An innovative new web tool reveals the sleep secrets of babies, spelling the end of sleepless nights for hundreds of Australian mums and dads.
Studies show a third of new parents struggle to get their baby to sleep, and this frustrating problem triples the risk of postnatal depression among mothers.
Sleep experts are hoping to turn the tide on these statistics with an interactive online infant sleep program that educates health professionals giving advice to worried parents.
The hour-long eLearning course sets out clear guidelines on how parents can get children aged six to 18 months to fall asleep alone and self-settle when they wake in the night.
A Sleep Health Foundation grant was used to develop the program which is designed for doctors, nurses and other health professionals who advise concerned parents.
"Sleep problems are extremely common in children this age and are one of the main reasons parents seek medical help," says Associate Professor Harriet Hiscock, a paediatrician at the Sleep Health Foundation, which is supporting the project.
"They're desperate for advice on coping with night waking and related problems like frequent night feeds and dummies falling out of their little ones' mouths overnight.
"However, the information these parents get can be conflicting and not always evidence-based, "Associate Professor Hiscock says.
For example, parents are often told they should replace milk with water during night feeds, when babies actually need to be weaned off all liquids in order to sleep well.
The interactive course, based on the findings in two randomised controlled trials, sets out clear truths of baby sleep, explaining that night waking is normal but only causes problems when a baby can't go back to sleep without a parent's help.
"If your baby is put to sleep by rocking in your arms or with a bottle, then they will expect to be rocked or fed back to sleep at 2am too," the expert says. "When the baby wakes up and finds that things have changed, they will certainly call out to let you know."
The course advocates controlled comforting, a management technique in which the baby is put to bed awake and learns to fall asleep alone in their room.
Alternatively, parents concerned about tears before bedtime, can 'camp out' with their baby, a gentler technique that experts say takes more time, stamina and parental energy.
Australian studies show about 30 per cent of parents report sleep problems among six to 18 month olds. Mothers of these infants have between double and triple the risk of developing symptoms of postnatal depression, a moderate to severe depressive state affecting women postnatally.
"We've shown in rigorous trials that the management techniques we advocate not only improve a baby's sleep but also reduce symptoms of postnatal depression for their mother," Associate Professor Hiscock says.
She said the program was well received during its pilot phase, with health professionals praising the user-friendly interface, animation and clearly-worded fact sheets.
Sydney doctor Margaret Hardy says the techniques taught by the program have been invaluable for her patients.
"Parents no longer have bags under their eyes and strained expressions on their faces," Dr Hardy says. "I've suggested the techniques before, but after doing the course I'm more organised and have resources to give parents."
The Infant Sleep eLearning Program is accredited for two Royal Australian College of General Practitioners points and was developed by the Centre for Community Child Health at Murdoch Children's Research Institute.
Infant Sleep in Australia
- Babies aged 2-12 months need 14-15 hours sleep a day. This range increases to 12-15 hours for 1-3 year olds.
- By six months of age, babies can get 5-8 hours of sleep at night time
- A quarter to a half of six month olds still wake up at night. There are things that can be done to counteract this, including ensuring that they learn to go to sleep in their cot by themselves at the start of the night. This way, they are more able to soothe themselves back to sleep after waking up during the night
- About 30 per cent of parents with 6-18 months old babies seek help for problems with infant sleep
- The most common problems relate to falling asleep, night waking, frequent night feeds and dummies needing to be replaced over night
- Sleep problems are associated with double to triple the risk of postnatal depression symptoms in mothers
- The Infant Sleep eLearning Program uses two management techniques proven to reduce sleep problems and improve a mother's mental health
For more information and interview requests, contact on (02) 8814 8655.