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Study Indicates that Fighting in the Home Traumatizes Babies, Even when They're Sleeping

Written By John Richards on Sunday, August 5, 2012 | 6:51 PM

Surprising, but sadly not-surprising: A recent study, soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, has found that children are affected, most likely negatively, by their parents fighting, even when they're sleeping. 

The kids are asleep! How can they know what's going on? That's why parents wait till after bedtime to fight!? But any parent whose baby has had a restless night, woken up crying or otherwise seemed to be responding to parental strife, even while sound asleep, may have suspected that the child is picking up on something. And those suspicions turn out to have grounds. Study author Alice Graham, a doctoral student at the University of Oregon, told Yahoo! Shine that "there is already some evidence to suggest that both infants and adults process auditory stimuli during sleep, and this is more."

The study, "What Sleeping Babies Hear" is a follow-up to the well-documented fact that traumatic childhood events have permanent, far-reaching effects on children's brain functions, leaving them hypersensitive to negative emotions and more likely to develop mood disorders like depression and anxiety, have personality disorders or abuse alcohol and drugs. Most of the existing science, however, focuses on older children and serious trauma.

Graham's study investigated the effects of the much more common "moderate stressor," known to scientists as "non-physical interparental conflict" and to the rest of us as "parents who are at each other's throats all the time." 

The study brought babies from 6 to 12 months old into the lab at bedtime and, using fMRI technology, recorded their brain functioning. The infants were from families with differing levels of conflict, from mild to chronic. Researchers wanted to see if the babies from conflict-ridden families would respond differently to angry speech than children from families where there was less conflict. 

To determine this, a man read nonsense statements in various tones--calm, neutral, angry, etc.--while the sleeping babies' brain function was recorded by fMRI. The authors found that "higher levels of interparental conflict were associated with greater activation to very angry tone of voice in the rostral ACC and subcortical structures including the hypothalamus." That means that if your child lives in a home where there's lots of fighting, it's affecting their brain development. 

(The reason the research was done on sleeping babies is because a person needs to lie still during an fMRI procedure, and the only time small infants are guaranteed to be still is when they're asleep.) 

What does "greater activation" mean? "Honestly, we don't particularly know what that means in terms of long-term health problems for infants," Graham told Yahoo! Shine. "This is a first step that requires further study. However, she points out that those same brain regions that are displaying enhanced activity in infants from conflict-ridden homes have been extensively studied in human adults and other animals, with finding that indicate "that these are brain regions that play a role in how people process emotions and stress," Graham says. "These regions may also be especially vulnerable early in life." 

A report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University corroborates, "A growing body of scientific evidence shows that early influences-whether positive or negative-are critical to the development of children's brains and their lifelong health." 

Parents who fight late at night--or chronically anytime, really--are now forewarned.

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