Unhappy Marriages May Equal Sleepless Babies

My baby and I connected despite my strained marriage.

My marriage started to unravel before it began.  In fact, My ex-husband and I married in a misguided attempt to save our already broken relationship.  That’s never a good idea.  We separated when our daughter was two.  It was the right thing to do.

My baby was a bad sleeper.  She was cranky, colicky, and would only sleep when I was holding her, if she slept at all.  Sleep is still a struggle for her, at five.  It may always be an issue.

Now comes a study published in the journal Child Development from Oregon State University that finds a link between marital instability and infant sleep difficulties:

The researchers found that marital instability when children were nine months old predicted increases in sleep problems when they were 18 months old. Even after taking into account factors such as birth order, parents’ anxiety and difficult infant temperament, the findings still held.

Some instability is to be expected in any partnership when you add an infant into the mix.  This is not what we’re talking about, according to OSU:

Marital instability was ranked using a standard four-point research measure, with couples independently answering questions such as “Has the thought of separating or getting a divorce crossed your mind?”

According to one of the study’s authors, Dr. Anne Mannering, infant sleeplessness is worth noting:

If sleep problems persist, this can correlate with problems in school, inattention and behavioral issues.

This makes sense to me.  It goes back to infant attachment.

The biological concept of infant attachment is simple, really.  A baby seeks to remain in close proximity to a primary caregiver who might meet its needs.  Infants and this primary caregiver develop an attachment bond.  One of the facets of the bond is called synchrony, which is something like a dance between the primary caregiver (usually the mother) and an infant in which they mutually respond to one another’s cues, usually without awareness that they are dancing together in this way.  They are in tune, both emotionally and physiologically (for detailed info, read Ruth Feldman’s paper, Parent-Infant Synchrony: Biological Foundations and Developmental Outcomes, and there is research on synchrony and both parents here).

A caregiver who is distressed, depressed, or otherwise wrapped up in the wreck of a strained marriage will likely not always be able to read or respond to their baby’s cues.  There is static on the line between them.  Your baby may sense and internalize your anxiety.  This might upset an infant who is still too young to regulate their own emotions.  Feldman suggests lack of synchrony impacts social, emotional, physical and even brain development.

At the very least, this study suggests it makes them pint-sized insomniacs.

This information is not a judgement, it’s a tool.  Mannering says:

Parents should be aware that stress in the marriage can potentially impact their child even at a very young age.

So if you are where I was; in a quickly deteriorating marriage with a sleepless baby, what to you do?

If you want to try to make it work (maybe for the baby’s sake, as I did), get help and get it quickly.  Don’t let your connection to your baby get lost in the struggle.  Lean on a support system, whether it be family or close friends.  Get a counselor for your marriage, and — more importantly — for yourself.  Throw out all of your lifelines; call upon all of your resources.  If your marriage can be saved, save it.  Intact families are best for babies.

…but if your partner isn’t on board with your efforts to repair the marriage, don’t do what I did.  Don’t wait until your baby is two to leave.  A terrible marriage is toxic to your baby, because it is toxic to you.


PS…if this is you, don’t freak out!  Children are incredibly resilient.  Synchrony can be restored.  Attachment can be repaired.  It just takes love and responsiveness between parents and children to get your groove back.  No matter what, there can be a happy ending.

Even in a strong marriage, the first months with a baby can be difficult.  There is some great information about navigating this challenging period in the Pea in the Podcast called Baby Boot Camp: Caring for Yourself.  I hope listening to it helps you and your baby get some sleep.



  1. Mandy Rose says:

    It’s pretty easy to trace the worst of the kids’ sleep issues to the worst times in my marriage, including night terrors. I think, though I have no evidence to back this, that it has also made my kids hyperaware of my emotions. They are very empathic and sensitive to how mama is feeling, which is a double edged sword.

    It means they are the kids whose teachers point out how well they empathize and respond to others, but I am aware there could be a cost there. :/

    Thank you for doing the work you do. ❤

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