The Key to Getting Babies to Sleep

New research shows how parents can help babies fall asleep more consistently and sleep more deeply.

Baby sleeping on back.

Sleepless nights are so common with newborns that parents almost see it as a rite of passage. But what parents might not realize is how much their own actions may be affecting their babies’ sleep.

Researchers from the University at Buffalo and Penn State University recently shared findings from a decade-long study that may come as a relief to exhausted parents everywhere. In an article published in the journal Pediatrics, they explained the connection they found between responsive parenting and better sleep for infants.

What is ‘responsive parenting’?

“Responsive parenting involves parents homing in on cues from their babies and responding appropriately,” said Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics in UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and co-author of the study.

In the study, a team of nurses met with parents of newborns to train them to recognize and respond to their babies’ cues. The training focused on several common “behavioral states” for babies, including fussiness, drowsiness, alertness and sleeping. Recognizing these states is essential, as putting down a drowsy baby is likely to be much more successful than putting down a fussy one.

Helpful strategies

An element of the study involved promoting “self-soothing” behaviors. For example, parents can leave 8-week-old infants for a few minutes, giving them the chance to self-soothe. As the babies get older, parents can leave them for longer periods of time, such as 10 to 15 minutes. Self-soothing skills can help babies put themselves back to sleep if they wake at night but do not have a specific need, such as a diaper change.

The study also focused on developing healthy bedtime routines. “Consistency is key,” said Anzman-Frasca. This doesn’t mean one-size-fits-all. Researchers say parents should determine what works best for their babies and then follow through with those routines daily. Some possibilities include giving their baby a bath, reading a book or singing songs.

Regardless of the routine, bedtime must be consistent—optimally, says Anzman-Frasca, between 7 and 8 p.m., a bedtime that research has found will help babies sleep longer. Feeding, she adds, should not occur last in the bedtime routine.

Longer, better sleep

Taken together, these strategies promoted longer and healthier sleep in the infants whose parents took part in the study, both for first-born and second-born children.

To learn more about this topic and other related topics, researchers recommend visiting the UB Child Health and Behavior (HAB) Lab Facebook page, developed and managed by Anzman-Frasca’s lab.