For Parents Whose Kids Won’t Sleep, There’s Help Online

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Andersen Ross

As anyone in a household with infants or toddlers knows, bedtime can be a nightmare. But that’s where technology, in the form of Web-based sleep counseling, can help.

Although Internet use has been blamed for keeping teens and adults awake too late at night, researchers in the U.S. and Israel report in the journal Sleep that a Web-based program can be a powerful tool for helping parents get babies to hit the sack — and to improve their own sleep and mood.

(More on Why Americans Are Among the Most Sleepless People in the World)

Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, and her colleagues created an interactive database of the sleeping habits of more than 5,000 babies under age 3. That information, which included what parents and infants did in the minutes and hours before going to sleep, was coupled with studies on the most effective practices for inducing sleep. The resulting program, the Customized Sleep Profile, allows parents to input data on their own child’s sleeping habits, and compare that profile with those of thousands of other children the same age. The program then gives parents personalized recommendations for their child’s specific sleep problems.

If you’ve been trying to rock your baby to sleep, for instance, the program suggests putting your child to bed awake — he’ll be more likely to drift off naturally. If your baby wakes up hungry hours after falling asleep, you can try eliminating nighttime feedings, and he’ll be more likely to sleep through the night.

The study, which involved 264 mothers and their infant or toddler, randomly assigned two groups of parents to using the Web program (a third control group followed their usual bedtime practices), and one of the intervention groups was also asked to establish a three-step bedtime routine that included a bath, a massage and a quiet activity such as listening to a lullaby or cuddling. A 2009 study by Mindell suggested that this routine helped improve problem sleeping in infants and toddlers.

In both intervention groups, babies went to bed easier and slept longer at night, and mothers reported better sleep and less tension, depression and fatigue, compared with the families in the control group.

“One thing that I was astonished about, in just one week, we saw dramatic improvements,” says Mindell. Previously fussy babies reduced the number of times they awoke at night and the length of time they were awake by up to 50%, and also took less time to fall asleep.

As for the recommendations generated by the program, there really is no magic to them, says Mindell; they are based on well-known advice supported by research. The difference is that they’re tailored to address specific sleep behaviors, while previous advice to sleep-deprived parents tended to be more general. “Whatever the parent inputs, the recommendations provided are based on that input,” Mindell says.

The program was a blessing for the exhausted parents in the trial. Nearly all of them said they would continue using the program even after the study ended. Currently, the program is available on the Johnson & Johnson website as one of its “tools for better sleep.” (The study authors have consulted for J&J, but the company was not involved with the data analysis or writing of the study.) For parents, late-night screen time may not be such a bad thing after all.