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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 00:31 GMT 01:31 UK
Cry babies 'learn to sleep better'
Baby in cot
"Controlled crying" can train a baby's sleep patterns
Mothers who learn to let their babies cry themselves to sleep have better nights and suffer less postnatal depression, research suggests.

A report in the British Medical Journal found that teaching mothers "controlled crying" techniques significantly reduced sleep problems.

Two generations ago, leaving babies to cry was the favoured method for teaching children to sleep and many experts agree it can work well again if mothers are properly supported.

The Australian researchers studied 156 mothers with children, aged between 6 and 12 months, suffering from severe sleep problems.

Mothers can become very vulnerable

Cheryll Adams of the CPHVA

They gave one group advice on how to let their babies cry, sleep management plans, information on normal sleep patterns and how to manage problems.

The other group was simply told about normal sleep patterns, but got no advice on managing the problems.

Sleep problems

Other studies suggest half of parents had problems with their child's sleep between six months and a year.

And up to 15% of mothers were suffering from postnatal depression.

Both of these were having a detrimental effect on family life, leading in some cases to marital stress, family breakdowns, child abuse; behavioural problems and maternal anxiety.

Paediatrician Dr Harriet Hiscock and her team taught parents "controlled crying techniques" - how to respond to an infant's cry at increasing time intervals to teach it to fall asleep alone.

Babies need to have a structured routine

She also advocated consistent daytime naps and bedtime routines.

The parents were asked to keep sleep diaries and routines were individually tailored to meet families' needs.

They found they were able to solve nearly 90% of the babies' sleep problems by using the controlled crying methods, meaning far fewer women needing help for postnatal depression.

Dr Hiscock recommended the system to other professionals.

"The intervention reduced the need for other professional sleep services, was acceptable to mothers, was of low cost and was minimally disruptive to families in contrast with many current strategies for postnatal depression," she said.

She added she would now like to see the study extended.

Health problems

Cheryll Adams, of the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association (CPHVA), said the study showed the importance of supporting new mothers.

Mothers who were not getting enough sleep tended to become more stressed and suffer more from mental health problems, she said.

"Small problems become large ones and the mothers can become very vulnerable. This study seems to suggest giving support to the mothers.

"Telling a mother to leave her baby without support is often unsuccessful as an exhausted mother does not have the resources to deal with this."

Penney Hames, of the National Childbirth Trust, and author of Help your baby to sleep, said the study showed the benefits of training babies to sleep alone by using methods used in years gone by.

"This is what our grandparents used to do - pottering about downstairs and then popping in every few minutes to see how the baby was sleeping."

But she stressed there were other ways of dealing with sleep problems and said she advocated the child sleeping with its parent.

"This is the way children sleep in other cultures," she said.

See also:

29 Mar 02 | Health
When baby won't sleep
13 Mar 01 | Health
Sleepless nights lay new mums low
18 May 00 | Health
Diary of a new mother
25 Sep 98 | Health
Mum's the word
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