Then, just last week I came across this great study conducted by child development researchers (yeah!) on the topic of sleep and parental responsiveness. I was excited to see this study and the fact that it was conducted at Pennsylvania State University, one of the top programs in Human Development and Family Studies, gave me hope that it would be a well-thought out study. This particular study examined parents' emotional responsiveness to infants/toddlers at bedtime and its association to how easily the child went to sleep and how well the child stayed asleep.
Like me, many parents had always heard that a bedtime routine is key in helping an infant or toddler go to sleep easily and sleep peacefully. This study somewhat debunks this long-held thought. The researchers studied infants and young children (2 years and under) and their parents using direct observation via video cameras in their bedrooms. The results showed that parents' emotional responsiveness to children's moods and needs prior to bedtime were a better predictor of children's sleep than any sort of bedtime routine (i.e., reading books, quiet activities, etc.). So what does emotional responsiveness really mean? Well, it's probably many of the things parents commonly do with their child--speaking softly if the child seems upset, changing activities if the child seems uninterested with the current one. The researchers point out that being emotionally available to the child at bedtime helps them feel safe and this, in turn, makes it easier for them to go to sleep without a struggle.
Personally, I don't think this means that you should throw out your bedtime routine, but it did make me think about the importance of flexibility. I think bedtime routines can be useful and also make children feel safe, however, children are different from day to day. Some nights reading a book and rocking in a chair may work great, but other nights a child may not be into reading a book. The key, it seems from this research, is to be attentive to the child's emotional needs at that particular moment. If the child doesn't seem interested in a book, the best option may be to move on to something else and not worry too much about the routine. This research seems to indicate that if you get to caught up in keeping the routine exactly the same (even if the child is resistant) it may end up making it more difficult for them to fall asleep.
Hopefully more great research on sleep is coming down from the ivory tower soon!