The great debate of Nature vs Nurture: Sleep Edition

If you are reading my blog, I am sure that – at least once in your parenting journey – you must have felt like you were blessed with a terrible sleeper. Maybe your own mom even told you “It’s genetics! You were the same as a baby.” Well, the truth is she might be right and wrong at the same time.

Picking out what influences a child’s sleeping habits can be tough. Some sleep patterns are genetically inherited, while some sleep behavior is also learned.

A 2013 study found that genetics play a huge role in shaping children’s nighttime sleep patterns, whereas environment influences daytime sleep.

Further research published in 2018 demonstrated that genetic and environmental factors shape two patterns of brain activity (slow waves and spindles) that are responsible for some of the key functions of sleep, including memory consolidation.

An infant’s temperament is something that can be inherited from mom or dad. And, if a child is less adaptable and irritable, they will sleep less overall, or it could be harder for them to fall sleep or to fall back to sleep.

Learned behaviors, on the contrary, refer to something a parent may be promoting or not. For instance, if parents promote napping at appropriate times, this will lead to better overall sleep for their children.

At the same time, environmental factors such as lights or noise in the room can also impact a child’s sleep and they seem to make a difference particularly when it comes to daytime sleep.

It is true that there are some things that parents won’t be able to control because they’re part of a child’s genetics but nurturing healthy sleep habits and practicing good sleep hygiene are definitely aspects that parents can – and, in my opinion, should – influence.

A good sleep hygiene includes having consistent bedtimes, avoiding age-inappropriate sleep props, limiting screen time before bed, and waking up at a regular time.

With that said, sleep perfection isn’t always attainable as we must consider the impact of inherited genes to understand what works for a child and what doesn’t. But, even when nature isn’t really cooperating, behavioral interventions such as sleep training can help solve many sleep disturbances in babies and young kids.

Teaching your baby or child to self-settle and link their sleep cycles, eat well during the day, have a proper schedule to prevent overtiredness and a sleep environment that supports good sleep will improve their overall sleep quality and duration for good, no matter what type of natural sleeper they are.

Resources

1. Evelyne Touchette, PhD; Ginette Dionne, PhD; Nadine Forget-Dubois, PhD; Dominique Petit, PhD; Daniel Pérusse, PhD; Bruno Falissard, MD; Richard E. Tremblay, PhD; Michel Boivin, PhD; Jacques Y. Montplaisir, MD (2013). Genetic and Environmental Influences on Daytime and Nighttime Sleep Duration in Early Childhood. Pediatrics (2013) 131 (6): e1874–e1880.

2. T. Rusterholz, C. Hamann, A. Markovic, S.J. Schmidt, P. Achermann and L. Tarokh (September 24th, 2018). Nature and Nurture: Brain region specific inheritance of sleep neurophysiology in adolescence. Journal of Neuroscience.

Sara

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