Anxious Mothers May Disrupt Baby’s Sleep

Sleep is a rather valuable commodity for new parents and it seems that you can never quite get enough. But oddly enough, it seems that mothers who suffer from anxiety, the lack of sleep may be partially the result of their own doing.

According to a recent study, anxious mothers were more likely to wake their infants needlessly, disrupting both their own sleep patterns as well as their infant’s. Published in the journal Child Development, this study is one of the first studies to evaluate night-time parenting and how it may impact a parent’s quality of sleep.

For the small study, researchers from the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine examined the information of 45 babies aged from 1 to 24 months and their parents. For seven days, the collected data on the parents, including a sleep diary from the mothers and two surveys completed by the mothers – one examining symptoms of depression and the other concentrating on maternal worries during infant night wakings.

The researchers also set up a total of six cameras were strategically placed within the home to help them evaluate the night time parenting habits and infant waking patterns. The cameras examined where the infant slept, the door to the infant’s bedroom (determining who came in and out of the baby’s room) and where the infant was taken once they woke up.

In total, researchers came up with about 10 to 12 hours of footage for each family, all of which started with the infant’s bed time. They cross examined the footage with the sleep diaries kept by the mothers.

Overall, the two correlated with one another and researchers noticed a trend between the anxiousness of the mother and the night wakings of the infants.

Co-author Douglas M. Teti had the following to say about the results:

“We found that mothers with high [anxiety] levels are more likely to excessively worry about their infants at night than mothers with low symptom levels, and that such mothers were more likely to seek out their babies at night and spend more time with their infants than mothers with low symptom levels. This, in turn, was associated with increased night waking in the infants of [anxious] mothers, compared to the infants of [non-anxious] mothers. Especially interesting about this was that when [anxious] mothers sought out their infants at night, their infants did not appear to be in need of parental help. They were either sound asleep or perhaps awake, but not distressed.”

In comparison, mothers not suffering with anxiety only went into the baby’s room if the baby was crying or distressed. According to the researchers, this is acceptable behavior because there is no reason that a baby needs to be woken up if they are sound asleep and have no symptoms of distress.

According to pediatricians, two of the most common concerns among new parents relate to either feeding or sleeping problems. Based on the information from this study, it may be possible to reduce some of the concerns regarding sleep by simply helping curb some of the mother’s anxiety. This can be done through:

  • Medical or therapeutic intervention to help reduce maternal depression.
  • Addressing needless worry regarding the baby’s nighttime sleeping patterns.
  • Increased spousal support.
  • Providing information to parents on how important and beneficial sleep is for the entire family.

But not all nighttime sleep issues were related to maternal anxiety. Researchers did find a small amount of evidence that babies who wake up frequently at night may contribute to higher anxiety levels in the mother. Authors stressed, however, that the evidence for this is less compelling and that there are interventions that can help curb frequent infant wakings early on.

“One has to examine the health of the family system and address the problem at that level,” said Teti. “If frequent night waking is waking parents up every night and causing parental distress, there are established interventions to help babies learn how to develop self-regulated sleep.”

Overall, the researchers say that more information is needed about nighttime parenting to further help parents and infants get the sleep they need.

“In terms of understanding what predicts parenting at night, and how parenting at night affects children, it’s important to examine parenting at night much more closely than we have,” said Teti. “There’s probably a lot going on at night that we need to understand and we need to use actual observations of what parents are doing. We know very little about nighttime parenting.”

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About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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