When your baby cries, do you rush in to help and rock them back to sleep? Or do you take more of a wait-and-see approach, giving them time to “work it out” on their own? Sleep training and parents’ responses to those middle-of-the-night wakings may matter more to a child’s development than we previously thought, according to new research out of Washington State University alongside international researchers.
The issue is further complicated by largely varying cultural norms — how a parent responds to a fussy child at midnight in one part of the world might look completely different somewhere else. Researchers are now connecting these interventions to the child’s behavior later in life, distinguishing between more “active” interventions, like moving your child to the car to go on a sleep-inducing ride, versus more “passive” interventions, like rocking and shushing.
Each parent knows what works best for their own baby, and can weigh the research to help determine the best route for their specific family when it comes to soothing them back to sleep. Here’s what we know.
The Relationship Between Sleep Interventions and Children’s Temperaments
Researchers (and many parents) have long known the importance of sleep in a child’s youngest years — in fact, it’s connected with memory, language, executive functioning, and cognitive development, in addition to physical health such as the risk for obesity. But parents have received little information on how their calming techniques impact their child’s future temperament.
So, study researcher Christie Pham, M.S. in clinical psychology and current Ph.D. student at Washington State University, embarked on research that looked at toddler sleep interventions across 14 cultures.
She says, “We are interested in supporting development across cultures and recognize that parents from different groups may support their children’s development differentially. In general, we believe that having more conversations about sleep as relevant not only to physical but also social-emotional development (e.g., temperament) would be helpful.”
She adds that it’s important for parents to understand whether passive or active approaches might be most beneficial given their specific child’s temperament.
The November 2022 study, published in Frontiers Psychology, included a hypothesis that passive sleep supports like talking and cuddling, but not active ones, such as walking or doing activities, would be associated with “less challenging” temperaments. They were correct.
How Researchers Studied Sleep Interventions
From 2015 to 2017, researchers collected information from a wide variety of cultures, from Belgium to Brazil, Chile to China, and more, totaling 865 families. They learned about sleep interventions parents were using, and temperaments of their children, between 15 and 40 months old, including factors like impulsivity and activity level, sociability, sadness and fear, frustration and shyness, and how well they could focus or shift their attention, among others. Parents answered questionnaires, reporting their sleep interventions like walking around holding the child, reading them stories, singing, and more.
Researchers also took into account cultural norms, and showed that countries using passive techniques most often included the U.S., Finland, and the Netherlands. South Korea, Turkey, and China ranked lowest for use of passive techniques, Pham adds.
For active techniques, Romania, Spain, and Chile ranked highest, while Turkey, Italy, and Belgium were lowest. Pham also explains that these findings can provide parents a bit of context when they are considering what they are used to seeing and trying, based on their culture’s norms, and thinking through what works best for them.
What the Researchers Found
Passive sleep practices were associated with higher sociability and soothability, and less fear, discomfort, and perceptual sensitivity. On the other hand, active sleep practices were associated with discomfort, more motor activity, and negative emotions. So, using passive sleep techniques, like rocking and singing, can help children be easier to sooth in situations beyond sleep, the study concludes.
Researchers determined that the connections they found in this study show that clinicians can help parents interrupt temperament difficulties by changing how they intervene with sleep.
Pham explains that the study results show just how important parents’ interventions in sleep can be, especially if you are dealing with a child with a challenging temperament.
What This Means for Parents
When you are desperate to get your child back to sleep after hours of middle-of-the-night wake-ups, you’ll try just about anything. Parents share tales of driving in circles around their neighborhood, hoping the rumbling engine and car motion will help, and rocking and shushing in their rocking chairs for seemingly hours on end. Whether your culture values calm singing and rocking, or if your village has an “anything goes to get that kid to sleep” approach, you might not be too concerned about how it will impact your child’s temperament.
But where it does become important is when you are working backward to solve a behavior concern. Is your irritable child potentially better soothed through another technique? While Pham says some of the techniques can be traced back to infancy, she adds that it’s a conversation worth having.
The advice you get from your pediatrician, and other resources, may largely depend on your culture. For example, in the U.S., Penn State researchers concluded that babies can only learn to self-soothe if a parent isn’t doing it for them, reflecting Western cultures’ values. They hope that more parents will get training in sleep-intervention techniques.
On the other hand, some Asian and European cultures promote co-sleeping as a soothing technique. But Dr. Steven Abelowitz, a California-based pediatrician and founder and medical director of Coastal Kids Pediatrics, says that to date, there have been “no consistent proven differences between cultural sleeping norms influencing long term physical and emotional health.”
Translation? This means that reasonable sleep interventions aren’t harming your child, and that it hasn’t been widely proven to matter which you are choosing – especially if it’s helping your child sleep more.
How to Help You Baby Get More Sleep
Abelowitz advises parents to focus on general sleep hygiene, rather than worrying too much about the exact type of sleep soothing/intervention.
Not sure where to start? Check out the tips below:
Abelowitz recommends finding a sleep training method that’s comfortable for you and your family, with input as needed from your pediatrician when it comes to the best age, methods, and timing to try.
Try to Be Consistent
No matter what age your little ones are, being consistent about sleep and wake times can go a long way in helping your kids get more, and better, sleep (though your kids’ routines might vary by age). Have a toddler? Try getting him involved – you might find that allowing him to pick his pajamas or choose a bedtime story to read will help him feel more in control and make setting and sticking to a bedtime routine easier.
How much sleep your kids will need will vary based on their age. A newborn will likely need around 14 to 17 hours per day and your toddler will probably clock in at around 10 to 13 hours per day. If you’re struggling to get into a consistent routine, check out our handy sleep calculator – it can be a great jumping-off point for figuring out a good sleep-wake time for your kids, no matter their age.
Set the Scene
Think about your baby’s sleep space. Experts recommend making sure it’s cool, safe, and comfortable — don’t overdress your baby for bed, or layer them in too many warm pajamas or sleep sacks, as overheating is a risk factor for SIDS.
For babies under a year old, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends sharing a room but not a bed. They also recommend that you:
- Remember “ABC” – alone, back, crib: Put your baby to sleep on her back in her crib or another flat, firm surface, with nothing around her, including pillows, stuffed animals, wedges, or crib bumpers. Once your baby can roll herself from back to front and vice-versa, you don’t have to keep turning her onto her back.
- If your baby happens to fall asleep in the car or a baby swing, move him to a flat, firm surface as soon as possible.
- Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recall database to make sure your crib hasn’t been recalled recently.
In the long run, this will likely help your kids’ emotional and mental development as well. “Healthy sleeping habits and positive sleeping patterns consistently show the development of healthier emotional outcomes,” Abelowitz adds.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today’s Parent, Reader’s Digest, Parents, Women’s Health, and Insider.