Health during pregnancy possible predictor for babies’ sleep patterns

Morgan Liotta

3/10/2019 3:24:47 PM

A new study has found a link between mothers who experience mental and physical health concerns during pregnancy and sleep issues in their babies.

Baby sleeping
Identifying and supporting pregnant women who have poor mental and physical health is an important step in helping to set up healthy sleep patterns for their babies.

The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) published the study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics, with key findings suggesting that some babies may be predisposed to sleep resistance before birth.
Researchers used national survey data from a cohort of 1460 nulliparous women to identify their predictors and profiles of reported sleep issues during the first year of their baby’s life.
The women were surveyed at 15 weeks’ pregnancy, and when their babies were three, six, nine and 12 months old.
Latent class analysis revealed five profiles of sleep issues in the babies:

  • Few sleep issues – 24.7%
  • Persistent moderate sleep issues – 27.3%
  • Increased sleep issues at six months – 10.8%
  • Increased sleep issues at nine months – 17.8%
  • Persistent severe sleep issues –  19.4%
Persistent severe sleep issues in the babies were linked with prenatal and postnatal depression in the mother. The researchers highlight that stress, depression, anxiety, and family violence during pregnancy ‘have long been associated’ with poorer infant health outcomes, and their findings support the link between these prenatal factors and infant sleep patterns.
Dr Fallon Cook from MCRI, who led the study, told newsGP that although the research is still in the early stages, there is evidence that, with the exception of illness, sleep issues in babies are mostly related to the health of the mother during pregnancy.
‘We found an association between mothers’ prenatal mental and physical health and later persistent and severe infant sleep problems,’ Dr Cook said.
‘This means if mothers had more difficulty with mental and physical health during pregnancy, then they were more likely to also report persistent and severe infant sleep problems right across the first year.
‘These mental and physical health difficulties [for the mothers] tended to persist across the first year, too. We also noticed that mothers of infants with persistent and severe sleep problems were more likely to report intimate partner violence than mothers of babies who were settled.
‘There are likely many factors that influence the development of infant sleep problems, and more research is needed to identify these.’
The increasingly recognised connection between lack of sleep and mental health can be carried over from the prenatal to postnatal period, Dr Cook said. For example, a baby is affected if a mother is experiencing tiredness and low mood during pregnancy and after birth.
‘Mental and physical health problems [in the study cohort of mothers] tended to persist throughout the first year, which is not surprising since parenting a baby who doesn’t sleep well is extremely demanding,’ Dr Cook said.
‘Parent mental and physical health in the postpartum [period] may impact on how parents interact with their baby at bedtime and this may influence baby sleep patterns, too.
‘We don’t yet know why poorer maternal prenatal mental and physical health is associated with later infant sleep problems, but one potential mechanism is that increased maternal stress during pregnancy may impact infant neural development in ways that also influence later sleep and temperament.’
Dr Cook uses this as a possible explanation as to why some babies are exceptionally resistant to sleep – and parents will report that nothing seems to help. These parents need support and referral to other services, such as early parenting centres that are equipped to treat infant sleep problems and provide intensive support for parents.
Appropriate assessment and support of mental and physical health during the prenatal and postnatal periods are crucial steps to improving sleep and health outcomes for baby and mother, the research concludes.
‘We need to pay attention to women’s mental and physical health both before and during pregnancy and ensure women receive treatment before the demands of parenting begin,’ Dr Cook said.
‘We don’t yet know if treating maternal mental and physical health problems early can reduce persistent infant sleep problems, but this is something we hope to examine in our future research.
‘When mental and physical health problems are apparent during pregnancy, parents may benefit from early anticipatory guidance on infant sleep and settling, so they have some strategies for setting their baby right from the beginning.’

baby health infant sleep maternity care mental health postnatal prenatal

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