While researchers have known that marital conflict can cause behavioral problems among children of school age, new findings suggest acrimony can lead to sleep difficulties in infants.
Specifically, researchers found that marital instability when the child was nine months old was related to child sleep problems at 18 months, including difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep, according to study author Anne Mannering, Ph.D.
“If sleep problems persist, this can correlate with problems in school, inattention and behavioral issues,” Mannering said. “Parents should be aware that stress in the marriage can potentially impact their child even at a very young age.”
The research appears in the journal Child Development.
According to Mannering, this is the first study on the link between marital issues and infant sleep that unambiguously eliminated the role of shared genes between parents and children.
As part of the research design, investigators interviewed more than 350 families with adopted infants. This cohort was examined in order to eliminate the possibility that shared genes influence the relationship between marital instability and child sleep problems.
“Our findings suggest that the association between marital instability and children’s subsequent sleep problems emerges earlier in development than has been demonstrated previously,” she said.
The researchers found that marital instability when children were nine months old predicted increases in sleep problems when they were 18 months old. Even after taking into account factors such as birth order, parents’ anxiety and difficult infant temperament, the findings still held.
Marital instability was ranked using a standard four-point research measure, with couples independently answering questions such as “Has the thought of separating or getting a divorce crossed your mind?”
Mannering said the couples were predominately middle class, white and fairly educated and all had adopted their child within the first three months of birth.
Ongoing research will investigate whether the relationship between marital instability and child sleep problems persists after age two, and the role that the parent-child relationship might play in these associations.
Source: Oregon State University