A new study suggests that when one person has trouble sleeping, a partner's attempts to help could actually perpetuate the problem. 

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated June 12, 2017
Couple sleeping in bed
Credit: andresr/Getty Images

Having trouble sleeping? If your significant other has tried to help, take their advice with a grain of salt: In a new study from Australian researchers, the majority of bed partners encouraged behaviors that could actually make insomnia worse.

The small study, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, was recently presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society. The results are considered preliminary, but the authors say they shed light on how insomnia can affect—and be affected by—more than just the person who can’t sleep.

Insomnia is largely seen as an individual condition, the authors wrote in the study’s abstract, even though about 60 percent of adults sleep with a partner. To examine the relationship between insomniacs and their bedmates, they gave questionnaires to 14 women and 17 men whose partners were participating in a separate clinical trial for insomnia.

They found that even though these partners didn’t have sleep issues of their own, they often made accommodations for their loved one’s insomnia, such as modifying their own sleep schedules, work schedules, or leisure activities.

When people said they tried to be helpful with regards to their loved ones’ sleep problems, they were certainly appreciated for it; their partners reported their relationships to be more satisfying than those whose partners didn’t offer assistance. But it did take a toll: Partners who did attempt to help reported more anxiety than those who didn’t.

What’s more, the “help” they offered wasn’t necessarily good advice. A whopping 74 percent of partners encouraged early bedtimes or late wake times, even though sleep experts recommend against this type of behavior for people with insomnia. Other common suggestions included reading or watching TV in bed, taking naps, using caffeine, taking it easy during the day, and taking sleeping pills or alcohol before bed.

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These things go against sleep-hygiene guidelines and the practices laid out in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the top-line treatment recommended for people with chronic insomnia. During CBT sessions, people learn to not get into bed until they feel sleepy, to get up at the same time every day, to use their bed for sleep and sex only, and to avoid napping, especially close to bedtime. Exercise during the day is generally encouraged to help promote shuteye at night, while alcohol (which can disrupt deep-wave restorative sleep) is not.

“Despite what are likely good intentions, bed partners may contribute to the perpetuation of insomnia,” the authors wrote in the study’s abstract. At the same time, they add, those people may also be experiencing anxiety related to their loved one’s sleep issues.

Lead author Alix Mellor, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at Monash University, says more research is needed on insomnia treatments that can benefit patients themselves as well as their other halves. Treatment programs should involve both partners in a relationship, he adds, and proactively address how one partner’s behaviors could be helping—or harming—the other’s sleep.