The Parent-Infant Sleep Lab is a Department of Anthropology research lab, and a research centre of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health and the Wolfson Institute for Health & Well-being. It is the home for a group of researchers examining various aspects of infant and child sleep and parenting behaviour. The lab itself was opened in 2000, while the research programmes it houses have been in operation since 1995. The Sleep Lab provides opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate students to become involved in our research, and we welcome enquiries. As our research team has grown our research focus has broadened to cover infant and child sleep ecology, sleep development, sleep safety, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), parental sleep, night-time infant care, feeding practices, thermal care and infant thermoregulation during sleep, twin infant sleep behaviour and physiology, postnatal ward environments and maternal-infant sleep, cross cultural infant care practices, and the evaluation of interventions affecting parental and infant sleep. We collaborate with academics from a wide range of disciplines around the world, and with a variety of research users. We created and run the Infant Sleep Info Source website for parents and health professionals in order to make academic infant sleep research findings available to parents and health professionals.
Our research wins Durham University the Queen's Anniversary Prize
Durham University has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education - the highest accolade for any academic institution and part of the national honours system in the United Kingdom. The prize from the Royal Anniversary Trust has been awarded for ‘leading influential research on parent-infant sleep with a widely-used public information service’. The awards are approved by The Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister from recommendations made by the Royal Anniversary Trust. Durham University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, commented: “We are hugely honoured to receive this prestigious award, which recognises the immensely valuable and wide-reaching impact of the research carried out by the team in the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab. At Durham, we aim to deliver research that is world-leading and world-changing and the work of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab is a perfect example of this commitment.”
How studying sleeping babies led to Royal prize
(8 December 2017)
The University has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education for ‘leading influential research on parent-infant sleep with a widely-used public information service’. We caught up with the Director of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab, Professor Helen Ball, to find out more about the research journey.
Congratulations on the award. What does this mean to you and your colleagues?
This award is not just a prize for us but for the whole University to recognise the fact that they have invested in our research and encouraged us to do it.
What is most pleasing for us is that it recognises all of the organisations that we’ve worked with outside of Durham who have helped to spread knowledge about our research and implemented it so we are very grateful for that.
Tell us about the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab
We look at issues of night-time infant care, particularly around the safety of babies when they sleep and how their sleep develops. This means we find out what happens to babies at night, why parents do what they are doing, where babies sleep and how the different elements affect babies’ safety and parental well-being. We conduct some of this research in our lab which consists of a bedroom wired up with night vision cameras and an observation room, and some of it within hospitals or in people’s homes.
Because we are Anthropologists studying infant care and sleep we think about parental caring strategies and infant responses from evolutionary and cross cultural perspectives, which means we ask questions and make sense of our results in somewhat different ways to psychologists or epidemiologists who might study aspects of infant sleep and night-time parenting. This means we are able to bring new perspectives to this research area and are often challenging long-standing beliefs.
Your research has a global reach. Did you have a strategy for achieving this kind of impact?
Not at the outset; we just wanted the research to be useful in some way and from the beginning, we set out to conduct research we could share with health practitioners to influence the ways in which parents were advised around infant sleep.
Global reach came a bit later as our work became well known in the UK and caught the attention of people overseas. Our strategy then was to present our research at every opportunity to potential research users, demonstrating how it could improve the care they provided, and improve parent and baby outcomes. Our work was first taken up in practice and then began to be incorporated into hospital policies and national guidance. We have tried to facilitate this by making ourselves available to serve on policy development committees, answer questions from people drafting guidance, and comment on policy drafts.
I remember chatting to one of my PhD students at the very beginning of this research journey when a new Department of Health policy had been announced. She said: “If they would just listen to us about what’s happening to babies at night, we could give them the evidence and change things.”
After 20 years of badgering away at people fortunately we are now in the position where people come to us for information and we no longer have to badger anyone!
You say ‘badgering away at people’. How did you manage to get your research in front of the right people?
Persistence has been one of our strengths -- raising the profile of our research by doing lots (and I mean lots!) of talks and presentations to health professionals at conferences and study days. Getting the information in front of the research users and enthusing them to use it.
However, there are key turning points that happen fortuitously. For us, this was that the WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly Initiative was initiated in the UK in 1997 and in that same year I met one of the Programme Officers (now the Executive Director) from UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative at a local NHS conference where we had both been invited to speak. She was so excited about the research we were doing here in Durham! It was after that conference that our working relationship with UNICEF started, and has continued ever since.
It was about finding that key relationship with an implementer of research that was crucial for us, and it snowballed from there.
Do you have any tips for other academics?
Stand up for your evidence and do not be scared to be controversial if the evidence justifies it. I have certainly always tried to do this in my talks, interviews and research papers, and. I always advised everyone in our team to separate the research message from personal beliefs and to be confident in our evidence. That’s not to say we haven’t had our fair share of criticism, because infant sleep is an emotive subject on which almost everyone has an opinion, so developing a thick skin is pretty vital.
In terms of making a difference, what are you most proud of?
Many parents have commented on how our research and the Infant Sleep Info website information has helped them to better understand and cope with their infant’s sleep patterns, and assuaged their fears about infant sleep safety, so I am very proud of having the idea to create it, and then implementing and growing it. It has become a fabulous example of successful academic outreach with public benefit.
- Ball, Helen L. (2017). Evolution-informed maternal-infant health. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1(3): 0073.
- Ball, Helen L. (2017). The Atlantic Divide: contrasting U.K. & U.S. recommendations on cosleeping and bed-sharing. Journal of Human Lactation 33(4): 765-769.
- Bartick, Melissa, Tomori, Cecília & Ball, Helen L. (2017). Babies in boxes and the missing links on safe sleep: Human evolution and cultural revolution. Maternal & Child Nutrition e12544
- Robinson-Smith, Lyn & Ball, Helen L. (2017). Sleep and cognitive function in young children. The International Journal of Birth and Parent Education 5(1): 27-30.
- Sullivan, S.S. & Ball H.L. (2017). Early Childhood Pediatric Sleep Concerns for Parents: Co-sleeping. In Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology. Stein, John Elsevier.
- Tomori, Cecilia (2017). The Inequities of Nighttime Breastfeeding. In Breastfeeding, Social Justice, and Equity. Smith, Paige Hall, Labbok, Miriam & Chambers, Brittany Praeclarus Press. 231-238.
To view all Sleep Lab related publications, click here.