PENN STATE (US) — Parents who argue in the first months of their baby’s life may be setting their infant up for a lifetime of sleep problems.
Sleep is often cited as being the most problematic of a child’s behavior, but poor sleep patterns in children from ages 9 to 18 months are most likely influenced by conflict in their parents’ marriage, according to a new study in the journal Child Development.
“We know that marital problems have an impact on child functioning, and we know that sleep is a big problem for parents,” says Jenae M. Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Penn State.
To focus solely on environmental considerations and rule out shared genetic factors, the new study looks specifically at adopted infants and their parents.
“It is important to understand how parenting comes in to play here,” Neiderhiser says. “Looking at the marital relationship is not direct parent-child interaction, but it is an index of stress in the family.”
For the study, 357 sets of adoptive parents were interviewed, both together and separately, to assess their own habits and emotions as well as their children’s behaviors. The parents were interviewed twice—when children were 9 months old and again at 18 months.
Parents were asked a series of questions, such as “Have you or your partner seriously suggested the idea of divorce?” and were then asked to describe their child’s behavior at bedtime, by rating several behaviors listed in the survey, such as “child needs parent in room to fall asleep” or “child struggles at bedtime.”
Marital conflict in the first survey at 9 months predicted that the child would be more likely to have sleep problems at the time of the second survey at 18 months. However, if the child had sleep problems at 9 months, the parents were not more likely to have marital stress at 18 months.
“Research indicates that stress can negatively impact sleep,” says Neiderhiser. “We also know that infancy is an important time for the development of sleep patterns. Our study suggests that marital instability is impacting change in the child’s sleep patterns over time, and it could be that this is setting the child up for a pattern of problematic sleep. Hopefully the next part of the study will help to clarify that.”
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Cardiff University, the University of California, Davis, Yale University, Oregon State University, the University of New Orleans, the University of Leicester, and the University of Otago, New Zealand contributed to the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health.
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