Family matters when it comes to a good night's sleep

By Stephanie Stephens

Sound, restful sleep may be just a dream for millions of Americans with strained family relationships.

That’s the finding of a new study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

is a fundamental human experience—everyone has to sleep, but not everyone gets restful sleep,” said study co-author Jennifer Ailshire, Ph.D., a sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California.

More than 50 million Americans have trouble falling or staying asleep, the authors noted. The majority of previous sleep research has focused on individual psychological and biomedical risk factors such as depression and illness, but there is a growing area of research into the effect of on sleep quality.

“Sleep is highly sensitive to what’s going on in our daily lives, including our interactions with others,” said Ailshire. Other studies of social relationships and sleep have looked primarily at the effects of spousal relationships and caregiving for children. “But our sleep can also be influenced by relationships with other family members who do not live with us.”

In this study, the researchers focused on the family and on the social context in which sleep occurs. “In particular, we considered who we are interacting with during the day, before sleep and when we first wake up,” Ailshire said. “Social relationships tend to benefit health and wellbeing, but having demanding may not be so good for us or our sleep.”

She and co-author Sarah A. Burgard, Ph.D., M.D. of the University of Michigan used self-reported data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States to examine the associations between troubled sleep and the frequency of contact with family outside of the home, social support provided by those family members and strained or negative interactions with family. They found weekly or daily sleep problems are more prevalent in people with frequent contact with family, especially for people with difficult relationships.

“This study is consistent with previous research that has suggested that people stay awake at night thinking and worrying about their family members,” said Ailshire.

“It's a well-tested social fact that relationships with spouses and young children shape our sleep, primarily because we live with these individuals and our time and space is constrained by their needs,” said Corinne Reczek, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati and an expert on family relationships.

“Yet, we are all embedded in much broader family relationships that may impact our health behavior, including sleep,” Reczek said. “This is one of the first studies to show how relationships with other that we do not live with—such as siblings, aging parents, and adult children—shape sleep. Because sleep is linked to a variety of aspects of health, this has major implications for how relationships with extended family shape health overall.”

“Maybe we can’t change those relationships, but if we know they’re affecting our sleep, we can try to be proactive about developing strategies to minimize the effect of stress,” said Ailshire. “Also, in addition to prescribing sleep aids and other therapeutic approaches, I’d hope clinicians dealing with people who report trouble sleeping talk to them about the broader context of their social lives and their daily stressors.”

More information: Jennifer A. Ailshire and Sarah A. Burgard (2012).Family Relationships and Troubled Sleep among U.S. Adults: Examining the Influences of Contact Frequency and Relationship Quality. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 53(2) 248–262. DOI: 10.1177/0022146512446642

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Helping people with dementia catch some zzz's

Aug 29, 2011

Sometimes counting sheep just doesn’t work. Sleep deprivation is a common problem for everyone, no matter what their age, but for those suffering dementia, healthy sleep is critical and untreated sleep problems are one ...

Recommended for you

Low Vitamin D may not be a culprit in menopause symptoms

6 hours ago

A new study from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) shows no significant connection between vitamin D levels and menopause symptoms. The study was published online today in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopa ...

Internists favor public policy to reduce gun violence

12 hours ago

(HealthDay)—Most internists believe that firearm-related violence is a public health issue and favor policy initiatives aimed at reducing it, according to research published online April 10 in the Annals of ...

iPLEDGE isotretinoin counseling may need updating

13 hours ago

(HealthDay)—The iPLEDGE program needs to provide women with information about more contraceptive choices, including reversible contraceptives, according to research published in the April issue of JAMA De ...

User comments