A common dilemma facing the parents of newborns is whether they should let their babies cry themselves back to sleep when they wake up at night or rush to comfort them.
A new study from Temple University psychology professor Dr. Marsha Weinraub suggests that for most infants, it’s best to let them “self-soothe” and fall back to sleep on their own.
“By six months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week,” she said. “However, not all children follow this pattern of development.”
For the study, Weinraub and her colleagues measured patterns of nighttime awakenings in infants ages six to 36 months. Her findings revealed two groups, sleepers and transitional sleepers.
“If you measure them while they are sleeping, all babies — like all adults — move through a sleep cycle every 1-1/2 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 team asked parents of more than 1,200 infants to report on their child’s awakenings at 6, 15, 24 and 36 months. They found that by six months, 66 percent of babies — the sleepers — did not awaken, or awoke just once a week. The other 33 percent woke up every night at six months, dropping to two nights a week by 15 months and to one night a week by 24 months.
Of the babies that awoke, the majority were boys, the researcher noted. These transitional sleepers also tended to score higher on an assessment of difficult temperament, which identified traits such as irritability and distractibility.
These babies also were more likely to be breastfed, she said. Mothers of these babies were more likely to be depressed and have greater maternal sensitivity.
The findings suggest that early sleep problems may be a red flag of genetic or constitutional factors that lead to a difficult temperament, Weinraub said, suggesting that parents should seek some advice if sleep problems persist past 18 months.
Another takeaway from the study, according to the researcher, is that it is important for babies to learn how to fall asleep on their own.
“When mothers tune in to these nighttime awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep,” she said. “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.”
Source: Temple University