Family Matters

Are Mom and Dad’s Problems Keeping Baby Up at Night?

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Kids may be blamed for wreaking havoc on parents’ quality of life, but what goes around comes around: new research shows that parents who aren’t getting along can affect their children’s sleep quality.

Amid a raft of data associating children with parental dissatisfaction, a study published online today in the journal Child Development finds that marital instability when a baby is nine months old is linked to sleep problems when that baby is 18 months old. (More on In Defense of Motherhood: Why We Keep Having Kids When They’re So Clearly Bad for Us)

The research suggests that children — even babies — are able to internalize parental strife at a much younger age than previously thought.

“Even if they’re not able to cognitively comprehend what’s going on, if there’s some level of stress, it can still influence an infant in some way,” Anne Mannering, an instructor in human development and family sciences at Oregon State University. “It’s important for parents to be aware of. We certainly don’t want to stress parents out, but we know that within families, different relationships can influence others.”

The association between marital discord and poor infant sleep remained constant even when factoring in birth order, parental anxiety and infant fussiness. The effect couldn’t be attributed to shared parent-child genes either, because Mannering, who was at the Oregon Social Learning Center when she conducted the research, focused on more than 350 families who had adopted babies. (More on Time.comDo Sleepy Babies Grow More? The Science of Growth Spurts)

Marital instability was assessed via questions that asked mostly middle-class, white, educated husbands and wives 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 wakings.

While it can’t be argued that babies’ sleep problems are good for parent or child, Mannering’s study did not find that children’s poor sleep led to increased marital instability. Although sleep deprivation can certainly cause stress, not to mention 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 parameters and looked at infant sleep problems at nine months and subsequent reports of marital instability at 18 months. (More on Time.comKid Crazy: Why We Exaggerate the Joys of Parenthood)

In this particular study, at least, kids appear to be off the hook when it comes to rocking the marital boat. Says Mannering: “It kind of surprised us a little bit too.”