Rocky Sleep Study helps sleepless babies to get shuteye

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      Ask any new mom how much sleep she’s getting and chances are the answer will be “Sleep? What’s that?” There were times after the birth of her second child when Erin MacNair was so exhausted that she wouldn’t let herself get behind the wheel of a car.

      “I knew I wasn’t functional,” the Vancouver blogger and metalsmith tells the Georgia Straight. “I hit a point where I started to hallucinate.”

      Her infant daughter would wake her up every two hours night after night. Sometimes her son, then three, would get up in the middle of the night as well. She coped by drinking “massive amounts” of coffee and leaning on her mom friends.

      “We were all in the same boat,” says MacNair, whose kids are now four years and 17 months. “I don’t know what I would have done without my mom friends.”¦With sleep deprivation, I’d get really, really down.”

      MacNair’s experience as a dead-tired mommy isn’t unique. About a third of the calls to Vancouver Coastal Health’s Newborn Hotline (604-737-3737), for instance, are about sleep issues.

      Parents with a restless baby on their hands—and bags under their eyes—have no shortage of books to turn to for suggestions, guides written by “experts” on how to get children to fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night. The problem is that the advice in the dozens of books available is contradictory.

      Some moms try what’s arguably the best-known sleep-training method out there: the one developed by pediatric-sleep specialist Richard Ferber, which involves letting a child “cry it out”. However, many mothers give up because they can’t stand to listen to their kids wail. Others end up bringing their babies into bed with them, sometimes nursing them to sleep out of desperation to get some rest themselves.

      Still other parents turn to sleep consultants for help. But with some charging close to $300 for a consultation, such services are out of reach for many families.

      Despite the vast amount of existing information, there is a void when it comes to easily accessible, affordable, and practical support for parents who are sleepless in Vancouver.

      Wendy Hall, a professor at UBC’s school of nursing, is working to change all that. Also a member of the Canadian Sleep Society, she has helped hundreds of families solve sleep issues on her own time over the past several years.

      Having witnessed the toll sleep deprivation takes on parents, Hall launched a pilot study in 2004 that educated 40 families on a particular intervention aimed at improving their kids’ sleeping habits and patterns. On the whole, the infants slept better and so did their moms and dads.

      Now Hall is expanding on that project, heading the Rocky Sleep Study, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research–funded project. The study, which is currently recruiting families with babies between five-and-a-half and eight months who have persistent sleep troubles, involves public-health nurses as coinvestigators. And It doesn’t involve letting kids cry it out.

      The ultimate goal is to provide families with sleep support through community health centres at no cost, the way nurses now assist new moms with breastfeeding.

      “I’m totally committed to this, because I’ve seen the distress that happens in families when babies aren’t sleeping,” Hall tells the Straight in a phone interview. “It affects the parents’ mood; they’re tired and distressed, and they don’t problem-solve as well.”

      Difficulties resulting from poor sleep habits persist beyond infancy, Hall argues. Infants who have trouble sleeping can go on to face conditions ranging from obesity to difficulty concentrating. But addressed early on, sleep problems can be overcome.

      “We’re not telling parents how they ought to parent,” Hall stresses. “We’re reaching out to parents encountering problems with infant sleep.”¦We’re putting this package together that says, ”˜This is a way you can approach the problem.’

      “I believe that by not helping parents and infants with these problems, we’re failing parents and infants,” Hall adds. “We’re not giving them [infants] the building blocks they need to be capable of self-regulation.”¦We really see a need for it, but there’s no way it will be accepted if there’s no research-based evidence to show it works. A pilot project of 40 people is not convincing enough from a research or evidence standpoint.”

      According to a study published last year in Sleep Medicine Reviews, parental behaviours such as staying with a child until he falls asleep and putting a child who’s already asleep to bed can result in dyssomnias, a number of disturbances in the normal rhythm or pattern of sleep. The study, headed by the Sleep Research Centre at Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur Hospital, also found serious potential consequences of modest but chronic loss of sleep in childhood, including behavioural problems.

      Another 2009 study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, found that excessive parental involvement and an infant’s lack of self-soothing skills were closely linked to frequent night wakings and difficulty falling asleep. As well, the Tel Aviv University–based study found that an increased number of nighttime wakings is associated with parents bringing a child into their bed and irregular bedtime routines.

      The Rocky Sleep Study is scheduled to be completed in 2011. By the time Hall’s research is wrapped up, sleep deprivation will be but a distant memory for MacNair.

      “Everyone’s got a different system,” she says of the approaches her friends have tried in order to get a little shuteye. “Moms just operate on fumes.”