Previous studies have suggested that frequent fighting at home, including minor spats, can set a child up for anxiety and behavioural problems. Now two additional studies indicate babies can have their sleep patterns disrupted by arguing parents.
Psychologists at the University of Oregon recently conducted research to learn how and when these stressful experiences can leave their mark. Twenty-four mothers were asked to fill out a survey about the frequency of arguments in their home. The brain activity of their twenty-four infants was examined during sleep using functional MRI – a non-invasive imaging technology. Headphones played recordings of phrases read in neutral and angry voices. The brain scans revealed that the infants whose parents often fought had a stronger neurological response on the computer generated brain map in brain areas associated with processing stress and emotion, than those infants from homes with less conflict. The response occurred even while the infants were asleep.
“We were interested in whether a common source of early stress in children’s lives — conflict between parents — is associated with how infants’ brains function,” stated study author Alice Graham of the University of Oregon. The findings suggest babies are aware of parental conflicts and that these conflicts may affect how the infants’ brains handle stress and emotion, Graham said.
Psychologists from the UK and U.S. compared the ‘quality’ of parental relationship with the sleeping patterns of more than 300 babies and found that the sleep disruption can manifest itself as early as eighteen months old for those from households where parental fighting occurs.
Professor Gordon Harold, from the UK’s University of Leicester, who worked on the study, said, “Regulated sleep is essential during infancy for healthy brain and physical development. How couples/parents relate to each other, specifically how they manage conflicts in their everyday lives is also recognized as having significant implications for children’s long-term emotional, behavioural, and academic development.”
All the children in the study were adopted at birth, so the researchers were able to pinpoint the exact influence of the children’s environment, rather than just looking at possible genetic similarities between parents and children.
Prof Harold added, “When parents and children are biologically related, any association between how parents behave and attributes of child behaviour may be explained by common genetic factors (same genes underlying parent and child behaviour).The present study rules this explanation out in that parents/caregivers and children are not genetically related, so common genetic factors cannot account for the associations noted.”
The study found marital instability when children were nine months old predicted increases in sleep problems at eighteen months, even after factoring in birth order, parents’ anxiety, and difficult infant temperament.
Anne Mannering of Oregon State University says that the study is the first of its kind focusing on the link between marital issues and infant sleep that eliminates the role of shared genes between parents and children. She said, “Our findings suggest that the association between marital instability and children’s subsequent sleep problems emerges earlier in development than has been demonstrated previously. Disrupted sleep patterns early in life have serious implications for children’s long-term development.”
Children not only need consistent, adequate sleep on a regular schedule, but they need the security and emotional stability that comes with a peace filled environment without parental arguing and disagreements. Remember, just because your infant is sleeping does not mean they are unaware of what is occurring around them.