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Can Family Dynamics Impact Sleep Patterns and Problems?

New data, alongside any future research operating from a family systems approach can provide novel insight into sleep, mental health, and attachments.

A team of Finnish investigators analyzed family sleep patterns to identify similarities or differences and examine how mental health and attachment style relate within family groups. While family dynamics influence sleeping habits, there's little research examining the relationship.

"Do parents and their children have similar sleep features?"

In this study, Raija-Leena Punamäki, PhD, Faculty of Social Sciences/Psychology, Tampere University, and investigators discussed how sleep could impact the individual through various perspectives based on the theory.

From the "family systems theories" viewpoint, the interdependency among family members would support the idea that parents and children do have similar sleeping behavior. This approach extends beyond sleep, also acknowledging the influence family relationships can have on well-being, stress, and emotional expressions.

When looking through the lens of "attachment theory", there's an emphasis on mutuality and early experiences. The emotional relationship established between parent and child leads to a certain attachment security which then influences the child's psychophysiological-hormonal regulation, and subsequently impacts their circadian rhythm and sleep patterns.

According to previous sleep research, there's been suggestion of similarities between family members' sleep features since sleep disorders appear to be somewhat consistent within a family. Research has even demonstrated that the architecure of an individual's sleep patterns including duration, the proportion of sleep stages, and chronotypes of diurnal preferences for morning or night resembles their family members'.

The Sleep Study

For this research, the team enrolled individuals to participate in one of 3 study groups: adolescents (n=438), mothers (n=448), and fathers (n=358). The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) was completed by all individuals.

A mental health assessment was conducted on adolescents (17-18 years old) based on self-reported answers to the Behavior Assessment System. The parents were given the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ). Attachments were reported through the Experiences in Close Relationships.

The main objective was to identify family sleep triadic groups based on sleep onset latency, duration, perceived quality, "eveningness", "morningness", sleep problems, medication, and impact on daytime functioning. The second aim was to determine how the mental health issues and attachment relationships of each group were associated with the triadic family sleep groups the team identified.

Family Relationships and Influence on Sleep

These data, along with research operating from a family systems approach can provide novel insight into sleep, mental health, and attachments.

Results from the cluster analysis revealed 4 triadic sleep groups:

  • Good family sleep (47%)
  • Poor adolescent and maternal sleep (29%)
  • Poor paternal sleep (16%)
    • Fathers in this group showed a higher prevalence of psychiatric symptoms
    • More insecure–avoidant and insecure–anxious attachments were reported by fathers in this group.
  • Poor family sleep (8%)
    • Adolescents in this group had more mental health problems
    • Higher insecure-anxious attachments were reported by these adolescents

Adolescent Mental Health & Sleep Architecture

Results indicated general associations for adolescents between mental health problems and triadic sleep groups. Adolescents in the “Poor family sleep” group displayed higher levels of depressive, anxiety, and somatization symptoms and anger inhibition problems when compared with adolescents in the “Good family sleep” and “Poor paternal sleep” groups. However, they were similar to those in the “Poor adolescent and maternal sleep” group.

Additionally, inattention and hyper-arousal problems were more prevalent among adolescents in the "Poor family sleep" group compared with all other groups.

Parental Patterns of Sleep & Health

Associations between psychiatric symptoms in parents and the triadic sleep groups were observed, though investigators noted that univariate analyses with post hoc tests exhibited significance only for fathers.

Fathers in the “Poor paternal sleep” group reported higher levels of psychiatric symptoms compared with those in the “Good family sleep” and “Poor adolescent and maternal sleep” groups, but were consistent with fathers in the “Poor family sleep” group.

"Interventions to improve sleep quality should consider family dynamics that may underlie potential sleep problems, and sleep as a public health issue can benefit from knowledge about family mental health and attachments," investigators concluded.

The study "Do family members sleep alike? Sleep features among mothers, fathers, and adolescents" was published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science.