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Marital Discord Linked to Sleep Issues in Babies1

Carol Church2

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If you’ve ever found yourself lying awake at night worrying about a problem at work or home, you’re probably well aware that stress can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. But can young children, even babies, also have their sleep disturbed by stress, such as conflict at home? A new study in the journal Child Development suggests that the answer may be yes (Mannering et al., 2011).

About 350 parents filled out questionnaires about their babies’ sleep habits and their own marital stability, first when the children were 9 months old and then when they were about one and a half. In order to eliminate the possibility that a common genetic influence might cause both parents’ marital stress and children’s sleep problems, the researchers chose to study adoptive families only (Mannering et al., 2011).

When parents reported less stable relationships—for instance, if they said they’d recently been considering divorce or separation--children were more likely to have sleep troubles, such as refusing to go to bed or frequent nighttime wakings. However, this relationship only went one way; children’s sleep problems didn’t seem to predict marital instability later on (Mannering et al., 2011).

Because these parents and children were not related, this research lends support to the idea that simply being exposed to a stressful environment might cause long-term changes in biological processes, such as sleep. Since childhood sleep problems are associated with various other issues, such as academic and emotional problems, these findings reinforce the importance of working together to resolve marital problems and create a stable home environment (Mannering et al., 2011).

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Mannering, A. M., Leve, L. D., Shaw, D. S., Neiderheiser, J. M., Harold, G. T., Shelton, K. H., et al. (2011). Longitudinal associations between marital instability and child sleep problems across infancy and toddlerhood in adoptive families. Child Development, 82(4), 1252-1266. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01594.x.



This document is FAR2031, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original broadcast date March 7, 2012, as program 1883. Published on EDIS March 2013. In the interest of time and/or clarity, the broadcast version of this script may have been modified. Visit the EDIS website at


Carol Church, writer, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.