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Georgia Cook is from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. She joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in September 2014 and her thesis title is ‘Parents, their children and sleep: Parental influences on, and help seeking-behaviour relating to, child sleep'.
Having already been a master’s student at Oxford Brookes (2013-2014) I was very well placed to be aware of the research student opportunities at the University. Even more so I was lucky enough that my dissertation supervisor had a studentship available in a similar area to that which I undertook my master’s project in. This opportunity was incredibly attractive to me as I already had knowledge and experience of the department, my supervisor and direct field of PhD study.
I was attracted to Oxford Brookes to undertake my research for a number of reasons. Firstly being familiar with the department and its members for me personally was a real positive, as I knew what the department was like on a day-to-day basis. I also wanted to continue research working with children and the Oxford Brookes Psychology department has a very strong developmental focus, as well as a number of staff members conducting high quality research with children and families which was what I wanted to do. So I felt my research interests fitted in well to the department. I was particularly attracted to undertake my research at Oxford Brookes as it allowed me the chance to continue working closely with my previous dissertation supervisor Dr Luci Wiggs. Luci has been a fantastic supervisor and mentor throughout my time at Oxford Brookes, for which I am extremely grateful!
In the immediate time before starting my research studentship I completed an SQC (short qualifying certificate) and a conversion course Master’s in Psychology to allow me to make a change of career to Psychology via a return to education. My background prior to that had been an undergraduate degree in English Literature and History followed by re-locating to London to work in Financial Services recruitment for 4 years. In comparison to many of my peers I have one of the more unusual backgrounds for being a current PhD student. But I think I am a prime example of how there is no exact route into being a PhD research student!
I found the transition into the research environment fairly seamless, although at times intimidating! Partly I think due to the fact that I officially started a few weeks before actually giving in my dissertation for my master’s degree, my focus was already, to a certain extent, in an academic research capacity. Even more importantly, the existing research students were incredibly welcoming and helpful. We got a lot of information and informal support in the early stages and beyond from these students! In addition I was lucky enough to start alongside four other PhD research students who all came from a variety of different backgrounds and environments and we all made a real effort to bond, spend time together and help each other out which really helps when you settle into a new environment. During the first few weeks of becoming a research student there were various inductions and training, on a whole range of aspects, to help orientate us as new students into the research environment. This support was invaluable in helping us to familiarise ourselves with our responsibilities and what was expected of us but also what was available to us in terms of support from our supervisors, the faculty and the University as a whole. There was a broad and varied training programme for new research students. There was also a range of informal social events which were a fantastic way to build relationships with other new research students across the University. It was good to make some friends and connections as you tend to see these people again at various events and around the University and it’s nice to see some friendly faces!
My research project consists of two distinct studies. Collectively these studies aim to inform about UK parents’ help-seeking behaviours and help us to further understand the role of both maternal and paternal cognitions in infant sleeplessness.
Sleep is essential to a child’s development. However empirical research suggests sleeplessness occurs in somewhere between 10 – 25% of infants and toddlers. Many of these sleeplessness problems, which commonly include initiation and/or maintenance issues, are considered to be behavioural in nature. Because of this one of the most common treatments of child sleeplessness problems are behavioural interventions, which follow the principle that as sleep problems are learnt the interventions look to change the behaviour, which causes and/or perpetuates the problem. They are recognised as being successful in treating behavioural sleeplessness problems in children and are viewed as the preferred and first-line treatment by health services.
However these are only one of a range of possible management options and not all families are able, or want, to use behavioural interventions. In addition not all parents seek formal medical guidance and it has been found that higher proportions of parents desire than seek help. Such findings suggest there may be a gap between available and utilised help. Therefore while there is a broad variety of potential sources which parents can and do utilise when seeking information and advice regarding their child’s sleep, very little is known about what sources and/or treatment methods parents actually use and why. Through an online questionnaire, completed by parents of children aged 6-36 months, study 1 explored UK based parents help-seeking behaviours in relation to child sleep, including what sources parents most commonly use and why, their preferences for intervention approaches and perceived barriers to utilising particular sources or interventions.
In addition I conducted a second study focusing more on parental influences on child sleep. Due to the prevalence of sleeplessness in infants and toddlers, factors that may influence their sleep have been extensively investigated. This has included the role of parenting and parental factors. It is now well established that certain parental behaviours used to settle and soothe children to sleep, such as those involving active physical comforting or extensive parental presence are associated with poorer child sleep or sleeplessness. Certain parental cognitions, that is the thoughts, feelings or beliefs parents hold about their child in relation to sleep, have also been linked to the presence of infant sleeplessness. However the majority of studies in these areas and also those investigating the links between parents’ thoughts and parents’ behaviours have focused on mothers; little is known about the role and potential influence of fathers on their infants sleep or the differences between parents.
One specific parental variable that has been repeatedly linked to sleeplessness in infants is maternal cognitions. Parents may hold various different types of sleep-related cognitions, including about their own sleep (e.g. if I don’t get 8 hours sleep I cannot function the next day) and about their child’s sleep (e.g. when my child cries at night, I think something awful might have happened to him/her). When parental cognitions have been investigated it has only been cognitions relating to the child’s sleep that have been explored. However it is well known that cognitions or dysfunctional beliefs about one’s own sleep can affect sleep in adults. It is plausible then that parents who hold such cognitions may also hold, or be more susceptible to developing maladaptive, dysfunctional or negative cognitions about their child’s sleep. However no existing empirical research has investigated these links, which is an omission as this may have implications for possible intervention targets.
Various theoretical models have been proposed to explain the interplay between infant sleep and other factors. The transactional model acknowledges a variety of factors may play a role in infant sleep but suggests parental cognitions may act as drivers for how parents behave and respond to their child’s sleep. As with other areas of the literature there has been a focus on mothers. Therefore Study 2 will extend existing research by investigating a range of different types of sleep cognitions parents may hold as well as the bedtime practices employed by parents across and between parental dyads. Further this study will explore the potential impact on child sleep of parental discordance in relation to the cognitions parents hold and bedtime practices they use with their child.
I really enjoy life as a research student, although it is not without its challenges. I relish the intellectual and practical challenges associated with being a research student. You are constantly being pushed to think about things in a new and different way. The freedom and flexibility to work in a way that best suits you is also a big positive of the life of a research student for me personally. I have also loved having the time and space to really immerse myself in the wider literature of my topic and regularly have contact with experts in my field in the shape of my supervisors to discuss all aspects of my research project.
One of the main challenges I have experienced is not being physically based in Oxford. Living in Gloucestershire and attending the University on a weekly basis, the commute can be a bit of a major headache and so I tend to do as much as I can from home. While this has its benefits it can mean that being a research student is a lonely life, even if you don’t live a few hours commute from your University! I don’t think feelings of isolation are only experienced by those who commute but by all research students, particularly on those days where you feel you are not progressing as quickly as you would like, or are experiencing particular challenges. However, with a bit of planning and effort you can easily develop and maintain a good social and support network; I think this is key for all research students! One of the other challenges I have experienced is being able to effectively plan and manage my own time. I found daily, weekly and monthly planning of my activities and regular to-do lists have really helped me ensure I keep to the tight deadlines I have put onto myself.
There is a huge amount of research training and resources available at Oxford Brookes. This ranges from University, faculty and department wide training opportunities that cover a diverse range of topics and aspects of being a research student. One of the challenges in broad training programs can be that certain aspects are only relevant to students in a specific area. One of the real positives of research training is that if there is a gap or you experience a specific need this can be addressed or arranged internally or externally if appropriate. In addition I have been lucky enough that the Psychology department staff members have been incredibly accommodating in providing or delivering any department specific training we required.
One of the main ways in which the training offered personally benefited me was in being able to obtain an Associate Teaching qualification. As I previously had no experience of teaching in Higher Education this was invaluable to provide me with a strong foundation to develop my teaching abilities through experience. This is also a fantastic qualification for me to have obtained during my time at Oxford Brookes as it is attractive to future employers if I pursue future career opportunities that involve teaching.
I am hoping to continue with a varied and challenging career in academia. While I would love to expand on my existing research, I know from many of my colleagues (and own experience!) that applying for and obtaining funding for research in the current economic climate can be incredibly challenging. As part of my PhD studentship funding, I did a fair amount of teaching on various undergraduate modules. I really enjoyed this and I am definitely interested in higher education teaching opportunities.