Published September 23, 2022
Most parents are familiar with the sleepless nights that are common for newborns and infants. But what parents might not realize is that their actions may impact how their babies sleep.
Researchers from UB and Penn State University recently shared findings from a decade-long study that may help babies develop healthier sleep patterns. In an article published in the journal Pediatrics, they explained how investigators explored the connection between responsive parenting and better sleep for infants.
Originally developed as an obesity prevention program, the Intervention Nurses Start Infants Growing on Healthy Trajectories (INSIGHT) study looked to train parents of infants in responsive parenting principles. “Responsive parenting involves parents honing in on cues from their babies and responding appropriately,” says Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
A team of nurses met with the INSIGHT families to train them on appropriately recognizing and responding to their babies’ cues. The training focused on several common “behavioral states” for babies, including fussiness, drowsiness, alertness and sleeping.
Another important element of the study involved parents promoting self-soothing behaviors for their babies. For example, babies who are 8 weeks old may be left for a few minutes, giving them the chance to self-soothe. As they get older, parents can support their babies’ development of these skills by letting their babies try to self-soothe 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 being hungry or needing a diaper change.
Another focus of the INSIGHT study was to help parents develop healthy bedtime routines. “Consistency is key,” says Anzman-Frasca, who believes consistent routines provide reliable structure that is beneficial for children and families.
Researchers note it is important for parents to determine what works best for their babies and to be consistent with these routines daily. There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula for bedtime routines, but some helpful options include taking a bath, reading books or singing songs.
As for an optimal bedtime, Anzman-Frasca suggests between 7 and 8 p.m. as an appropriate bedtime through toddlerhood — a bedtime that research has found will help babies sleep longer. It is important that feeding not occur last in the routine, and to aim for about 20 minutes for the total bedtime routine, she says, adding that putting children to bed when drowsy, but still awake, will help children learn to soothe themselves to sleep.
Taken together, these strategies not only promoted longer and healthier sleep in the first-born children whose parents took part in INSIGHT’s responsive parenting intervention program, but had similar benefits on sleep of second-born children in these families, researchers found.
For those interested in learning more about responsive parenting, Anzman-Frasca suggests looking into the organization Zero to Three, which communicates research to parents in a digestible way, including podcasts and downloadable resources. Another option is the Healthy Eating Research website that promotes healthy eating habits in children and young adults.
In addition, the UB Child Health and Behavior (HAB) Lab Facebook page, which was developed and is managed by Anzman-Frasca’s lab, is a helpful resource for parents.
The INSIGHT study was led by Ian M. Paul, professor of pediatrics and public health sciences, Penn State College of Medicine, and Jennifer Savage Williams, associate professor and director, Center for Childhood Obesity Research, Penn State, as well as the late Leann Birch. Co-investigators on the study were (first author) Emily Hohman, assistant research professor, Center for Childhood Obesity Research, Penn State, and Anzman-Frasca.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.