Are problems with your partner causing you to toss and turn all night? Your relationship troubles could be getting in the way of your baby's good night sleep, according to a study that found 18-month-old children were more likely to experience sleep disturbances when parents' relationships were rocky.
What's the connection? Scientists think that changes in the brain systems involved in how children develop and regulate their sleep patterns reflect the impact of family stress. To test this theory, researchers followed more than 350 families starting when their babies were 9 months old and continuing over a nine-month period. The researchers chose to study adoptive families to rule out the possibility that any ties between parents' behavior and children's sleep were due to shared genes.
Parents were asked individually whether they'd considered consulting an attorney and, more generally, "has the thought of separating or getting a divorce crossed your mind?" The higher a couple scored on marital instability measures, the greater the likelihood of them reporting their children had sleep problems—falling asleep, staying asleep, or frequent night waking—at 18 months old, reports Time magazine. This held true even after taking into consideration such factors as children's difficult temperaments, parents' anxiety levels, and birth order.
"Our findings suggest that the effects of marital instability on children's sleep problems emerge earlier in development than has been demonstrated previously," says lead researcher Anne M. Mannering. "Parents should be aware that marital stress may affect the well-being of their children even in the first year or two of life."
Interestingly, researchers did not find the reverse to be true: children's sleep problems did not appear to reflect problems in their parents' relationships. Although dealing with sleep deprivation can certainly cause stress and exhaustion, and it's not unreasonable to expect marital dissatisfaction to result, researchers identified no such connection. To figure that out, they flip-flopped the study and looked at infant sleep problems at 9 months and subsequent reports of marital instability at 18 months.
In this particular study, at least, kids appear to be off the hook when it comes to rocking the marital boat, Time magazine points out. "It kind of surprised us a little bit too," says Mannering.
If you and your partner are experiencing relationship difficulties, don't hesitate to reach out to a counselor, doctor, clergy member, or trusted (and neutral) third party. While lack of sleep might not be the root of your problems, the emotional and financial stress of becoming new parents could be, at least, contributing to your strife.