Mom's mood, baby's sleep: What's the connection?
Babies born to moms with depression more likely to have chaotic sleep patterns
If there's one thing that everyone knows about newborn babies, it's that most don't sleep through the night, and neither do their parents. But in fact, the first six months of life are crucial to developing the regular sleeping and waking patterns, known as circadian rhythms, that a child will need for a healthy future.
Some children may start life with the sleep odds stacked against them, though, say experts who study the issue. They will present data from their study this week at the European Sleep Research Society meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.
Babies whose mothers experienced depression any time before they became pregnant, or developed mood problems while they were pregnant, are much more prone to having chaotic sleep patterns in the first half-year of life than babies born to non-depressed moms, the team has found.
For instance, infants born to depressed moms nap more during the day, take much longer to settle down to sleep at night, and wake up more often during the night. It's a baby form of the insomnia that millions of adults know all too well.
Not only does this add to parents' sleepless nights, but it may help set children up for their own depression later in life.
This doesn't mean that babies born to depressed moms are doomed to follow in their mothers' shoes, however, even though depression often runs in families, says Roseanne Armitage, the leader of the Sleep & Chronophysiology Laboratory team at the Depression Center.
Nor does it mean that parents who haven't suffered depression can ignore the importance of their babies' sleep.
Rather, it means that all parents especially ones with a history of depression must pay close attention to the conditions they create for their infant's sleep, from birth.
"Keeping a very regular sleep schedule is incredibly important," Armitage says. "We know that for both children and adults, and from this study we now know that for infants, the more stable the bedtime the less chaotic sleep is during the night."
Armitage and her team have devoted years to studying the links between sleep and depression, and the circadian rhythms, light-dark exposure, and other factors that appear to make a difference in sleep and mood. Over the past decade, they've shown that all are strongly linked.
So far, the analysis of the data they collected show that babies born to depressed moms had little or no evidence of an in-born 24-hour circadian rhythm soon after they were born unlike the babies born to women who weren't depressed. This irregular pattern continued until the study ended in the babies' eighth month.
"We think we've identified one of the risk factors that may contribute to these infants' going on to develop depression later in life," Armitage says. "Not everybody who has poor sleep or weak circadian rhythms will develop depression, but if sleep stays consistently disrupted and circadian rhythms are weak, the risk is significantly elevated."
That's why, she says, it's so crucial to help all babies — and new parents — get the sleep they need.
Those first few months, in fact, are a kind of training camp for the baby's sleep in the future, Armitage says. Babies' bodies and brains need to be trained to understand that they should sleep when it's dark, and be awake when it's light the basic circadian rhythm that governs sleep patterns for a person's entire life. This sets the baby's "body clock" right from the start.