Rocking a child to sleep could lead to better temperament, study says

Experts in the UAE comment on new findings that passive training techniques could have a positive effect on a child’s behavioural development

Rocking or singing your baby to sleep can support positive behavioural development, says a new study. Getty Images
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The techniques parents use to put their toddlers to sleep could have an impact on a child’s temperament, suggests a study published in Frontiers in Psychology this month.

Drawing its conclusions on the back of a sample group of 841 caregivers across 14 countries, the report found that “passive methods” such as cuddling, singing and reading your child to sleep may support positive behavioural development, compared to “active methods” such as walking, car rides and play.

The study, led by a group of international researchers including Christie Pham of Washington State University, defines temperament as “the way children regulate behaviour and handle emotions … which can have effects on mental and physical well-being and can pose a risk for future disorders”.

“Our study shows countries and cultures with greater reliance on passive strategies had toddlers with higher sociability scores,” said Pham. “On the other hand, a fussy or difficult temperament was significantly correlated with active sleep techniques.”

Easy does it

Active sleep tactics including driving a child around, which could be detrimental in the long run. Getty Images

Claudine Gillard, a sleep therapist from Sweet Dreams consultancy, has worked with more than 600 children over six years and says she supports a more passive approach to sleep-training methods.

“What’s being described in the study as active tactics involves creating the actual affect of sleep through, essentially, motion via a walk in a stroller or a car drive; or exhaustion, putting the child in a physical position where they are being moved with the intention of creating sleep by getting to point where they can’t stay awake any longer.

“The problem with the latter is that the child is not able to control anything in relation to their sleep, not the timing, position or place. They may not be comfortable because they are not in a horizontal position, in a car seat or even in some strollers. Also, these devices have another purpose; they are not just sleep tools.”

This, she says, can cause confusion in a child’s mind, if they find themselves in a car seat for different reasons — sometimes to get from A to B and other times to fall asleep in.

“A passive method, on the other hand, such as cuddling, support, consolation, reassurance and the presence of a parent, if done in a place where sleep is intended to happen, so the bedroom, helps the child recognise that at this time of day, with this environment and with these comforts available to me, sleep is going to happen next,” says Gillard.

“So it’s much more routine-driven, regular and more obvious to the child that this is how and where sleep happens.”

Gillard acknowledges the role circumstances can play. “Sometimes a child will fall asleep in the car, during a long drive, say, and that’s OK. But when it comes to intention on a regular basis, passive methods are more helpful long-term as a reliable way for a child to fall asleep.”

Independent outlook

Sleep consultant Anna Parks believes a child should be trained to sleep independently from the age of four months. Getty Images

Offering a different perspective, sleep trainer Anna Parks, owner of Anna’s Sleepy Beanz, says both the passive and active sleep tactics referenced in the study do not account for the fact that parents should — ideally — be training their babies to sleep independently.

“The way I read the study is that a parent should be rocking or holding a baby to sleep. But in my experience, such children are unable to put themselves to sleep,” says Parks.

“Each time they wake up in the middle of the night, then, they will need to be held because they can’t sleep independently. In turn, this procedure will lead to poor sleep quality, and a child who may have tantrums or be a poor eater or sluggish — so the temperament is affected negatively anyway.”

Parks says the active tactics referenced in the study might be “less harmful” because “when a child is falling asleep in a car or while being walked in the pram, because of the motion or white noise, they are not relying on you to put them to sleep”.

To this, too, she adds a caveat. “I would not advise my clients to drive or walk their kids to sleep every single night. If you can get into a routine of independent sleep-time — with the baby going into the crib — and stick to it 80 per cent of the time, then the remaining 20 per cent, you can live a little, and get away with deviating based on the child’s mood or your schedule.”

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Updated: November 25, 2022, 6:54 AM