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Study finds high infant stress levels during sleep training

Wendy MiddlemissLike many parents, when Wendy Middlemiss’, right, son was a baby, she wondered if infant sleep training, though hugely popular, was a healthy way to help infants learn to sleep through the night without crying.

When Middlemiss, associate professor of educational psychology, looked for scientific support for the practice of sleep training - when parents let infants settle themselves to sleep by not responding to cries - she found none.

Soon after, she began working to determine if parents should respond to nighttime cries. Her research results were recently published in Early Human Development.

“Infants rely on parents to regulate their emotional states in the first year of life. Thus, parental non-responsiveness can be detrimental to infants’ learning how to calm themselves when they are distressed,” Middlemiss said. “Parents’ support of infants when they are distressed, in part marked by parents’ emotional availability, can contribute to better quality sleep, as well as better emotional and social skills.”

Working with nurses in New Zealand, she studied infants participating in a hospital-based sleep program. In one of the first infant sleep studies to look at mothers’ and infants’ physiological stress responses during sleep training, Middlemiss used saliva test kits to study different stress markers, such as cortisol levels, in the babies and their mothers. Her findings indicate that parents might have reason to be concerned with how infants experience sleep training during the initial days of this sleep approach.

“We found that while the practice was successful, infants’ physiological stress levels remained very high even when mothers’ stress responses were lower,” Middlemiss said.

Middlemiss said her research indicates that during the early days of sleep training, prolonged maternal non-responsiveness is associated with continued high levels of infant stress. She notes this could be a concern if infants’ levels of stress continued to remain high as their physiological stress responses are developing in that first year. Chronic stress can cause infants to develop an overactive stress response system, which can result in later difficulties regulating social and behavior responses. These difficulties can include attention disorders, anti-social behavior and possibly even obesity.

Middlemiss’ study found that during sleep training babies may no longer cry at night even when they are distressed, which results in a disconnect between the baby and its mother.

“There are other ways to help infants settle themselves to sleep that are not associated with prolonged periods of crying, perhaps these would be a better approach for parents who would like their infants to settle themselves to sleep,” Middlemiss said.

Douglas A. Granger of Johns Hopkins Center for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research, Wendy A. Goldberg of the University of California, Irvine, and graduate student Laura Nathans were co-investigators for the project.

-         Leslie Wimmer, News Promotions

Posted on: Thu 31 May 2012

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