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Study finds that babies born to women who suffer from anxiety or depression are more likely to wake up during the night

Published: 7 April 2009

A new University of Southampton study suggests that babies are more likely to wake up in the night at both six months and twelve months of age if they are born to women who suffered from anxiety or depression prior to the pregnancy.

Results of the study, which are published in the April issue of the journal SLEEP, indicate that preconceptional psychological distress – anxiety or depression – was a strong predictor of infant night waking, independent of the effects of postnatal depression, bedroom sharing and other factors including mother’s age, and lifestyle and sociodemographic factors. Significant psychological distress prior to conception was associated with a 23 per cent increased risk of infant night wakings at six months of age and a 22 per cent increased risk at twelve months of age.

Frequent, disruptive night wakings in late infancy are clinically relevant because they predict sleep problems at three years of age, which in turn are associated with behavioural problems. During early childhood development, poor sleep quality also may affect learning abilities. Infant night wakings also disrupt a mother’s sleep, which predicts maternal mood, stress and fatigue.

These untreated infant sleep problems can become chronic, with implications for the mental health and well-being of both the child and the mother. The difficulties of mothers who are already vulnerable to anxiety and depression will be exacerbated if they also are deprived of sleep.

Dr Janis Baird, from the University of Southampton’s MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre, who led the study comments: “Our findings suggest that the mental health of women preparing for pregnancy is important, and we need to find ways of supporting women who are depressed or anxious before, during and after pregnancy.”

The study, which took its findings from the Southampton Women’s Survey – the UK’s largest-ever study of women’s health and lifestyle, involved 874 Southampton women aged between 20 and 34 years. Before becoming pregnant the women completed the General Health Questionnaire, a 12-question screening instrument that detects depression and anxiety disorders. Twenty-nine per cent of the women were classified as having significant psychological distress.

When their baby was six months and twelve months of age, the women reported how often their child woke on average each night between the hours of midnight and 6am for a two-week period. The percentage of children who woke at least once each night was higher among women who had had psychological distress before pregnancy, both at six months of age (52 per cent vs 43 per cent) and twelve months of age (46 per cent vs 36 per cent).

Notes for editors

1. SLEEP is the official journal of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, LLC (APSS), a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society. The APSS publishes original findings in areas pertaining to sleep and circadian rhythms. SLEEP, a peer-reviewed scientific and medical journal, publishes 12 regular issues and 1 issue comprised of the abstracts presented at the SLEEP Meeting of the APSS.

2. For a copy of the study, “Infant Sleep Disturbance is Associated with Preconceptional Psychological Distress: Findings from the Southampton Women’s Survey,” please contact Kelly Wagner, AASM public relations coordinator, at (708) 492-0930, ext. 9331, or kwagner@aasmnet.org.

3. AASM is a professional membership organisation dedicated to the advancement of sleep medicine and sleep-related research. As the national accrediting body for sleep disorders centres and laboratories for sleep related breathing disorders, the AASM promotes the highest standards of patient care. The organisation serves its members and advances the field of sleep health care by setting the clinical standards for the field of sleep medicine, advocating for recognition, diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders, educating professionals dedicated to providing optimal sleep health care and fostering the development and application of scientific knowledge.

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