When Elizabeth Keys, RN, worked in the community as a public health nurse, she often encountered new parents struggling to get their babies to sleep. Frequent night wakings and overtired babies add up to stressed parents.
What frustrated Elizabeth, however, was her inability to provide guidance when existing infant sleep recommendations failed.
“We all know how important sleep is to everyone’s health,” said Elizabeth, whose doctoral studies at the University of Calgary’s faculty of nursing confirmed that parents struggling with infant sleep issues feel unsupported.
That’s why Elizabeth’s ongoing study, Play2Sleep, aims to develop a practical intervention that health-care practitioners can teach tired parents, especially those who are making the transition from pregnancy to parenthood.
“We have rich evidence so far that tells us how much parents like to work as a team with nurses to tackle infant sleep issues,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is examining serve and return: the exchange of social cues between parents and infants during play, and how this concept can improve infant sleep.
“There are a whole suite of physical expressions babies use to communicate with parents, and every baby will have personalized cues, as well as different cues they show either mom or dad,” Elizabeth says.
The goal of the ongoing research, which entails videotaping and assessing how moms and dads play with infants, is to develop an intervention that supports clinical nurses in assessment, and offer serve and return tips.
“For example, lip-smacking is an early sign that the baby might need a break,” explains Elizabeth. “It’s really about coaching parents in reading cues earlier so they are better able to eliminate the struggle of putting their baby to sleep when he or she is overtired or not tired enough.”
Early evidence shows Play2Sleep could work.
“One of the first families who were in the study saw improvements in their baby’s sleep between the first home visit when their baby was five months old and the follow up at seven months,” Elizabeth says.
“When I went back for the follow-up home visit, the whole atmosphere of the house had changed…I could tell the parents had gained much more confidence, not only in understanding their baby’s sleep and how to manage sleeping difficulties, but also in their overall ability to work as a team to troubleshoot other parenting issues,” she says.
When the study is complete, she hopes to show parents how to use these cues to address sleep challenges.
Elizabeth is currently recruiting more families to participate in Play2Sleep. Parents experiencing sleep challenges with their babies can contact her about this home visit-based study in Calgary. Find out more at nursing.ucalgary.ca/play2sleep.