Children may have lower sleep quality if their mothers suffer from insomnia symptoms, potentially affecting their mental well-being and development, a new study suggests.

Analyzing data from nearly 200 healthy 7-12 year old children and their parents, the researchers studied the relationship between the parents’ insomnia symptoms and their children’s sleep quality.

Sleep was assessed in the children during one night with in-home electroencephalography (EEG) — a method used to record electrical activity in the brain and makes it possible to identify different sleep stages — while parents reported their own insomnia symptoms and their children’s sleep problems.

Stronger Mutual Influence

The researchers found that children whose mothers have insomnia symptoms fall asleep later, get less sleep, and spend less time in deep sleep, as measured by EEG.

There was no association, however, between the fathers’ sleep problems and children’s sleep as measured by EEG.

The study suggests that the reason why children’s sleep is more closely related to mothers’ sleep than to fathers’ sleep is that, on average, mothers still spend more time with their children than fathers — and therefore, a stronger mutual influence is likely.

When parents reported their children’s sleep, both mothers and fathers with sleep problems more often reported that their children had difficulties getting into bed and did not sleep enough.

Sleep plays an essential role for adults’ and children’s well-being. Short sleep and poor sleep quality can affect mental health, learning, memory, and school achievement in children.

Sleep Habit Mechanisms

In adulthood, around 30 percent of people suffer from disturbed sleep. The most common sleep disorder in adulthood is insomnia, which is defined by symptoms such as difficulty falling or staying asleep at night.

“These findings are important because sleep in childhood is essential for well-being and development. The findings show that children’s sleep has to be considered in the family context. In particular, the mother’s sleep appears to be important for how well school-aged children sleep,”

comments Sakari Lemola, an assistant professor in the University of Warwick psychology department. Several mechanisms could account for the relationship between parents’ and children’s sleep.

First, children may learn sleep habits from their parents.

Second, poor family functioning could affect both parents’ and children’s sleep. For instance, family fights in the evening before bedtime may prevent the whole family from a good night’s sleep.

Third, it is possible that parents suffering from poor sleep show “selective attention” for their own, as well as their children’s, sleep problems, leading to increased monitoring of sleep. It is possible that increased monitoring and attempts to control sleep may negatively affect sleep quality.

And fourth, children may also share genes with their parents that predispose them to poor sleep.

Urfer-Maurer, Natalie et al. The association of mothers' and fathers' insomnia symptoms with school-aged children’s sleep assessed by parent report and in-home sleep-electroencephalography Sleep Medicine , Volume 38 , 64 - 70

Image: N. Durrell McKenna, Wellcome Images

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