Here’s some sobering, if unsurprising, news: A recent study indicates that strength of your marriage can have an effect on your baby’s sleep. Researchers studied 350 families looking for a possible link between parents’ marital problems and sleep problems in their children. They followed the families over a nine-month period, beginning when the children were 9 months old. Here’s an important note: the researchers chose to study only adoptive families, in order to rule out the possibility of a genetic link between parents’ behaviors and their young children’s sleep habits, and to focus on the stress level in the family. What did they find?
Marital instability among couples when their children were 9 months old predicted sleep problems in children 18 months of age. The sleep difficulties for these toddlers included both falling asleep and staying asleep.
This study reinforces just how important it is to tend to our relationships with our partners. The health of your marriage can affect your children no matter how young they are. To me, this is also a perfect example of how sleep is at the very crux of our lives, as individuals and as families. Think about it:
At every turn, sleep matters! Before you start feeling overwhelmed, keep this in mind: creating strong sleep habits—for you and for your child—is not just an important goal, it’s an achievable one. There are several simple, practical steps you can take to help your entire family get the nightly good rest they need.
As all of us who’ve been through it can attest, new parenthood is both wonderful and stressful. The demands of having a young child can put pressure on a marriage. Sleep deprivation, so common among parents of young children, can make things worse. To be sure, sleep isn’t the only issue in marital problems among parents of young children: financial pressures, work issues and grueling daily schedules are issues for many of us. But being sleep deprived can make all of these problems seem worse. Lack of sleep is also a critical factor in one’s individual health and well being, and therefore has an impact on the version of ourselves that we’re able to present to our partners.
Keep in mind these basic new-parent strategies for protecting your sleep, and your relationship.
Share the workload: Rotating feedings at night, trading off chores—when both partners are involved in family work, everyone gets a break.
Know yourselves: Pay attention to your own natural inclinations, when it comes to sleep. The night-owl of the two of you is probably better suited for the midnight feeding than the early bird.
One-on-one time: It can be tempting to put every moment of attention to your baby, especially new moms. Nurturing your marriage is important too. Find time every day to connect with your spouse.
To help your child develop strong sleep skills, start early with these basic habits:
Slow things down: As bedtime approaches, quiet the activity level in the house. Television, music, and high-octane running around can be replaced with reading and quiet play as you prepare for your child’s bedtime ritual.
Bath, bed, repeat: Create a bedtime routine that you can follow nightly. Maybe it’s bath, then PJs, followed by a book and a back rub. Your child’s routine should be quiet, soothing, and enjoyable for you both.
Set that bedtime: Once you’ve picked a bedtime for your child, stick with it. Toddlers ages 1-3 should be sleeping from 12-14 hours a night. (The National Sleep Foundation has recommendations for sleep amounts for children from infancy to adolescence.) Whatever time you pick, remember—consistency is the key.
Don’t skip the naps: Skimping on naps won’t make babies more apt to sleep. Also, it’s best to put your child when she’s sleepy, not exhausted or actually asleep. This way, she’s better able to develop self-soothing techniques that will help her fall asleep on her own.
Protecting health of your marriage, as this study indicates, is another way to help pass along good health—and strong sleep habits—to your child.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™