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IU researchers explore different ways to help babies sleep through the night

Dr. Sarah Honaker, IU School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, and her collaborators have been helping tired and sleep-deprived parents and their infants through behavioral sleep interventions.

Parents around the world can relate -- having a young infant in the home means a good night's rest is hard to come by. Some infants seem to figure out how to sleep through the night without much difficulty. But, a good number do not. Dr. Sarah Honaker, IU School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, and her collaborators have been helping tired and sleep-deprived parents through behavioral sleep interventions. Some of her previous work focused on how parents in the real world implement behavioral sleep interventions. To do this, she and her collaborators from across the United States conducted a survey of parents of infants to see what kind of practices they were using to help their infants sleep better. The team found that a few approaches were more commonly used; however, the most impactful findings were that parents’ stress levels decreased with the behavioral sleep interventions (regardless of which intervention was used) and that the infants had less difficulty falling asleep and fewer night wakings.

Dr. Sarah Honaker and her team of dedicated infant sleep researchers


Currently, her research study focuses on the impacts of behavioral sleep interventions on families. To do this, Dr. Honaker and her research team recruit families whose babies are 6 to 18 months old, healthy, wake up at least once during the night and a parent is required to come help them fall back to sleep. Why start with 6-month olds? Infants younger than 6 months may need to wake for nutritional purposes, but if the baby is healthy and at least 6 months of age, waking up multiple times at night is most likely a developed habit.

The families are assigned a “sleep interventionist” and the infants’ sleeping patterns are closely monitored with the aid of technology. Instead of tracking sleeping patterns using a pen-and-paper sleep diary, a video camera is used to monitor the infants’ sleeping areas and the infants wear FitBit-like devices called actigraphs which record movements. Collaborator AJ Schwichtenberg PhD and her team of students at the Purdue Sleep and Developmental Studies Laboratory code the videos of sleeping babies to determine how they are responding to the interventions. For real-time interactions, Dr. Honaker and the team turn to REDCap (Research Electronic Data Capture). “It allows us to monitor the infant sleep on a daily basis so we can review the sleep diaries that the parents complete online each morning and engage in any troubleshooting”, says Dr. Honaker. Compared to paper sleep diaries, REDCap helps the researchers capture up-to-date data and respond right away if the parents have any questions.

So what should parents do if their infants aren’t sleeping well? Dr. Honaker says that it is up to the parents. Science has consistently shown that these interventions help babies and parents sleep better, and have other benefits for the family such as reducing parental stress and even improving marital satisfaction.  However, a few years down the road, it does not appear that infants who received behavioral intervention have advantages over their peers who continued to wake during the night. . She said, “it’s a personal choice. If behavioral sleep interventions does not align with the family’s beliefs or values, then parents don’t have to implement behavioral sleep interventions.” Dr. Honaker is hoping to help parents and families as much as she can with her behavioral sleep interventions research. Families who live in the Indianapolis area and are interested in learning more about participating in the study can contact the research team to request an information packet.


Dr. Sarah Honaker, IU School of Medicine