Have you ever wondered if your infant realizes it when you’re upset or arguing with your spouse?  New research shows that although infants may not be able to tell us how they are feeling, a conflictual relationship between their parents stresses them out, as demonstrated by the effect that it has on their sleep  patterns.  Research recently published in the journal  Child Development explains that marital instability when the infant was nine months old was related to child sleep problems at 18 months, including difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep.  Although all infants and children go through periods of sleep difficulty, it is important to consider whether exposure to a conflictual relationship may be further worsening the problem.  In other words, not all sleep difficulties in children are due to parental conflict, but if parental conflict is present and your baby is experiencing sleep difficulties, it is likely that the exposure to conflict is having a negative impact on the baby’s sleep pattern.

Sleep in crucial to the healthy development of infants as discussed in a research study from Emory University, which was recently published in the journal SLEEP.  The study shows that longer bouts of sleep in infants end with an increase in weight and body-fat composition tied to an increase in length.  In other words, sleep affects a baby’s physical development by helping them get taller and it also increases the baby’s weight and abdominal fat.  Therefore, preventing a baby from achieving optimal levels of sleep due to environmental stressors such as marital conflict can impact not only their emotional, but also their physical development. 

Although parents do not intend to hurt their infants when arguing with their spouse in front of the infant, it is important to know that it does have an impact on them.  Most parents assume that during infancy, babies have no idea what is going on in the world, so they do not need to filter their behavior or language as they would if they were upset at their partner in the presence of an older child.  More and more, however, we are seeing that this assumption is not true.  Although babies do not have a clear sense of what is being said or why, they sense the emotions that are involved in the relationships surrounding them.  In other words, if you are yelling at your partner, the baby does not understand what you are saying, but they understand that you become angry when interacting with your spouse.  This, in turn, affects your baby’s emotional state and (as this study shows us) their physical development.  Therefore, it is important to stay composed and contain the expression of negative emotions in the presence of infants as one would in the presence of an 8-year-old child.  Otherwise, it can affect their ability to emotionally and physically thrive ( as well as your ability to get a good night’s sleep).   It is important to seek the services of a psychologist if you feel like your baby’s sleep difficulties are caused by emotional difficulties in the home.  Family and/or couples therapy is very helpful in providing healthy outlets for the communication of negative emotions in relationships. 

Dr. Melkonian

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