We already know that parental decisions and circumstances have a big influence on a child’s sleep quality. For example, co-sleeping harms childhood sleep quality and maternal stress during pregnancy can lead to childhood sleep disturbance. A new study has now found an association between parental insomnia symptoms and disturbed sleep in children.
The 2017 study was published in the journal Sleep Medicine. It included 191 healthy children between the ages of 7 and 13. The average age of participants was 9-and-a-half, and just over half were boys. The sleep of each child was assessed in their own home using a portable sleep-monitoring device which recorded:
- Total sleep duration
- Sleep efficiency
- Time taken to fall asleep
- Time spent awake during the night
- Sleep architecture (time spent in each stage of sleep)
Parents also completed questionnaires to measure their perception of their child’s sleep-related behaviors and to rate their own insomnia symptoms.
Parental insomnia symptoms and child sleep problems
Sleep-monitoring data found that increased maternal insomnia symptoms were associated with less sleep, later sleep onset, and later awakening times in their children. Interestingly, no signification association was found between paternal insomnia symptoms and a child’s sleep.
Parental opinions of child sleep problems
Researchers found maternal insomnia symptoms were linked to a mother’s perception of her child’s:
- Bedtime resistance
- Sleep anxiety
- Nighttime awakenings
Paternal insomnia symptoms were positively associated with the father’s perception of his child’s:
- Sleep duration problems
- Daytime sleepiness
Why is there a link between parent and child sleep problems?
The authors of this study pointed to previous research which has found that:
- Children may learn sleep habits from their parents.
- The sleep of both parents and children is affected by family dysfunction.
- The sleep of both parents and children is affected by poor socio-economic status.
- Parents may pass down genetic traits that predispose children to poor sleep.
- Sleep difficulties in younger children can affect parental sleep
What these findings mean
Objective data collected from the sleep monitoring devices found that children of mothers with more insomnia symptoms obtained less sleep compared to parents with fewer insomnia symptoms — but a child’s sleep appeared to be unaffected by a father’s insomnia symptoms.
Researchers suggested this discrepancy could be down to the fact that in Switzerland (where the study was conducted), mothers tend to spend more time with their children than fathers — and this may be why a mother’s sleep appears to influence her child’s sleep more strongly.
Subjective data revealed that both mothers and fathers with higher levels of insomnia symptoms reported more perceived sleep issues with their children compared to parents with lower levels of insomnia symptoms — yet none of the complaints reported by parents could be explained by the objective data collected by the sleep-monitoring devices.
The role of attention bias
These findings led researchers to suggest that parents with insomnia symptoms may exhibit an attention bias toward negative sleep-related stimuli, including their children’s sleep problems. With that being said, it is worth keeping in mind that this study only collected objective sleep data for one night — and this may not be an accurate representation of a child’s sleep behavior.
The authors concluded that parental insomnia may lead to over-reporting of child sleep problems, and that selective attention and monitoring of child sleep difficulties may even trigger childhood sleep disturbances.
In other words, when parents struggle with sleep they are more likely to believe their children are struggling with sleep, too — and this can lead to unnecessary treatment attempts which can have a negative effect on a child’s sleep.
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Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep better without relying on sleeping pills. More than 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.