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.
A woman with anxiety symptoms (or dysfunctional cognitions regarding attending to her baby at night) becomes pregnant. She might worry about the pregnancy, her baby, becoming a mother, the father or any other aspect of her life. During pregnancy, the anxiety leads to significant insomnia. After the baby is born, she might worry about her child’s weight gain and comfort level and/or interprets all infant vocalizations at night as distress. She may have a low tolerance for infant crying. She becomes too intrusive at night and fragments her child’s sleep with unnecessary feeding and soothing. Her own insomnia during pregnancy and/or her own fragmented sleep postpartum depletes her reserves, and postpartum depression emerges. Her intensive involvement in putting her baby to sleep and/or intrusiveness during the night results in her baby not learning self-soothing at bedtime or sleep onset. Subsequently, night waking as a sleep problem (signaling) during the night emerges in her baby, because after a normal nighttime arousal the baby has difficulty self-soothing, which is needed to return to sleep unassisted. The sleep-impaired baby becomes painfully tired near the end of the day, and after a few weeks, colic might emerge. For her own sense of comfort and to better calm her baby, the mother is more likely to choose to sleep with her baby in her bed, which further impairs the mother’s sleep.
The baby’s failure to learn self-soothing and subsequent impaired sleeping may create enduring sleep problems in both the child and the mother, worsening mental health symptoms in the mother and increasing family tension. When older, the direction of these effects goes both ways: from child to mother and from mother to child.
Older women with anxiety, knowing that their older husbands will be less involved in helping care for the baby, might be more likely to experience this sequence of events. Younger unmarried women with less support may also experience more anxiety. With symptoms of anxiety present, maternal smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy and postpartum might be viewed as a reflection of anxiety.
Variable #1 is maternal depression (or co-morbid anxiety and depression) before pregnancy, which worsens with increasing sleep deprivation during the pregnancy due to insomnia, and postpartum from caring for the baby at night.
Variable #2 is an infant colic, which might be biologically associated with mother’s mental health status and/or insomnia or smoking during pregnancy, or could be an independent factor. These children (about 20 percent) add more stress to the family and cause more sleep deprivation in the mother, which might contribute to or worsen preexisting maternal postpartum anxiety and/or depression.
Variable #3 is low parental tolerance for infant crying (Blog Post 18), which might interfere with a child having the opportunity to practice self-soothing.
Variable(s) #4-plus are other common variables affecting both mother and child, such as a non-supportive or impaired father/husband/partner adversely affecting both the mother’s mental health and the baby’s ability to sleep well and self-soothe. Alternatively, any combination of these variables magnifies the stress in the mother and the challenges in parenting, causing a minority of children to continue to cry/fuss well beyond 2–4 months of age and/or continue to not sleep well during childhood. As a result, they are at a higher risk for future sleep problems and/or other problems driven by chronic sleepiness.