Bath. Bottle. Story. Crib. It's a mandatory evening checklist for most parents banking on their baby sleeping through the night. But new research based on videotaped footage of families in their own homes suggests that a parent's emotional state may be the most important factor in infant sleep - not the routine itself.
Being emotionally receptive at bedtime can reduce sleep disruptions and actually improve a baby's sleep quality, according to a study in the current issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
"What parents do at bedtime doesn't seem to matter as much as how they do it," says lead author Douglas Teti, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State University. "So you can decide to co-sleep or not co-sleep or you can decide whatever bedtime routine you want to follow. That seems secondary to whether or not parents are feeling good and comfortable with what they're doing."
The research is part of the Study of Infants' Emergent Sleep Trajectories (SIESTA), a longitudinal study Dr. Teti has been conducting for three years. This first phase looked at data from 35 families with infants from one to 24 months in age. The next phase will recruit 150 families with infants in the same age group.
In addition to parent questionnaires, Dr. Teti's study relied on infrared cameras set up in the homes of study participants. Recordings started during bedtime and continued until the infant woke up the next morning.
Observers coded two sets of data: bedtime routines and the "emotional availability" of the parent during bedtime. The observers of each set were blinded to the data collected by the other. The study was only able to measure maternal emotional availability, because too few fathers oversaw the bedtime routine.
The research tool Dr. Teti used to gauge emotional availability, the Emotional Availability Scales (1998), measures a parent's sensitivity, ability to set appropriate limits, hostility and intrusiveness when interacting with their child. It is widely used in psychological research. Mothers with depressive symptoms and histories of abuse, for instance, have been found to be less emotionally available during play interactions than non-depressed or abused mothers.
Examples of emotional availability the observers recorded in this study include mothers cuddling and talking softly to their infants, reassuring them with phrases such as, "It's okay," as they prepare them for sleep. Low emotional availability was exemplified by one mother, who told her 24-month-old to lie down and close his eyes, threatening to take away his toys if he did not settle down.
The study found that the infants of mothers with high emotional availability had fewer bedtime disruptions and woke up less during the night. Those mothers also reported being more comfortable about any night waking that did occur than mothers with low emotional availability.
Not only could his findings help families improve their childrens' sleep, but Dr. Teti says he hopes one day to tease out the links between sleep, parenting and the behavioural problems that appear connected to childhood sleep deprivation. It may be that those behavioural problems stem not from sleep deprivation per se, but from how parents handle it.
"My prediction is that children with parents who are more flexible and adaptive are kids that are going to be, from a developmental perspective, in much better shape over the long term than kids of parents who are not coping well."