Sleeping like a baby: What current research can tell us about the role of sleep in building relationships

By Jenna M. Weglarz-Ward, Ed.M.

Creative Commons Licensing [Flickr, Our 3 Week Old Girl, Jan. 28, 2008]
Creative Commons Licensing [Flickr, Our 3 Week Old Girl, Jan. 28, 2008]
Sleep–one of the top parenting concerns and significant part of every day for families of young children. Sleep can make or break the entire day. Families who have easy and successful sleep routines are able to be well rested each day. This allows for more energy to put forth towards other daily routines and enjoying play time. However, families who experience sleep challenges may struggle with typical routines throughout the day and feel frustration during bedtime. Tired children can be irritable and less able to focus on play and learning. Tired parents may not be as capable of caring for their children and may lose confidence in their parenting abilities. These struggles may impact the building of important parent-child relationships necessary for positive child and family outcomes.

Key findings from recent research studies provide insights into how and why we should focus on helping families improve sleep routines for their children and family members:

  • Relationships are important to children’s sleep.

Belanger, Bernier, Simard, Bordeleau, & Carrier’s study of 62 infants used Attachment Q-sort and antigraph monitors to assess the relationship between attachment and sleep-wake patterns [1]. Their findings indicate that children with more secure attachments to their caregivers sleep better. Therefore, supporting families in creating positive, responsive relationships with their children during the day will help support sleep during the night. In a study of 57 couples, sleep diaries, actigraphs, and questionnaires about infant sleep and parental involvement found that mothers who have partners, specifically fathers, who help with caregiving have better sleep quality and in turn have infants who sleep better [6]. Positive family relationships promote better sleep. More sleep for everyone reduces stress and allows caregivers to be better able to care for and connect with their children.

  • Sleep is not just a time for rest.

Sleep provides time for children’s brain to develop. Infants’ brains continue to work during sleep. Friedrich, Wilhelm, Born, & Friederici in a study of brainwaves of 90 infants found that infants who took a nap after learning new words retained this new knowledge more than infants who remained active after learning the words [3]. These researchers conclude that children consolidate and integrate new knowledge into their existing memories while they sleep. This strengthens neural pathways that are vital to children’s development. Strong neural pathways are both supported by and influence social relationships.

  • Children with special needs may have sleep challenges.

In DeMarcus, Soffer-Dudek, Dollberg, Bar-Haim, & Sadah’s study, 95 infants sensory reactivity and sleep-wake patterns were measured at 3, 6, and 9 months [2]. Using objective measures of sleep allowed researchers to connect sensitivity and sleep patterns. Their findings indicate that children who are both hyper- and hypo-sensitive may experience poor sleep quality. These children may be more sensitive to environmental cues such as light, sound, and smell. This may help provide insight into child with autism spectrum disorder. Children with autism spectrum disorder may experience difficulty calming their sensory input to rest and also may lack the social and emotional skills to soothe themselves to sleep. Learn more about sleep and autism here (http://theautismprogram.illinois.edu/2013/08/23/autism-and-sleeping-problems/). Assessing and adapting the sensory environment for these children will help create a responsive and restful bedtime routine.

Helping families and children improve their sleep quality can influence both child development as well as parents’ confidence and enjoyment in caring for their children. Consistent routines have been linked with earlier bedtimes, shorter latency periods from putting the child to bed and the child falling asleep, reduced night wakings, and increased sleep times [4] [5]. As practitioners, we can support families address sleep challenges by gaining a better understanding of the families’ preferences, routines, and culture. Using some of the resources provided below, practitioners can provide meaningful suggestions to help families develop consistent sleep routines.

Family-friendly Sleep Resources

References

[1] Belanger, M., Bernier, A., Simard, S., Bordeleau, S., & Carrier, J. (2015). Attachment and sleep among toddlers: Disentangling attachment security and dependency. In M. El-Sheikh & A. Sadeh (Eds.), Sleep and Development: Advancing Theory and Research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development Series 316, 80(1) (125-140): Wiley Publishing, Boston, MA.

[2] DeMarcus, G. S., Soffer-Dudek, N., Dollberg, S., Bar-Haim, Y., & Sadah, A., (2015). Reactivity and sleep in infants: A longitudinal investigation. In M. El-Sheikh & A. Sadeh (Eds.), Sleep and Development: Advancing Theory and Research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development Series 316, 80(1) (49-69): Wiley Publishing, Boston, MA.

[3] Friedrich, Wilhelm, Born, & Friederici (2015). Generalization of word meaning during infant sleep. Nature Communications, 6, 6004. Available at Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (2015, January). Infants create new knowledge while sleeping. ScienceDaily. 

[4] Mindell JA, Li AM, Sadeh A, Kwon R, Goh DY. Bedtime routines for young children: a dose-dependent association with sleep outcomes. SLEEP 2015;38(5):717–722.

[5] Staples, A. D., Bates, J. F., & Peterson, I. T. (2015). Bedtime routines in early childhood: Prevalence, consistency and associations with nighttime sleep. In M. El-Sheikh & A. Sadeh (Eds.), Sleep and Development: Advancing Theory and Research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development Series 316, 80(1) (141-159): Wiley Publishing, Boston, MA.

[6] Tikotsky, L., Sadah, A., Volkovich, E., Manber, R., Meiri, G., & Shahar, G. (2015). Infant sleep development from 3 to 6 months postpartum: Links with maternal sleep and paternal involvement. In M. El-Sheikh & A. Sadeh (Eds.), Sleep and Development: Advancing Theory and Research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development Series 316, 80(1) (107-124): Wiley Publishing, Boston, MA.

This post was written by Jenna Weglarz-Ward, Ed.M. & Rosa Milagros Santos, PhD, members of the MFLN FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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