Q: Can babies with unpredictable sleep patterns seriously affect the health and well-being of their parents?
A recent study found that infant sleep problems are associated with poorer health in both parents, especially the mental health of mothers who have no past history of depression.
Moms often start out sleep-deprived because they haven’t slept well during the last weeks of pregnancy. And many studies show that moms get up at night with their babies more often than dads, even if the baby is bottle-fed. The maternal instinct seems to be at work. Moms hear the babies first, and often wake up even if dad is the one on call.
Frequent interruptions to sleep cause a general sleep deficit but also a deficit of (rapid eye movement) REM sleep. Without this REM sleep stage, irritability, confusion, forgetfulness and poor decision-making can occur. Sleep deprivation can contribute to or mimic postpartum depression.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, consult your health care provider. My colleague at CIGNA, Ann Spiegel, M.D., created a postpartum depression screening program to help new moms and families during the first months. Recognizing and treating postpartum depression early is key to successful treatment.
New parents should plan for help after the baby is born and try to recoup some of their lost sleep while baby naps, on weekends or during catnaps over lunch breaks after they go back to work.
Mary Coonts, M.A. Ed., Child Development Specialist, CIGNA Medical Group-Pediatrics.