A Closer Look at How Parents’ Functioning Affects Toddlers’ Sleep Patterns

Sleep plays an important role in healthy psychological and physical development. Children need adequate sleep to perform at their best cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally. Research has shown that children who have sleep disturbances tend experience impaired functioning. Additionally, there is evidence that maternal depression and anxiety can create inadequate sleep patterns in young children, further limiting their ability to function optimally. Until recently, the effect of parental emotional health has been studied primarily through the lens of the mother. To get a better idea of how both parents affect the sleep of young children, Annie Bernier of the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal recently led a study that looked at several aspects of parental functioning in both mothers and fathers, and assessed how these levels affected the quality of sleep in their toddlers.

Bernier recruited 85 families with toddlers and assessed the parents for levels of marital satisfaction, parenting stress, social support, and socioeconomic status. The mothers also recorded their children’s sleep patterns at 15 months old, 18 months, and 2 years. After analyzing the data, Bernier found that the levels of all four indices directly impacted the sleep quality of the children, but paternal stress and relationship satisfaction had a significant effect on sleep patterns when the children were 2. Low levels of social support as perceived by the mother, as well as low socioeconomic status, also impaired sleep quite dramatically. In contrast, parents who reported being satisfied and supported in their relationships had less stress and had children who slept better.

Although these results extend the existing research on the relationship between parental functioning and children’s sleep, several factors need to be explored further. First, is the direction of low parental stress and high sleep quality in children bidirectional? Second, the indices of parental stress, marital satisfaction, and social support were not fully dissected to determine how anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems contributed to the findings. “Nonetheless, the current pattern of findings supports existing intervention programs that target parental psychological functioning and parenting behavior with the aim of impacting child outcomes,” Bernier said.

Bernier, A., Bélanger, M.-È., Bordeleau, S., Carrier, J. (2012). Mothers, fathers, and toddlers: Parental psychosocial functioning as a context for young children’s sleep. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030024

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  • anne steele

    October 5th, 2012 at 3:51 AM

    I am such a stickler for the early bedtime for my kids, and as a result I have found that the earlier I go to bed the better I am for them when they inevitably get up earlier. We have always tried to maintain a schedule for the kids, even as they have gotten older, and now that they have gotten so accustimed to this, there are many nights when I don’t even have to tell them it’s time for bed, they just go because they want to. They are still young, but have caught on pretty quickly that they feel better and have more fun the next day when they get a good solid night’s sleep. Any time I see a child pitching a fit out in public the first thing I always think is that either they need a nap or they need to go to bed earlier. That’s how important I have found sleep and scheduled sleep to be for my family.

  • DAve

    October 5th, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    My little brother grew up at a time when there was a lot of conflicts between mom and dad.They divorced when he was less than a year and half and both of us went with dad.His sleep patterns never got any better.Although I did suffer too,I more than made up for it (I am 15 years older than he is).He still struggles with sleeping patters and he is much disturbed often due to that.

  • howie

    October 5th, 2012 at 2:53 PM

    Kids kind of have to be on the same pattern as their parents are. What choice do they have?

  • Lee

    October 5th, 2012 at 11:53 PM

    Toddlers tend to mimic their parents’ behavior.As much as anxiety and depression in parents can affect a toddler,so can the parents’ sleep patterns if you ask me.Its not really practical to see a parent who is depressed to put his or her child to sleep and then worry about things.The worry and depressed states are prevalent at most times and when this occurs the toddler is getting affected by it and thereby not only does his sleep pattern tend to go haywire but the depression and anxious behavior may well be passed on to the toddler.

    Not only is it dangerous to have such negative feelings and states around little children but it could have far fetching effects in their future.

  • Ryan

    October 6th, 2012 at 7:58 AM

    Normal, healthy families have normal healthy sleep patterns. That’s it, no big mystery there.
    Why some families have such a hard time getting that together I am not sure. I see families all the time with screaming kids, and many times you can just look at the children and know that the biggest part of their problm is that the parents want to stay up all night long and by association the kids have to too.
    How is that good for your child? How do you in any way think that they are going to be their best and achieve their best if they are not giving the ebst back to their bodies?
    I’m sorry, I hate to seem judgemental, but I guess I just am. This is just not right for those children. Why become a parent if you are not ready to make some of those small but critical sacrifices?

  • Benny

    October 8th, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    This obviously goes far deeper than sleep problems. This would be a time when mom and dad have to make sure that they have all of their ducks in a row relationship wise too, because this is quite honestly going to play a huge role at how the children develop and how they maintain healthy sleep patterns and habits as they continue to grow older. As important as sleep is to living a healthy life, this is something that can’t be overlooked.

  • Joanne

    April 21st, 2020 at 6:14 PM

    one thing to differentiate is that having good sleep patterns doesn’t necessarily mean having a sleep schedule. Naps and nighttime sleep are best led by the early tired cues and when those are followed a natural rhythm will emerge. Children are developing at such a rapid pace that their needs are constantly evolving. Following a rigid schedule can be detrimental as it won’t adapt with them. Attunement from a regulated, calm caregiver that is responsive to their needs and allows them to feel safe and secure is the main need. If parents are unable to be attuned and there is stress in the attachment relationship the child will be in distress and that will affect their sleep.

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