Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Infant Sleep and Parents' Expectations

A new study just released in the journal Child Development addresses an interesting issue--do moms' thoughts and expectations (i.e., cognitions) about infant sleep actually influence how well (or not so well) their babies sleep? It's an interesting idea when you think about it. The concept is that parents have certain expectations or preconceived ideas of how their child will behave, whether it be in regards to sleeping or eating, playing, etc. These expectations may actually influence how parents respond to their children and thus influence the child's actual behavior. This same theory could apply to any number of child behaviors. This is one of the few studies I've seen, however, that consider it in regards to sleep.

The main premise of the study was this: take 85 first-time pregnant women and ask them about their thoughts regarding infant sleep and the amount of help parents should give to help infants fall asleep or go back to sleep after waking. These thoughts regarding sleep basically fell along a continuum between (1) parents should provide a lot of direct help to soothe infants back to sleep, to (2) parents should limit how much intervention they offer to infants so that the infant can learn self-soothing techniques. Once the moms gave birth, the infants actual sleep patterns were monitored along with the amount of soothing techniques moms actually used (this was done at 1, 6, and 12 months of age).

The results were pretty interesting. Moms whose expectations during pregnancy emphasized infants needing a lot of assistance to sleep were more likely to have infants who had a greater number of nighttime wakings at 6 months. The opposite was also true--moms whose expectations during pregnancy emphasized limited parental intervention to help infants sleep were more likely to have infants with fewer nighttime wakings at 6 months.

The study went on to show that moms whose expectations during pregnancy emphasized a lot parental intervention to help infants sleep did actually provide more assistance to their infants to soothe them to sleep. This pattern was, in turn, related to poorer sleep patterns at age 6 and 12 months. The interesting part about this to me is that this shows that parents' expectations regarding their child's behavior may be just as important as the child's actual behavior in how they react. The authors put it this way,

"These findings support the hypothesis that parental soothing methods are not solely dependent on infant's characteristics. It appears that mothers bring their own perceptions into the interaction and those cognitions seem to shape their behavior toward the infant around bedtime."

Of course, these findings do not necessarily imply there is a "right" or "wrong" way to deal with helping an infant sleep. The authors emphasize (and rightly so) that early in life infants need parents to provide comfort and soothing. Gradually over time, however, the infant develops more ability to self-soothe.

Any thoughts? Did you have expectations about how you'd deal with nighttime wakings? Did your expectations and reality match up?

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