One thing that fascinates me about the world of academic studies is the findings that don’t get reported, or at least, are not emphasized by researchers and thus, are not reported in media stories. This happened with the Temple University study on night waking which I blogged about last week. I want to tell you about a couple of really interesting findings that you may not have heard about.
And, just for some cheeky fun, I decided to do it in the form of a mock news story: the one I might have written if I parked my scientific objectivity and let my biases run rampant. Here goes.
Study shows that babies who wake in the night have better moms!
A new study by Marsha Weinraub, a psychologist at Temple University, suggests that night waking in babies may be a sign of good mothering.
Dr. Weinraub and her colleagues tracked 1200 infants for three years, measuring nighttime sleep awakenings when the babies were 6, 15, 24 and 36 months old. They also gathered data on other family characteristics, including breastfeeding and the mothers’ sensitivity.
Mothers were asked if they were still breastfeeding when babies were 6 and 15 months old. Breastfeeding is known to be beneficial for babies’ health and development. Health authorities advise mothers to breastfeed their babies for at least six months and encourage them to continue nursing for up to two years and even beyond.
The researchers also videotaped mother-child interaction in play sessions at each age and mothers were rated for their sensitivity. Maternal sensitivity has been shown to be a key factor in healthy child development.
Thus, breastfeeding and maternal sensitivity could be regarded as indicators of good mothering.
The study found that the single biggest factor associated with continued night waking was whether or not the mother had been breastfeeding when the baby was 6 months old. Since it is well known that breastfeeding is the biologically appropriate way to feed babies, this suggests that it may be normal for breastfed babies to wake in the night after the age of six months. This challenges the view, expressed by some pediatric sleep experts, that xis-month-old babies are developmentally capable of “self-soothing,” that is, going back to sleep on their own with out parental assistance, in the middle of the night.
Another key finding was that wakeful babies tended to have sensitive mothers. As Dr. Weinraub and her colleagues noted in their article, “Infants whose mothers display sensitivity during play and structured interactions are more likely to continue to awaken more frequently than infants whose mothers are less responsive.”
Thus, it appears that night waking may not be a sign of a sleep disorder, but rather an indicator of good parenting.
“This study is a clear indication that some pediatric sleep experts may need to completely re-examine their thinking about what constitutes normal in terms of the sleep and night-waking patterns of older babies,” said Biasus Maximus, a sleep researcher who was not involved in the study. “We may even need to give advice to mothers whose babies sleep through the night about how to be more sensitive and responsive to their babies.”
Please, don’t take that last comment seriously. It would be judgmental, cruel, and downright wrong to suggest that mothers whose babies sleep through the night are insensitive. But that speculative comment is no more absurd, and in some ways, more justified by the data, than the statement made in news stories all over the world that the study shows that babies should be left to cry themselves to sleep. I just wanted to show how silly it can get when academics and media types try to turn their often hard-to-interpret data into instant rules for living, and how biases and assumptions can have a big influence on the way study results are spun.
And, in fact, even though the associations I chose to highlight between breastfeeding, sensitive mothering and night waking really were found in the study, concluding that night waking is a marker for good parenting is not justified. As my blogging colleague Tracy Cassels so adroitly explained in her Evolutionary Parenting blog on this study, the effect sizes in this study were very small, so small as to be virtually meaningless, even though, technically, the researchers can say there was a difference. (I also admire the way Tracy methodically picks apart the uber-shaky connection Weinraub and colleagues, and others before them, tried to make between infant night waking and poor outcomes later in childhood.)
But Dr. Weinraub did report (that quote I used is word-for-word from the journal article) that mothers of nightwakers, as a group, on average, tended to be a little more sensitively responsive in videotaped play interactions with their babies. I happen to find that interesting, but I can’t say what it means. But I think closer study of this association (and the association with breastfeeding) might shed some light on what I see as one of the big problems in advice for parents about night waking: the massive disconnect between what mothers are told about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for six months, plus the importance of responding promptly and sensitively to babies’ distress in general, versus the way (some) sleep pundits tell them they need not worry about withholding or substantially delaying comfort to their babies’ cries at night in the context of sleep training.
I hasten to say that I am not aware of many sleep experts – certainly not reputable ones – who actually advise parents to let their babies cry themselves to sleep without ever going back in to provide at least temporary reassurance and comfort.
I’m starting to get some push back on my last blog. Good. Night waking/sleep training is a multi-layered issue that warrants a lot of discussion. I would like to see more of it aimed at identifying areas of agreement and cooperation between the “two sides” (for lack of a better term) as a opposed to a struggle for supremacy.
I’ve got more to say on these issues in future blogs. But please understand one thing. I do not have The Answer to sleep issues. And I can’t tell you what is the right way for you to handle it.
What I’ve been trying to do is expose some of the untruths so that we can get on with the important task of making sleep advice for parents more flexible, non-judgmental, realistic and helpful.