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Moms’ depression may affect infants' sleep

Sunday April 22, 2012
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Mothers with higher levels of depression symptoms might act in ways that disturb their infants’ sleep, according to a study.

"This study provides insights about maternal depression’s effects on nighttime parenting, and how such parenting affects infant sleep," Douglas M. Teti, PhD, the study’s lead author and professor of human development, psychology and pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University, said in a news release.

In the study, mothers with higher levels of symptoms of depression and more worries about their children’s sleep had children whose sleep was more disrupted. The researchers then sought to determine whether symptoms of depression led mothers to behave in ways that interfered with their babies’ sleep — or whether the babies’ night awakenings led their mothers to be more depressed, possibly from sleep loss.

The mothers’ behavior most likely is the causative factor, according to the study. Mothers with more symptoms of depression and worries behaved in ways that disrupted their infants’ sleep — for example, picking up babies who were sleeping. The authors suggested that mothers who worry excessively about their babies’ well-being at night may respond to infant sounds that do not necessarily require response or move their babies into their own beds to alleviate their anxieties about whether their infants are hungry, thirsty or uncomfortable. Mothers who are feeling depressed also may seek out their infants at night for the moms’ own emotional comfort.

Researchers studied 45 mothers, most of whom were white, and their infants, who ranged in age from 1 to 24 months, in home visits across seven consecutive days. They collected information about the mothers and their symptoms of depression, asked them about their feelings about their babies’ sleep, had the moms keep a daily diary of their babies’ sleep behavior and videotaped mothers with their infants on the last night.

"One has to examine the health of the family system and address the problem at that level," Teti said in a news release. "If frequent infant night waking is waking parents up every night and causing parental distress, there are established interventions to help babies learn how to develop self-regulated sleep."

However, if increased infant night waking is caused by distressed mothers waking their babies out of a sound sleep or keeping them up at night unnecessarily, other approaches might be considered, the researchers noted. These include attempts to alleviate maternal depressive symptoms, reduce unnecessary worries about infant sleep behavior at night, encourage spousal support and provide information to parents about the benefits of a good night’s sleep for both the parent and the baby.

The study appeared April 17 on the website of the journal Child Development. To access the study via subscription or purchase, visit http://bit.ly/IiZiV9.

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