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High parenting quality is associated with a wide spectrum of adaptive developmental outcomes among young children (Gadeyne et al., 2004). These effects are not uniform across all children, however, and may vary both by the context in which parenting is assessed as well as by child individual differences. The present study examined how parenting during children’s bedtime was associated with children’s sleep, executive functioning (EF), and emotion regulation (ER). Naturalistic observations of children’s bedtime are scarce but may be useful because of bedtime’s salience in everyday life as well as the stress it can elicit from parents and children. Higher stress contexts make evoke greater variability in parent-child interactions compared to the more commonly assessed free play. Additionally, children’s diurnal cortisol was examined as a mediator and moderator of the associations between bedtime parenting and children’s developmental outcomes. Healthy diurnal cortisol patterning may correspond to more adaptive self-regulation of arousal (Wesarg et al., 2020), which underlies good sleep, EF, and ER.
Fifty-one children (53% male; 80% White, 18% Biracial, 2% Black) and their families participated. Parenting sensitivity and practices (presence, contact with the child) was assessed by raters from video recordings of one night of bedtime. Children’s morning and evening cortisol levels were measured from saliva samples taken across three days. A greater decrease in cortisol from morning to evening indicates healthy diurnal patterning, as elevated morning levels mobilize resources and energy and lower evening cortisol levels reflect lower arousal that facilitates rest. Children’s nighttime sleep (minutes, efficiency) was assessed across seven nights using actigraphy. Parents reported on children’s ER and children’s EF was measured using the NIH Toolbox Application (Gershon et al., 2013).
Regression analyses controlling for child and family demographics showed that longer parental presence and contact with the child at bedtime were associated with better sleep (minutes, efficiency), particularly for children who experienced high parenting sensitivity (Fig. 1a-b for example). Path analyses further demonstrated that lower child evening cortisol acted as a pathway linking greater parental presence and contact at bedtime to better child sleep (Fig. 2 for example). Finally, regressions showed that lower parenting sensitivity at bedtime was associated with lower EF and more labile and less adaptive ER only for children who showed less decrease in cortisol from morning to evening (Fig. 1c-d for example). All results were significant at p < .05 (see figures).
The findings from this multi-method study illuminate how aspects of the bedtime context operate in concert with child diurnal cortisol to promote self-regulation in young children. Sensitive, emotionally attuned parental presence and contact during young children’s bedtime may support healthy child sleep by way of reduced child physiological arousal, as indexed by cortisol. Further, more adaptive cortisol patterning across the day may protect against lower EF and ER in the context of low parenting sensitivity. Naturalistic observations of parent-child interactions in combination with assessments of children’s physiology may readily translate into intervention work targeting improvement in young children’s developmental outcomes in addition to identifying children at greatest risk.