February 9, 2012

Shorter Sleep When Parents Weep

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Parental depression linked to sleep deficiencies in adolescents

(dailyRx News) While adolescent sleep problems are common, they can lead to issues with cognitive function and emotional control, ending in behavioral disturbances. New research suggests that the mood and relationships of parents may be contributing to these sleep disturbances. 

An investigation done through Auburn University in Alabama suggests that both maternal and paternal symptoms of depression affect the sleeping behaviors of their children, and in different ways.

"Talk to a counselor about sleep issues."

Mona El-Sheikh, Ph.D., a human development professor at Auburn led the study. “Higher levels of maternal depressive symptoms were associated with children’s [sleeping and waking] problems,” write the authors. On the contrary, “higher levels of paternal depressive symptoms were associated with shorter time in bed and fewer sleep minutes.”

Dr. El Sheikh’s study involved 268 children, average age nine, who were attending third or fourth grade in three neighboring school districts within the Southeastern United States.

Ninety-four percent of the students lived with their biological mother, while the remaining six percent lived with a single father, father and stepmother, or adoptive parents.

Of those living with their birth mom, fifty-eight percent lived with their biological father as well, twenty-one percent with their mother’s partner, while the rest lived with their mother alone.

For seven days prior to their first scheduled laboratory visit, all parents were instructed to place a wristband actigraph unit on their child’s arm before bedtime.

The device measures a child’s movements and can induce the amount of time a child spends getting the “good” sleep that helps them appear refreshed in the morning.

In this study, the actigraph derived measures for the adolescent’s time spent in bed, their actual sleep minutes, how long it took them to get to sleep after being put to bed (known as “sleep latency”), and how much movement occurred during their sleep.

Further discussions ensued with the children regarding their sleep habits.

Each parent’s depressive symptoms were gathered through interviews using an accredited 13-item depression scale while researchers questioned both parents and children regarding inter-partner and parent-child conflict with several nationally-recognized measurement scales.

The findings displayed interesting correlations. Moms who displayed symptoms of maternal depression wound up having children who couldn’t keep asleep throughout the night. On the other hand, children of depressed dads didn’t even stay in their beds.

No significant links were made between paternal depression and conflict, but both inter-partner and parent-child conflict were connected to maternal depression and a child’s ability to sleep soundly.

“Our findings illustrate the importance of considering multiple facets of the family context for a better explication of children’s sleep,” the authors explain.

dailyRx asked contributing expert, LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, to take a look at the study.  Pierce works as a therapist, counseling both adolescents and families at the Turning Points Center in Denver.  

"Children are very sensitive to their environments, including the emotional landscape," explains Pierce. "When kids don't know what is wrong, but sense that something is wrong, they tend to worry and make-up details that aren't always real.

"It is really important to be honest with children about what is wrong if they as and in an age-appropriate way. Otherwise they may grow up believing that certain emotions are not acceptable, or don't understand what they are really feeling due to mixed messages."

According to Pierce, talking to a third or fourth grader should be a lot different than talking to a teenager or adult, and they should not be burdened by adult problems at such a young age.  While parents should speak freely about their emotions, using I-statements helps them understand that they are separate from the behavior so they don't feel guilty or negative in any way.  

Calmly telling the child, "I get frustrated when you leave your toys in the middle of the floor" gives the child a corrective measure to better their behavior and sleep guilt-free without thinking there is something wrong with them.  

Pierce comments to parents, "Clearly communicating expectations, feelings and assurances that children (and teens) will be okay lessen their fear and worry, which may improve sleep patterns. Not knowing what is wrong, or getting mixed signals between the body language and verbal language of adults is much more difficult for kids.

"Just remember not to unload your problems on them - ask for help from another adult or medical provider if you need it."

This study was published on February 6, 2012 in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry with funding through the National Institute of Health. No conflicts were reported during the course of the study, though the authors admit the design of their study did not make it capable for them to draw causative signs.

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
February 7, 2012

Last Updated:
February 10, 2012