Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
98
Do Distressed Mothers Cause Sleep Problems?
September 26, 2022

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Introduction

A Healthy Child Needs a Healthy Brain, A Healthy Brain Needs Healthy Sleep

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.

Blog 98Do Distressed Mothers Cause Sleep Problems?

Research based on mothers who meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression are at a higher risk for having an infant with sleep problems. Additionally, for less affected mothers, there are studies that maternal depressive symptoms are predictive of infant sleep problems or that maternal anxiety symptoms are predictive of infant colic that might lead to both maternal insomnia (and/or depressive symptoms) and infant sleep problems (Blog Posts 4042 and 45). This might be called the mother-driven pathway. Fathers’ role regarding contributing to the development of colic (Blog Post 97) and infant sleep has received much less attention. 

Separately, there are studies that biological features within-the-child such as a difficult temperament or infant colic (Blog Posts 4648 and 43, 44 respectively) lead to sleep problems directly or trigger behaviors in the mother that lead to sleep problems. This might be called the infant-driven pathway.  

The Mother-Driven-Pathway?

In 2021, Professor Tikotzky published a study designed to answer the question: Do distressed mothers cause sleep problems in their infant? There were 226 upper-middle-class families who were studied during the third trimester of pregnancy and at 3, 6, 12, and 18 months after the birth of their first child. The children were all full-term and there were no medical problems involving the mother or the infant. All the mothers had mild to moderate emotional distress. There findings might not be generalizable to other populations such as families with multiple children, low socioeconomic level, or low parent/social support and “are not relevant to mothers who experience significant distress or major clinical depression.”

Their results “do not support the assumption that changes over time (from pregnancy to 18 months) in maternal emotional distress symptoms predict changes over time (3 to 18 months) in infant objective [actigraphy] and subjective [parent diaries] sleep.”  

“Moreover, our findings may tentatively suggest that mothers from middle to upper socioeconomic status who experience moderate distress could be reassured that their symptoms will probably not have an influence on their infants’ sleep quality and duration. We believe that attributing inflated impact to maternal depressive and anxiety symptoms on infant sleep development may unnecessarily undermine new mothers who, in addition to the difficulties arising with the transition to parenthood, cope with emotional distress symptoms. In terms of clinical implications, the findings suggest that an important focus of clinical work with emotionally distressed mothers seems to be adjusting and modifying their sleep-related cognitions and interpretations, rather than focusing on changing the sleep of their infant.”

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