Mothers of newborns find themselves confronting a common dilemma: Should they let their babies "cry it out" when they wake up at night? Or should they rush to comfort their crying little one? Now, a new study from Temple University gives parents some scientific facts to help with that decision.
The study, published in Developmental Psychology, supports the idea that a majority of infants are best left to 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. However, not all children follow this pattern of development," said study author Marsha Weinraub, a psychologist working in child development and parent-child relationships.
For the study, Weinraub measured patterns of nighttime sleep 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.'"
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.
The findings suggest that genetic or constitutional factors such as those that might be reflected in difficult temperaments appear implicated in early sleep problems. "Families who are seeing sleep problems persist past 18 months should seek advice," Weinraub said.
She added 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. "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."
Discuss this article in our forum
Boys emotionally stunted from pacifiers?
Striking findings from maternal separation stress tests
Naps integral to infant learning
Source: Temple University