If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
When children are not sleeping well through the night, the cause might be the father, the mother, the baby or any combination. Even if the root cause or trigger might occur within the father, or the mother, or the baby, as time passes, interactive effects develop between all three. In order to help solve sleep problems, without judgement, it is important to consider all possible causes (Blog Posts 17 and 18).
Parents may have symptoms of anxiety or depression or habitual thoughts and beliefs that might, or might not, contribute to or cause sleep difficulties in their child. This topic is confusing because some studies look only at the father’s role and others look only at the mother’s role. Some research suggests that a colicky baby might trigger these symptoms in the parents. Interactions between each parent and the baby are important. Therefore, it is difficult to make firm conclusions about the direction of effect. Blog Posts 39–42 share studies that describe how parent’s issues might contribute to or cause sleep difficulties in their child.
A Norwegian study of about 15,000 children included maternal evaluations at 18 months and concluded that concurrent maternal symptoms of anxiety or depression caused night wakings in their children and not vice versa. They wrote:
Mothers with depressive symptoms are more likely to have negative cognitions about setting limits for their children and increased doubts regarding parenting competence and to worry more often about their infant’s sleep. These mothers more easily perceived themselves as insensitive, neglectful, or even abusive toward the child if they are not highly involved at bedtime or night time, and they even tend to more often interpret their children’s crying as a sign of anxiety or distress. As a result, it is postulated that these negative cognitions even tend to affect maternal bedtime and nighttime behavior and could even result in scenarios like putting the child to sleep late, using an inconsistent bedtime routine, having maternal presence at bedtime, or sharing the bed during the night. These behaviors will interfere with the development of self-soothing skills in the child, because bedtime interactions with parents are rewarding and provide positive feedback that maintains dependence on parents. This has been suggested to lead to different sleep problems. [Others] claimed that these negative cognitions are often related to strong emotions such as guilt, shame, and anger, which serve as a negative reinforcer for any change in parenting behavior [emphasis added].
In a study regarding maternal depression, Dr. Johanna Petzoldt observed that “infant sleeping problems were related to maternal depressive (and comorbid anxiety) disorders” and she observed that preceding maternal anxiety (even before pregnancy) predicts both excessive infant crying and maternal postpartum depression. Perhaps the mother’s insomnia associated with caring for an excessively crying or colicky baby and the stress from dealing with inconsolable crying might contribute to or cause maternal postpartum depression. But the trigger was preexisting or pre-pregnancy anxiety. As an anxious parent told me, “I was so worried that every time he made a sound at night, I rushed in to awaken him to make sure he was all right.”
Dr. Petzoldt also wrote that “infants of mothers with anxiety disorders prior to pregnancy were at higher risk for excessive crying than infants of mothers without any anxiety disorder prior to pregnancy. Maternal depressive disorders prior to pregnancy were not significantly associated with excessive crying.” Additionally, she speculated that “maternal anxiety might lead to intrusiveness that possibly intensifies infant crying [emphasis added].” Intrusiveness is unnecessary night feedings and attention at night.
In her 2018 review of all the literature, Dr. Petzoldt wrote that the best supported path is that preceding maternal anxiety (even before pregnancy) predicts both subsequent excessive crying and maternal postpartum depression. When infant excessive crying and maternal depression are present simultaneously, “a vicious cycle of poor infant self-regulation [excessive crying] and hampered intuitive parenting [maternal depression] emerges.” In a separate study, she showed that the strongest predictors for excessive infant crying were maternal anxiety disorders and a fussy infant temperament; in contrast, infant sleeping problems were associated with maternal depressive disorders and not associated with a difficult infant temperament.
Some fathers, perhaps those with certain cognitive biases, experience parenthood with symptoms of agitation, frustration, irritability, tension, anxiety, depression, or risky alcohol use. Other fathers are abusive, angry, absent, alcoholic, or addicted. However, in studies that focus on mothers’ mental health around pregnancy and parenthood, fathers are often not studied, thus producing an incomplete picture of mothers’ mental health. Mothers’ mental health status might, or might not, be strongly influenced by fathers’ mental health status.