It’s one of the great self-deluding myths of marital conflict: “We don’t argue in front of the children; we protect the kids from everything that is happening; the kids don’t know that we’re having trouble.”
Parental conflict may find its expression in infants’ sleep difficulties, according to a new report in the July/August 2011 edition of the journal Child Development.
Poor sleep patterns in children from nine to eighteen months are likely influenced by conflict in their parents’ marriage, notes Penn State professor of psychology Jenae M. Neiderhiser. While past research has shown a connection between marital distress and child sleeping habits, this study looked specifically at adopted infants and their parents. Studying adopted parents and their infants allowed researchers to focus on environmental issues and eliminate genetic factors that might affect children’s sleep problems.
“It is important to understand how parenting comes in to play here,” said Neiderhiser. “Looking at the marital relationship is not direct parent-child interaction, but it is an index of stress in the family.”
The research team interviewed 357 sets of adoptive parents – together and separately and assessed their habits and emotions as well as their children’s behaviors. Parents where interviewed twice – when children were nine and 18 months old.
Parents were asked a series of questions, including “Have you or your partner suggested the idea of a divorce?” They were also asked to describe their children’s bedtime behavior by rating several behaviors including “Child needs parents in room to fall asleep” or “child struggles at bedtime.”
The researchers found that marital conflict in the first survey at nine months predicted that the child would be more likely to have sleep problems at the time of the second survey. However, if the child had sleep problems at nine months, the parents were not more likely to have marital stress at eighteen months.
According to Neiderhiser, “Research indicates that stress can negatively impact sleep. 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.”
“The implications of the Penn State study is especially important for many contemporary adults with sleep patterns,” notes Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy.D., clinical director of the Brain Training Centers of Florida. “Too often we see clients who have never – almost since infancy – experienced a good night’s sleep and awakened refreshed.
“Our experience indicates that clients frequently have brain wave patterns that were adversely affected by early-life experience and have never allowed them to experience healthy, refreshing sleep. By allowing them to achieve a new appropriate balance of their brain wave activity, we allow them to experience refreshing and restorative sleep – often for the first times in their lives,” reported Flynn.
Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy. D.