Sleep deprivation linked to depression in new mothers

New mothers who sleep for less than 6 hours some nights have an increased risk of developing post-natal depression, compared to mothers who regularly sleep longer, according to a review of research being presented at the 46th Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference, in Canberra today.

Kerry Thomas, a research student at the University of Canberra, said that while changes to sleep patterns were an expected part of any new mother’s life, many underestimated the potential detrimental effects on their emotional health, which could emerge in the months after delivery and persist for several years.

Ms Thomas, who has conducted a review of 116 pieces of international research, said that the evidence available showed a strong link between sleep deprivation and the development of depressive symptoms in new mothers.

She said: “The link between insomnia and depression in the general population has been well documented, but sleep deprivation is rarely studied as a risk factor for postnatal depression.  The few studies that have been carried out show an undeniable link.”
“The sleep of new mothers during pregnancy, and in the early weeks after birth, is significantly altered, with lower sleep quality, less total sleep time and more disrupted sleep.  If this altered sleep pattern persists for several months after delivery, some women may develop depressive symptoms” she said.

Symptoms of sleep deprivation include fatigue, concentration problems, reduced ability to function in the daytime and poorer quality of life, sleepiness and lethargy.  In addition, a person getting insufficient sleep can experience negative moods, such as sadness and feelings of being unable to cope.

Ms Thomas said that research indicated that improving infant sleep patterns, and that of their mothers, in some cases led to a reduction in maternal depression symptoms for mothers. In a 2008 study, more than half of the mothers suffering postnatal depression saw a significant improvement in symptoms with increased sleep, and the benefits were still evident four months later.

Ms Thomas said that there were a number of programs that had helped parents reduce night-time waking.  These were largely delivered through residential sleep units and maternal and child health centres, but online programs have also resulted in babies falling asleep sooner and waking less often in the night, with improvements to their mothers’ mood reported two weeks later.  

“Many new mothers underestimate the effect of disrupted sleep on their emotional health and would benefit from guidance on the impact of sleep deprivation, strategies for gaining more sleep in the postnatal period and early training in sleep strategies for themselves and their infants,” said Ms Thomas.

Research has supported the role of infant sleep residential units, but in recent years there have been trials into making sleep interventions available to women in community settings where they can reach many women.

Ms Thomas said: “Within many maternal health settings, women are regularly screened for depression and other physical and emotional problems, and their babies are assessed.  These settings would be ideal for providing information to women who are having trouble getting enough sleep due to their baby’s sleep patterns, for running short group workshops demonstrating techniques and for providing ongoing support.”

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