My research: watching babies sleep

When I tell people that I spent the last year of my life watching babies sleeping I get some funny looks! However that is exactly what we do in Durham University Parent Infant Sleep Lab. The Sleep Lab, set up by Professor Helen Ball 18 years ago, has been pioneering research into parent-infant sleep behaviour. As one of the only dedicated infant sleep labs in the UK, the sleep lab aims to conduct research into various aspects of infant and child sleep and parenting behaviour.

Observing parents

I happened to start researching in the Sleep Lab almost by accident. I previously completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Kent where I wrote a dissertation looking into the evolutionary function of morning sickness. This sparked my interest in maternal-infant health and led me to get in touch with the Sleep Lab team about doing an MSc by research there. For my MSc research, I conducted a study observing parents sleeping with their babies in the Sleep Lab. One night they had to put their babies to sleep in a standalone cot and the other night they had to put them to sleep in an infant safer sleep box. After I completed my MSc I managed to secure funding to continue the research I had been doing with the Sleep Lab. This time I am trialling an intervention to improve postnatal care in the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) Birthing Centre in Newcastle. My project will be building on previous work done by the Sleep Lab team in the RVI which has been significant in influencing the way that maternity units facilitate mother-infant sleep after birth.

Research based knowledge

When I started my research, I began to talk to mothers and health professionals and it became apparent how valued the work is that is done by the Sleep Lab. The Infant Sleep Information Source (ISIS Online) is an online resource created by the Sleep Lab, providing parents and health professionals with research-based information on infant sleep. In the past, information regarding infant sleep has mainly been anecdotal from family members and friends or authoritative from health professionals telling parents there is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to do things. ISIS Online aims to provide unbiased, non-judgemental, evidence-based information on ‘normal’ and safe infant sleep. The feedback from parents about the Infant Sleep Information Source is that it helps them to better understand and cope with their baby’s sleep patterns, and has alleviated their fears about sleep safety. It has been so valuable to see how research can have a real tangible impact when it is presented to people in an accessible and unassuming way.

More than just cuddling babies!

Over the past few years I’ve come to realise that the work that the Sleep Lab does goes far beyond cuddling babies. It has been a steep learning curve researching parenting as someone who has never been one myself. I am astounded by the lack of accurate information about the realities of parenting and have realised how important it is for parents to be informed. I have also come to realise how important the work done by the Sleep Lab team over the last 20 years has been in enabling parents to get access to the accurate information they so desperately need.

Find out more about the Durham University Parent Infant Sleep Lab.

If you are a parent with a newborn baby or a parent-to-be, we are looking for families to take part in a new study – find out more here

Alice-Amber Keegan

I’m Alice, a first year PhD student at Van Mildert College. I have been conducting research in the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab since 2015. I am currently a 1st year PhD student funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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