challenge of getting infants to sleep through the night. New Penn State research shows that being emotionally receptive with infants and toddlers can reduce sleep disruptions and help them sleep better.

“Bed time can be a very emotional time. It heralds the longest separation of the day for most infants,” says Dr. Douglas Teti, professor of human development and family studies and lead investigator on the study. “It struck me that going to sleep, and sleeping well, is much easier for some young children than others, and I wanted to assess what factored into this, and what parents and children contribute to sleep patterns.”

In the study, which examined mothers’ behaviors during infant bedtimes, parents had the most success with their children sleeping when they responded appropriately to cues their children gave, whether the children were showing disinterest in an activity or simply glancing inquisitively at a parent. For example, one mother in the study talked quietly and gently to her 6-month-old infant while breastfeeding. “She continuously gazed at the infant’s face and, whenever the infant vocalized, she responded promptly (e.g., ‘It’s OK.’),” the authors write in their findings, which published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

In contrast, a different mother in the study “used stern directives with her 24-month-old during book-reading whenever the child got up out of bed,” and “continually attempted to engage the child in the book despite clear signs that the child was losing interest (e.g., child was fidgety and continually turned his attention elsewhere),” the authors write. The result: “the child got up and left the room four times before he eventually fell asleep,” the authors write.

When parents provide reassurance through emotional communication, Teti and his colleagues believe that it lets children know they are in a safe environment. “Emotions are the most basic form of communication between babies and parents,” Teti says.

Teti’s findings pose new challenges to parents because they suggest that being emotionally available—paying attention to cues and responding to children appropriately—is more effective at promoting better sleep than a specific bedtime behavior. “We’re finding in our research that how you put children to sleep may be more important than the specific behaviors mothers do with their infants at bedtime,” says Teti.

Teti’s study found no significant relation between sleep disruptions and the amount of time parents spent in close contact with infants or involved in quiet activities before bedtime. This contradicts past research, which had suggested that prolonged close physical contact with a parent undermines babies' ability to sleep on their own.

Teti’s study was one of the first to use direct observation of infant sleep patterns, and is the first study to use multiple video cameras in the infant’s and parents’ bedrooms, to best capture parent-infant interactions at night.

“Sleep is a context about which we know little,” says Teti. “It can be a very emotionally charged period for parents and babies. Looking at parent-child interactions in this context could be more telling for childhood outcomes than what you see in a more structured daytime play session.” Many existing studies of parenting have focused on controlled play environments, in which researchers have studied parent-child interactions and emotions.

Teti’s study, SIESTA I (Study of Infants’ Emergent Sleep TrAjectories) looked at data from thirty-five families, and he is seeing very similar results in an ongoing longitudinal study, SIESTA II, which is a more in-depth analysis of factors promoting infant sleep as infants age, from 1 to 24 months. SIESTA II is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Teti says that one of his next steps in research will be to examine links between infants’ temperamental styles, parenting at bedtime and during the night, sleep disruptions, and development.

Other authors on the paper include Bo-Ram Kim, Gail Mayer, and Molly Countermine, all Human Development and Family Studies graduate students at Penn State at the time of the research.

Teti’s work was funded by Penn State’s Children, Youth, and Family Consortium.

In the News

Teti's research was also covered by several publications:

-hhd-

Editors: Doug Teti can be reached at dmt16@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.