Research Impact


Infant crying and sleep research: soothing babies and helping parents

Infant crying

12 December 2014


Professor Ian St James-Roberts's research on understanding infant sleep and crying underpins government and third-sector guidance for health staff in the UK, US, Canada and Australia and has thus eased the minds of countless parents.

For many years parents, particularly in the West, have been offered conflicting advice on how to respond to very young babies who cry excessively or have problematical sleep patterns. Many parents have consequently not known whether to try to stick to a predetermined sleeping and eating schedule or react to their child's every demand. Breakthrough research by Professor Ian St James-Roberts of the UCL Institute of Education identified a methodology that would provide the reliable answers parents craved.

Professor St James-Roberts and his colleagues studied three different parenting styles: a London group of parents who indicated they were likely to follow a schedule, a Copenhagen group who expected to be more responsive, and a 'proximal' group who expected to be immediately responsive. They found that different styles had benefits at different age groups: immediately comforting babies was beneficial in the first weeks, while as they grew older, routines helped reduce crying at night, but colicky crying (prolonged, unexplained bouts of crying) are unaffected by parenting style. Later research distinguished between sleep-waking problems and colicky crying - the latter has, in extreme cases, been known to trigger shaken baby syndrome resulting in brain damage or death.

This body of work has helped to achieve a paradigm shift in the understanding and treatment of infant colic, crying and sleep problems. It has informed millions of parents and has paved the way for the development of interventions to help families and substantially reduce governments' health costs. It is also contributing to the work of others to prevent shaken baby syndrome.

You have no idea how difficult it is to find an un-biased summary of ways to deal with night waking … It is very easy to find information on how to execute the methods, but next to impossible to find a backgrounder that simply describes the problem so that as a parent you can assess the behaviour before deciding how to deal with it. - Feedback to the Infant Sleep resource on the Period of Purple Crying website

It has added to evidence that different parenting approaches have little effect on colicky crying, providing reassurance to parents that they are not to blame for this type of infant crying. In the UK, this led to a move towards health services that focus on providing parents with information and practical support in managing infant crying. For example the National Institute for Health Research's 2012 call for research to underpin an intervention package for parents of infants who cry excessively focused directly on supporting parents rather than trying to treat an infant presumed to be unwell. Professor St James-Roberts is a member of the Research Advisory Panel for the National Childbirth Trust and his work supports their research on persistent crying.

Research findings have been widely used to combat shaken baby syndrome. Professor St James-Roberts has written widely read pages on infant sleep for the Period Of Purple Crying website, which is sponsored by the US National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome. His papers have been cited by US National Criminal Justice Reference Service and in the Journalist's Guide to Shaken Baby Syndrome which is published by the US Department of Health and Human Services Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. As the guide says, "The key here is that crying is normal and is not the problem. The problem is how caregivers respond to a baby's cry."

Professor St James-Roberts works closely with organisations that educate new parents about infant sleep and crying issues - and the professionals who advise them. For example, he wrote a guide for professionals and families which now underpins an Institute of Health Visiting sleep campaign for practitioners; it is recommended in the Institute's practitioner training sessions, including those run jointly with NetMums. He is cited by NHS Direct and UNICEF, as well as Mothercare and many international parents' organisations and health websites, and has been translated into many languages. 

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