The way parents put their toddlers to sleep can have a direct impact on how well the kids sleep when they reach four to six years old, says a new study.
The team led by Valerie Simard, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal interviewed 987 mothers and fathers with five-month-old babies.
The parents detailed their offspring's psychological characteristics, socio-demographic factors and sleep habits until they reached six years in age. They also recorded sleep habits or disturbances like bad dreams, total sleep time and delays in falling asleep.
The team also asked parents to report on their own behaviour at their child's bedtime like whether parents lulled children to sleep, laid them down awake, or stayed with them until they slumbered.
Mothers and fathers were also questioned on how they reacted to night awakenings - did they comfort children in bed, take them out of bed, give them food or bring them to the parental bed for co-sleeping.
"Few studies have investigated how parenting can affect sleep in children," said Simard.
They found that parental behaviour like giving children food or drink after they awoke that provoked bad dreams, sleep of less than 10 hours or delays in falling back asleep, co-sleeping or staying with them at the beginning of the sleep can directly affect their sleep.
"Giving children food or drink - effective parenting strategies for early sleep problems - can later become inappropriate," said Simard.
"Parents often opt for co-sleeping as a reaction, but co-sleeping is not the best option to prevent future sleep difficulties. Co-sleeping and other uncommon parental behaviours have negative consequences for future sleep.
"Since mothers come to believe that infants cry only when hungry, they might adopt an inappropriate response of giving food or drink when 29 to 41-month-old toddlers awake, which in turn causes bad dreams and shorter total sleep when children reach four to six years old," she added.
The study is published in the April issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.