This is regular dilemma for most mothers: Should they allow their new-born to “cry it out” when they wake up at night? Or should they comfort them and put them back to sleep?
A new study from Temple psychology professor Marsha Weinraub gives parents some scientific facts to help with that decision.
The study, published in Developmental Psychology, suggests that a most of the times infants can self-soothe and go back to sleeping on their own without any intervention by the mother.
“By six months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week. However, not all children follow this pattern of development,” said Weinraub, an expert on child development and parent-child relationships.
For the study, Weinraub and her colleagues studied patterns of night-time sleep awakenings in infants ranging from ages six to 36 months. The results showed two categories of behaviours: sleepers and transitional sleepers.
“If you measure them while they are sleeping, all babies — like all adults — move through a sleep cycle every 1 ½ to 2 hours where they wake up and then return to sleep,” said Weinraub. “Some of them do cry and call out when they awaken, and that is called ‘not sleeping through the night.'”
For the study, Weinraub’s research team requested parents of over 1,200 infants to report on their child’s awakenings at 6, 15, 24 and 36 months. They found that by six months of age, 66 percent of babies — the sleepers — did not awaken, or awoke just once per week, following a flat trajectory as they grew. But a full 33 percent woke up seven nights per week at six months, dropping to two nights by 15 months and to one night per week by 24 months.
Of the babies that awoke, the majority were boys. These transitional sleepers also tended to score higher on an assessment of difficult temperament which identified traits such as irritability and distractibility. And, these babies were more likely to be breastfed. Mothers of these babies were more likely to be depressed and have greater maternal sensitivity.
Constitutional factors such as difficult temperaments appear to be associated with these early sleep problems. “Families who are seeing sleep problems persist past 18 months should seek advice,” Weinraub said.
Another key revelation is that it is important for babies to learn how to fall asleep on their own. “When mothers tune in to these night time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning to how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep,” she said.
Though the study clearly shows an association between the mothers depression and the baby’s sleep issues, the results do not establish any causality. It could be that the mother’s depression caused the baby’s sleep problems or the baby’s sleep problems instigated the mother’s depression. More studies are required to understand this more clearly
“Because the mothers in our study described infants with many awakenings per week as creating problems for themselves and other family members, parents might be encouraged to establish more nuanced and carefully targeted routines to help babies with self-soothing and to seek occasional respite,” said Weinraub.
“The best advice is to put infants to bed at a regular time every night, allow them to fall asleep on their own and resist the urge to respond right away to awakenings.”