Sleep problems are common in young children and can lead to difficulties in families. Several factors likely contribute to these problems, and mothers' depression has consistently been identified as one. Now a new study has found that moms with higher levels of symptoms of depression might act in ways that disturb their infants' sleep.
"This study provides insights about maternal depression's effects on nighttime parenting, and how such parenting affects infant sleep," according to Douglas M. Teti, professor of human development, psychology, and pediatrics at the Pennsylvania State University, the study's lead author.
The research was carried out at the Pennsylvania State University and is published in the journal Child Development.
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. But did those symptoms of depression lead mothers to behave in ways that interfered with their babies' sleep, or did the babies' night wakings lead their moms to be more depressed (perhaps because of sleep loss)?
It's most likely the moms and their behavior that are at play, the study found. Moms 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 suggest that moms who worry excessively about their babies' well-being at night may respond to infant sounds that don't necessarily require response or move their babies into their own beds to alleviate their own anxieties about whether their infants are hungry, thirsty, and comfortable. Mothers who are feeling depressed also may seek out their infants at night for the moms' own emotional comfort.
Researchers studied 45 mostly White moms 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 video-taped mothers with their infants on the last night.
"Although we found greater support for mothers' behavior explaining the relation between depressive symptoms and infant night wakings, it's likely that both infants and parents influence infant sleep," notes Teti. "This helps us better understand what factors influence infants' sleep in homes in which mothers are depressed.
"Sleep problems often endure beyond early childhood and can have a negative effect on various aspects of development, including emotional, behavioral, and academic functioning," continues Teti. "Understanding how maternal depression and sleep problems combine to affect children's development is important to developing interventions to help reduce these negative consequences."