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Durham University

Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing


Sleep Lab Blog: Baby Sleep Down Under

(15 May 2017)

One of the highlights of this academic year for the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab was the opportunity for Sleep Lab Director, Professor Helen Ball, to spend six weeks visiting and learning about an innovative infant sleep programme in Australia. In January 2017. Helen jetted off to Brisbane to work with Dr Pam Douglas, a GP, and Dr Koa Wittingham, a psychologist, at the Possums Clinic ( – a family medical practice specialising in infant feeding and sleeping.

The Possums approach to infant sleep is an innovative alternative to the typical infant sleep programmes available in the Australian healthcare system. The latter involve prescriptive sleep training techniques that many parents find difficult to implement, and which don’t suit babies with relatively low sleep needs. Australians even have access to private and government-run ‘Sleep Schools’ where parents can take their babies for residential sleep training programmes. The Possums approach encourages parents to work with their infant’s sleep biology and encourages parental responsiveness to their infants’ needs and cued care. This approach is founded on the evolutionary approach to infant sleep that Pam and Koa learned about from the research of our team in Durham, so Helen was keen to find out what parents felt about this new approach.

At the clinic Helen conducted a survey of parents’ experiences with Possums’ sleep guidance, observed several consultations, sat in on shared (group) medical appointments on sleep and feeding, and spoke individually to parents about their experiences. Overwhelmingly parents spoke enthusiastically about the Possums approach to infant sleep and its rigorous evidence-based guidance about infant sleep needs, sleep biology and how to cope with normal infant sleep patterns. Rejecting the mainstream advice on infant sleep was challenging, and most of the clients of the Possums clients commented that it took them a couple of weeks to completely accept and understand how the Possums approach worked and what they needed to do. Once they were committed, however, many benefits followed including reduction in parental stress, less worry about their infant’s sleep, and a happier baby.

Helen is now writing up her evaluation results with the Possums team to share with Australian clinicians, and has just received funding from the Durham ESRC Impact Acceleration Account to explore trialling the Possums approach with health professionals in the northeast of England. As part of this we look forward to welcoming Dr Pam Douglas to Durham for our biennial conference next spring.