Mothers with poor sleep tend to be less responsive and nurturing towards their toddler

New research provides evidence that a mother’s sleep — or lack thereof — is associated with the quality of her parenting. The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, suggests that sleep is part of a chain of factors that influences child development.

If so, promoting better sleep could end up promoting more positive parent involvement.

“Throughout my undergraduate and graduate research, I have been interested in parent-child interactions and the factors that contribute to them. In particular, I have studied various forms of stress that could influence these interactions,” said study author Maureen McQuillan, a PhD student in clinical science at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“During graduate school, I also received extensive training working in a parent training clinic for children with behavior problems under the supervision of my advisor and co-author, Dr. Jack Bates. In this clinic, we help parents modify their parenting techniques to better manage their child’s behavior.”

“Through that experience, I became very interested in forms of stress (e.g., sleep deficits) that may interfere with parents’ ability to parent effectively. I since have devoted my dissertation research to questions pertaining to how sleep deficits affect parenting, which parents are most susceptible to these effects, and how these things could be changed through interventions.”

In the study, 314 mothers of toddlers completed a variety of psychological questionnaires regarding stress and parenting. The mothers kept a sleep diary and wore a watch-like actigraph to monitor their physical activity. The researchers also made in-home visits to the participants to observe their parenting behaviors.

McQuillan and her colleagues observed that mothers with insufficient sleep and other sleeping problems tended to be less responsive and nurturing towards their toddler.

“The main result from this particular study is that poor and insufficient sleep (i.e., short, late, variable night to night, and fragmented sleep, as well as long sleep onset latencies) are associated with less observed positive parenting, which has been shown to be important for children’s development,” she told PsyPost.

Positive parenting includes behaviors like responding to a child’s vocalizations with a verbal response, accommodating oneself to a child’s needs, and simply staying within visual range of a child.

“Poor and insufficient sleep is also linked with various forms of stress, but sleep predicts variance in parenting above and beyond other forms of stress. In other words, although stress is associated with less positive parenting, sleep deficits account for additional variance in parenting beyond that explained by stress. This is an exciting finding because it may suggest that sleep could be an important target for intervention to improve parenting behavior,” McQuillan said.

Sleep problems and insufficient sleep were also associated with dysfunctional parenting behaviors such as overreacting when a child misbehaves. But this was mostly explained by heightened levels of stress among mothers with poor sleep.

The study controlled for a number of factors, such as the mother’s age, the number of children she had, and family size. But like all research, the study includes some limitations.

“I would say that there are four main caveats that I am actively working on addressing in my dissertation research. The first is that this particular study was conducted at one point in time (when the mothers’ children were 2.5 years old). To fully demonstrate that sleep predicts parenting, we would need to replicate this finding across time. Luckily, we have this longitudinal data and have started to find preliminary results to suggest that the finding indeed replicates across time,” McQuillan said.

“The second caveat is that we don’t yet know empirically why sleep deficits affect parenting. Our hypothesis is that when a mother is sleep deprived, she is less well regulated and more likely to parent ineffectively. We have measures of maternal executive function that we are actively analyzing to test this hypothesis.”

“Third, we are unsure if all mothers experience this association between sleep and parenting behavior equally. It is likely that some mothers may be especially affected by sleep deficits, and I am pursuing that question in my dissertation as well,” McQuillan explained.

“Fourth, although we imply based on the present findings that sleep could be a promising intervention target for parents, this has yet to be demonstrated empirically. In an intervention study with Dr. Jack Bates and Dr. Sarah Honaker, we are starting to examine this question.”

“In our new study, we are testing a behavioral intervention for children’s sleep difficulties in a randomized controlled trial for children receiving treatment in our parent training clinic. We have actigraphic measures of parent and child sleep in this study to examine how both change over the course of the 4-month intervention,” McQuillan said.

The study, “Maternal Stress, Sleep, and Parenting“, was authored by Maureen E. McQuillan, John E. Bates, Angela D. Staples, and Kirby Deater-Deckard.