A study about sleeping babies and their response to angry voices could explain why some children develop post-traumatic stress disorder and others don't.

Post-traumatic stress disorder and sleeping babies. What could they possibly have in common? A study conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon about what sleeping babies hear found a possible link. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they discovered a link in a chain that could partially explain why some children we think haven’t experienced trauma develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sleeping Babies and fMRIs

The chain of discoveries is described in an NPR story. It began when Psychologists Alice Graham, Philip Fisher and Jennifer Pfeifer decided to take a look at what happens inside the brains of infants when they hear conflict and angry voices. They planned to use a noninvasive brain-scanning technique called fMRI to scan the brains of infants and identify areas of the brain activated by angry voices. But getting babies to hold still for a long time during a noisy test. Which wasn’t going to happen. Unless they tested sleeping babies. Game on!

Sleeping Babies and Arguments

Once parents rocked their children to sleep, the babies were placed in the scan machine where voices speaking nonsense words spoke in 3 different tones: happy, neutral, and angry. According to the NPR report:

Graham, a doctoral student at the school, said the most surprising thing was not that the brains of infants responded differently to the different tones — which suggests that the brain is more than capable of taking in information while a child is asleep — but that there were stark differences among the children. Infants who came from homes with lots of conflict, where the parents yelled at one another and called each other unpleasant names, showed a heightened activation in certain areas of the brain.

“What we see for the infants in higher-conflict homes is that they are showing greater reactivity to the very angry tone of voice,” Graham says, “and that reactivity is in brain regions that we think are important later on in terms of your ability to regulate your emotions and function well.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sleeping Babies, and Arguments

Another Different Dream post lists the following factors that increase the risk of  children developing PTSD:

  • Age of the child–the younger the greater the risk
  • Emergency situations–the more unexpected, the greater the risk
  • Frequency of trauma–the more frequent, the greater the risk


Babies whose sleep is frequently disturbed by their parents arguments meet all three criteria. Perhaps this is a link to why some children develop PTSD. It’s certainly worth thinking about. And it’s certainly motivation for parents to find another way to disagree than angry words.

What Do You Think?

Do you think the research holds water? Do you have any anecdotal stories that support it? Leave your opinion in the comment box.

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