University of Georgia

Parenting intervention could improve sleep for Black infants

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A parenting intervention can improve the sleep of Black infants according to a new study from researchers at the University of Georgia and Augusta University.

As a group, many Black infants do not get the minimum 12 hours of sleep per day recommended by organizations such as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation. Later in development, Black children and adults experience poorer sleep than white Americans. This has implications for their mental and physical well-being and contributes to health inequities.

Researchers aimed to improve sleep for Black infants by testing an in-home intervention for a group of first-time Black mothers and their infants in the Augusta, Georgia area. The responsive parenting intervention taught strategies for sleep, soothing, feeding and play. The goal was to “help moms read baby’s cues” and understand how to respond to those cues, said Justin Lavner, lead author and associate professor of psychology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts & Sciences. He says that enhancing responsive parenting practices would “help parents try other strategies in response to infant distress rather than relying on feeding.”

The study, referred to as Sleep SAAF (Strong African American Families), was led by Lavner and Leann Birch, the William P “Bill” Flatt Professor in UGA’s Department of Foods and Nutrition until her death in 2019. The project was a collaboration between the Center for Family Research at UGA and researchers at Augusta University, led by Brian Stansfield, associate professor of pediatrics. The project was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health.

The research team recruited new mothers from the mother-baby nursery at Augusta University Medical Center shortly after delivery. Mothers who enrolled in the study received five home visits over the first 16 weeks postpartum, including three data collection visits and two psychoeducational sessions at three and eight weeks. A control group received an intervention focused on child safety tips.

Justin Lavner
Justin Lavner, an associate professor of psychology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts & Sciences, recently led a study aimed at improving sleep for Black infants through parenting interventions such as established bedtime routines and particular responses to babies waking up during the night.

To improve infants’ sleep, the responsive parenting intervention introduced tips to establish bedtime routines so that mothers would help their baby learn to fall asleep on their own. The intervention also explained how mothers could respond when their baby woke up at night so that they would fall back asleep quickly and develop the capacity to self-soothe.

Results from the study demonstrated that babies whose mother received the responsive parenting intervention had longer reported nighttime and 24-hour sleep duration, fewer nighttime wakings and a greater likelihood of meeting guidelines of at least 12 hours of total sleep per day than infants in the control group.

The study provides evidence that solid improvements in sleep can be made early in infancy. The next question, Lavner said, is whether this and other interventions can promote better sleep patterns that continue into later childhood, and ultimately lead to better psychosocial as well as physical health.

In a commentary on the work, reviewers said, “The study by Lavner and colleagues, which to our knowledge is the first to demonstrate the efficacy of infant behavioral sleep intervention in Black families, makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the efficacy of this treatment in diverse populations.” (S. M. Honaker and A. Chung, 2023).