Sex Differences in the Relationship Between Parent-Child Interactions, Internalizing Symptoms, and Sleep in Preschoolers



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Although sleep-related parenting behaviors (e.g., involvement in bedtime routines) have been demonstrated to contribute to sleep problems in infants and school-age children, few studies have investigated how daytime parenting behaviors and quality of the maternal-child relationship contribute to preschoolers’ sleep problems. Therefore, the aim of the current study is to examine how maternal over-involvement, supportive presence, and affective sharing during the preschool years relate to concurrent child sleep problems separately by child sex. Because internalizing symptoms and sleep problems are closely related and share similar parental influences, internalizing symptoms are hypothesized to explain relationships between parenting behaviors and sleep problems, particularly for girls. Methods: Participants (N=1181) were enrolled in a large, national, multi-site NICHD study to assess the impact of child care on child functioning between the ages of 0 and 15 years. Mothers’ behavior was observed and coded during both play and clean-up tasks when children were 36 months of age, and mothers provided reports of child sleep and internalizing symptoms. Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to determine the contribution of each of the parenting behaviors on child sleep. Further, internalizing symptoms were examined as a mediator of the relationship between parenting behaviors and sleep problems utilizing a bootstrapped resampling procedure. Because each parenting behavior significantly differed by child sex, analyses were conducted for boys and girls separately. Results: Results indicated over-involvement significantly predicted sleep problems for girls only, and internalizing symptoms fully mediated this relationship. However, no significant relationships emerged for boys. Conclusions: Maternal daytime over-involvement is an important predictor of preschoolers’ sleep problems in this study, however this relationship was found for girls only and was explained entirely by internalizing symptoms. These findings have clear implications for sleep interventions among typically-developing preschoolers, specifically indicating the benefit of targeting over-involvement in daytime interactions in mother-daughter dyads and anxiety/depressive symptoms in both sexes.



Children, Internalization, Sleep disturbances, Parenting behaviors, Preschoolers