Pandemic disrupts baby sleep patterns

The onset of COVID-19 disrupted day-to-day routines for millions of families around the world, with the stress and changes in routines caused by home confinement temporarily impeding normal infant sleep development, experts say.

However, studies led by Flinders University child sleep researchers also found that shutdowns and working from home have presented an opportunity for parents to get more sleep for themselves and their infants

Parents of young children are a vulnerable population, having to juggle caring for their children’s needs with working from home, Flinders University child and adolescent sleep researcher Dr Michal Kahn told the 2020 European Sleep Congress.

Based on high-tech baby monitoring, developed by US company Nanit, the study of more than 600 babies aged 1-30 months formed the basis of this new study.

“We know that the pandemic has disrupted day-to-day routines as well as the health and wellbeing of families across the world, but what we found in our research helps demonstrate the resilience of infants and gives us hope that babies can adapt with the current uncertainty,” says Nanit’s clinical research director Dr Natalie Barnett.

Flinders PhD Michal Kahn has presented several studies at the 2020 European Sleep Congress.

The study showed more fragmentation and wakefulness in baby behaviour at the outset of the pandemic from mid-March to mid-May.

The silver lining, according to Dr Kahn, was infants of mothers in home confinement also slept for longer durations, compared to infants of mothers who continued to work as usual.

“Shutdowns and working from home are now presenting an opportunity for parents to get more sleep for themselves and their infants, and the importance of getting more sleep in this day and age should not be underestimated,” she says.

In a second study, Flinders and Nanit researchers collected data from 946 parents with babies aged 2 weeks to 18 months to observe parents’ attitudes to infant sleep patterns.

This study found that the most potent predictor of perceived infant sleep problems is more connected to parental, rather than infant, behaviour.

Infant sleep was measured using auto-videosomnography, objectively capturing sleep duration, onset and wakeup time, and parental crib visits over 14 days.

Results showed that parental nighttime crib visits was the factor most strongly associated with perceived infant sleep problems, as every additional visit was associated with a 31% increase in odds of parent-defined infant sleep problems. Shorter infant sleep duration, lower parental cry tolerance and greater parental depressional levels were other factors.

“This research shines a light on how much parents’ behaviors and emotions factor into their belief that their child has a sleep problem, even more than realistic aspects of the child’s sleep,” says Dr Kahn, from the Flinders University Child and Adolescent Sleep Clinic research group.

“Researchers, clinicians and parents should be aware of the major role parental behaviours play in infant sleep problem perception, which in turn may determine whether or not they choose to seek treatment for these problems,” says paediatric sleep expert Professor Michael Gradisar, director of the Child and Adolescent Sleep Clinic at Flinders University.

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College of Education, Psychology and Social Work Research

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