• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 31st August, 2011

Sweet dreams

A child’s ability to fall and stay asleep in the early months of their life is not just an issue for sleep-deprived new parents. Problems with sleeping tend to persist into children’s later development and are associated with a range of emotional, behavioural, cognitive and academic difficulties. But rather than being a cause of marital stress, as is widely believed, infant sleep problems could also, in fact, be the result of conflict between parents. This is the finding of a pioneering new study conducted by Anne Mannering and an international team of researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center, which has revealed that problems in marital relationships are a significant contributor to the emergence of sleeping problems in young children.“Parents should be aware that marital stress may affect the well-being of their children even in the first year or two of life,” suggests Mannering.The study was driven by the hypothesis that family stress has an impact on parts of the brain involved in how children develop and regulate their sleeping patterns. While there is good evidence to support this contention, much of the research involves biologically related family members and it is thus difficult to disentangle whether it is the child’s family environment or their shared genes that influences the child’s behaviour. The Oregon study is the first to test the association between marital instability and child sleep patterns amongst a group of biologically unrelated parents and children, thereby isolating the effects of the family environment from any potential genetic ones. The research team collected information on 357 families, comprising mothers and fathers who had adopted a child within, on average, seven days of the baby’s birth. Parents were required to complete questionnaires on marital instability and child sleeping patterns (infant sleep problems referring to difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep) at two points in time: the first when their child was aged nine months and the second at 18 months. An analysis of the data revealed not only that marital problems affect the quality of infant sleeping patterns, but also that this may emerge earlier in childhood than research has previously demonstrated. Even a child who is less than one year old can have trouble sleeping as a result of conflict between their parents. Another interesting finding was that sleep problems among children do not, in themselves, predict marital difficulties. However, the researchers note that, although the children in the sample are very young (nine months at first assessment), the team may have missed the time that infant sleep has the greatest impact on the parental relationship since children develop more stable and predictable patterns of sleep from six months of age. Mannering says these findings are, “consistent with the broader context of research highlighting the importance of parent effects early in development when children are the most dependent on parents for their welfare”. The implications for policy-makers and practitioners, however, are less clear. Indeed, the important question of what factors explain this link, which is so crucial for designing appropriate prevention and intervention programmes, will require further research. Mannering and the team suggest a number of potential factors and poor parenting is a strong contender. Research on older children, for instance, has revealed that a parent who is experiencing relationship problems with their partner may feel stressed and as a consequence less likely to enforce consistent boundaries and adopt good parenting techniques. This, in turn, influences children’s sleeping patterns.Several evidence-based parenting programmes, including Incredible Years and Triple P, that address the relationship between parents within the context of helping them to develop more effective parenting styles, might prove fruitful. However, the children in the Oregon study were, at most, 18 months old, and issues around enforcing good behaviour and discipline are unlikely to play a significant role at this stage of the child’s development. The Oregon study provides another crucial part of the jigsaw, but, for researchers trying to explain the critical links, the puzzle is by no means yet complete.Reference:Mannering, A. M., Harold, G. T., Leve, L. D., Shelton, K. H., Shaw, D. S., Conger, R. D., Neiderhiser, J. M., Scaramella, L. V., & Reiss, D. (2011). Longitudinal associations between marital instability and child sleep problems across infancy and toddlerhood in adoptive families. Child Development, 84, 1252–1256.

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