Sleep training program successfully helps mothers get their newborns to sleep longer and better

Sweet dreams could be coming true for the many parents who have fussy babies. Researchers at Penn State University have found a novel way to train mothers to better soothe their upset newborns to sleep.

The PSU study, called “INSIGHT” (an acronym for intervention nurses start infants growing on healthy trajectories), began in 2012. The university’s Center for Childhood Obesity Research trained 279 mothers of first-born infants in responsive parenting practices to respond to children in a timely, sensitive, and age-appropriate manner, based on the child’s presenting needs.

Researchers taught mothers how to answer when their infants were fussy, feeding, drowsy and sleeping. These mothers had specific recommendations on how to handle bedtime routines and nighttime waking.

Results show that infants in the INSIGHT intervention group slept longer each night and were more likely to soothe themselves to sleep than babies in the control group. Children who slept longer also had lower body mass indices for the first three years of their lives.

The study also analyzed 117 mothers from the original group who had a second child. Researchers found that second-born children in INSIGHT families slept an average of 40 minutes longer per night than second-born children in the control group. Further, the second-born INSIGHT children slept 50 minutes longer per 24-hour period, had earlier bedtimes while they were young, and were more likely to fall asleep in 15 minutes.

“Many parents say things like, ‘Oh, I did everything right with my first child, and then I had no time for the others,” says Emily Hohman, assistant research professor in CCOR, in a statement. “So, in order to understand whether the effects of INSIGHT spill over to other siblings, we launched a new study where we do not provide any training or intervention for parents or children. We just track information about second-born children in families where mothers received the INSIGHT training for their first-born.”

Researchers say parents don’t need INSIGHT-type training to learn responsive parenting skills. Parents can establish healthy routines at bedtime, respond to their children according to their development and needs, and teaching their children to soothe themselves as much as possible.

“People sometimes think that if they keep their babies awake with them later at night, then the baby will sleep later,” Hohman explains about establishing a bedtime. “But the research shows that early establishment of a bedtime between seven and eight o’clock will help babies sleep longer.”

Consistent bedtime routines promote longer sleep. Researchers say the bedtime routine should be soothing and include things like baths and reading. Also, babies who have yet to roll over can be swaddled to increase their sense of calm.

Researchers encourage parents to put their children to bed while they are drowsy but still awake so they can learn to soothe themselves to sleep. Additionally, they warn that nighttime waking is inevitable, but the parents’ first response when the baby wakes up overnight shouldn’t be to feed them. Parents should use “lighter touch” soothing methods like giving the baby a pacifier, words of reassurance and gentle touches.

“No one likes to hear their baby cry, and everyone wants to get back to sleep as soon as possible,” says Hohman. “But a baby can only learn to soothe themselves when they are not being soothed by someone else. During the daytime, parents should feel free to use more active soothing strategies like holding or rocking, but these should be used more judiciously at nighttime in order to promote better sleep.”

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics and the research was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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