Free Online Help for Children's Sleep Problems

VIDEO: Deborah Skolnick provides us with a list of sleep thieves for older
WATCH What's Robbing Your Kids of Sleep?

Parents have a lot on their minds when it comes to their infants and toddlers, and one of the most common worries is their children's sleeping habits. About 25 percent of parents believe their child has a sleep disturbance, typically difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep through the night.

There's now a new tool that can help put parents at ease. It is called the Customized Sleep Profile. It is a free online program that asks parents of children under age 3 a series of questions about their child's sleep. Based on the answers, the tool offers comparisons to other children of the same age, categorizes the child as a "good," "excellent" or "disrupted" sleeper, and provides recommendations for helping the child sleep better.

"We wanted to be able to provide families with an easily accessible, free tool they could use to get customized recommendations," said Jodi Mindell, one of the developers of the tool and a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Most of the information available in print or online doesn't say specifically what you should do for your child."

The recommendations, she said, are based on a wide body of sleep research.

Mindell is also lead author of a study assessing the effectiveness of the online tool. In the lastest issue of the journal Sleep, Mindell and her fellow researchers found that mothers who used the program and followed the recommendations reported their children slept much better in the two weeks after trying the customized profile. The majority of mothers said they would continue to use the recommendations after the study period.

"Mothers ... also slept better and had less tension, depression, fatigue and confusion," the authors wrote.

Johnson & Johnson provides the Customized Sleep Profile, but Mindell says it had no involvement in its development or the study, and offered no compensation to the authors.

Tool Practical and Informative, Say Other Experts

Sleep experts not involved with the online tool or the study said the sleep profile is practical and a great resource for parents. They said it provides individualized information that's difficult to get elsewhere.

"I think it's a good idea because there aren't many of us trained to give sleep advice to parents of children this age that have sleep disturbances," said Dr. Roberta Leu, assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "Pediatricians often don't have the time to address them."

"I think it may work very well, especially for that age group of parents who are more inclined to use the internet for medical information," said Joyce Walsleben, professor of medicine at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York.

The Customized Sleep Profile provides tips that are backed by science. They are based on a child's age as well as the parent's answers.

"If, for example, a parent says, 'My two-year-old wakes up twice a night and I rock him twice a night,' the recommendation will probably be to stop rocking the child," said Mindell.

Some other recommendations:

Make sure your child has a regular bedtime.
Many children need more sleep than they get.
Have the child sleep in his or her own bed rather than the parents' bed.
Use more absorbent diapers.
If a toddler is having trouble making the move from a crib to a regular bed, switch back to the crib.

A regular bedtime was the most common recommendation.

"So much of it is about creating regularity. Many kids thrive on consistency and predictability," said Philip Gehrman, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The study only followed mothers for two weeks after they used the online tool, so it's not yet known whether parents will continue to comply with the recommendations.

"When your kids wake up in the middle of the night, all you want to do is go back to bed," said Gehrman. "It can be hard to stick with these things long term because you're having to do these at a time when maybe you're not at your peak thinking ability."

"Within the first two weeks when they're really motivated, they will do all these things," said Leu. "But whenever there's any kind of stressor on a child, such as teething or an illness, there's always the potential that things can revert back."

Sleep specialists would like to see new tools developed for other age groups. They believe they can teach parents a lot about what's really going on with their child's sleep.

Said Mindell: "A lot of times, parents talk to their family and friends about sleep problems, and the family and friends may say the child will grow out of whatever it is and parents just tolerate the problem. They don't realize they can make some changes."