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New Advice for Sleep-Deprived Parents

Research published Monday offers some of the first strong evidence-based advice on what approach is best at getting a baby to sleep through the night.

What some baby experts offer up in opinion and theory, psychologist Ian St. James-Roberts has put to the test. In his latest research, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, he recruited three groups of moms-to-be.

The first group was made up of women in Europe and the United States who were aligned with a natural-mothering network: They held their newborns 15 to 16 hours per day, breast-fed on demand, and co-slept with their babies.

The second group, in London, was much more structured in its approach to baby care, setting up schedules for feeding and naps. Overall, the London parents had about 50 percent less contact with the babies than the "natural-network" moms.

The third group, made up of moms in Copenhagen, Denmark, split the difference between the two more extreme approaches. They carried their babies a lot during the day, but typically did not sleep with them.

The researchers compared the habits of all the babies throughout the first 12 weeks of life, and then again at 10 months.

St. James-Roberts says that neither of the extreme methods proved better than the other, although they produced different outcomes with different costs and benefits.

The advantage of the "natural-mothering" technique was that the babies fussed much less in the early weeks of life. They cried half as much as the London babies who had less physical contact. But the drawback is that the "natural-mothering" babies did not sleep well at night. And by 10 months, they were waking and crying much more than the London babies.

The Copenhagen babies, whose parents were taking the moderate approach, fared very well. As a group, they cried little after the first six weeks of life. By three months, their results were similar to the London babies -- they were settled well at night.

St. James-Roberts says that some infants -- ones evenly distributed through all three groups -- suffered bouts of colicky crying. He says that this suggests there is a biological nature to colic that parents can't control.

"That's an important message for parents," St. James-Roberts says. "It's not their fault. Within the normal range of baby care, it doesn't make very much difference to these colicky crying bouts."

But when it comes to establishing solid sleep habits, St James-Roberts says that parents can make their mark. Six weeks seems to be the age at which there's a real advantage to putting a baby down and taking a middle ground between the "natural moms" and the "London moms."

"Move over to something that is setting more limits and introducing more routines and that will then help babies learn to sleep through the night from about 12 weeks onward," he advises.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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