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My Baby Won’t Sleep! Can Babies Inherit Insomnia?

There are genetic predispositions, but most infants eventually will sleep better.

My 4-month-old granddaughter isn’t the best sleeper—and neither am I. As a child, I used to hear my mother and my grandmother boast about how little sleep they got and how well they functioned anyway (which we now know is a fallacy!). So all this family trouble falling and staying asleep made me wonder—are poor sleeping habits inherited or learned behaviors? And can infants really have a tendency toward insomnia? There isn’t a lot of research on the topic, but there have been three significant studies. Here’s what the research shows: Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or waking early. According to ClincalAdvisor.com, the prevalence of insomnia can range from 4 percent to 41 percent in children and adolescents. Up to one-third of adults have insomnia.

A study in the United Kingdom of twins found that insomnia is “moderately inheritable,” but most insomnia issues in infancy and early childhood are behavioral. Another British study found there are “insomnia genes” some people do inherit that make falling or staying asleep difficult, but these do not affect young children. And a third study from the University of Pennsylvania presented at the annual meeting of Associated Professional Sleep Studies noted a link between chronic insomnia and anxiety and depression in families, but those disorders surface later in life. There is a very rare (and awful) disorder called fatal familial insomnia, which specifically affects adults but it has only impacted about 100 people ever, so the odds of having it are pretty small.

So the answer on inheritable sleeplessness for babies is maybe there are genetic tendencies, but it’s more likely individual and environmental. Associated Professional Sleep Studies points out that people, including babies, need different amounts of sleep, so before we label someone with “insomnia,” we should first see if they are OK with less sleep.

They advise a chat with family members to help determine if there is a family predisposition to trouble sleeping. So talk to as many relatives as possible: The more information you can gather, the better-equipped you’ll be to tackle the problem. And if you do determine there is a tendency, consult your doctor.

It’s also important to know that infant sleeping patterns are different from that of older people. Babycenter says most newborns doze for about 17 hours a day and 6-month-olds get shut-eye for about 15 hours a day, but it can vary significantly.

Here are some tips from Babycenter.com for getting a difficult-to-sleep baby to nap and rest at night, whether or not there’s a family history:

  • Use light strategically.
  • Put your baby to bed when drowsy, not asleep.
  • Wait a moment before going to your little one.
  • Try not to look your infant in the eye.
  • Relax the rules on diaper changes.
  • Wait until the baby’s ready for sleep training.
  • Brace yourself for sleep regressions.

In the meantime, if your infant isn’t sleeping well, don’t despair. Most young children outgrow this and sleep well once they reach the toddler stage.

Guest post ritten by Barbara Frankel for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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