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Poor mental and physical health in pregnancy linked to infant sleep problems

Research News
Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 9:02am

Research at a Glance:

  • 20% of mothers report severe and persistent infant sleep problems across the first year.
  • Poor mental and physical health during pregnancy is associated with severe and persistent infant sleep problems.
  • Identifying and supporting pregnant women who have poor mental and physical health is crucial. Parents may benefit from more intensive sleep support once the infant is born.

Severe and persistent infant sleep problems in the first year are linked to poor maternal mental and physical health during pregnancy, a new study by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has found.

The study, led by Dr Fallon Cook, found that it’s very common to experience difficulties with infant sleep at some point in the first year, with about 60 per cent of mothers reporting mild or fluctuating problems. But for 20 per cent of mothers their infants sleep problems are both persistent and severe during the first year. 

“These mothers were more likely to have poorer mental and physical health during pregnancy in comparison to mothers of infants with no sleep problems,” Dr Cook says.

The findings show that for some, infant sleep problems may have more to do with mother’s wellbeing during pregnancy than with parenting style. 

Until now it was unclear whether it was possible to predict which infants will have sleep problems. The current findings, along with other emerging research, suggest that severe and persistent infant sleep problems are linked somehow to mothers’ wellbeing during pregnancy.

Dr Cook says this is an important finding because parents of sleep-disturbed infants often feel severely fatigued, depressed and anxious, and worry they are doing something to cause their infants sleep problems. 

“Our findings suggest some infants may be predisposed to have sleep problems, despite parent’s best efforts to help their infant sleep better,” she says.

“Identifying and supporting mothers with poor mental and physical health during pregnancy is crucial. These mothers may benefit from more intensive support once the child is born.

“Parenting an infant who isn’t sleeping well is extremely hard. It’s important that parents seek help from their GP or child health nurse if feeling depressed, anxious or exhausted, and reach out to family, friends, and local parenting groups for additional support.”

The study was published in the latest Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, and followed 1460 women at 15 weeks gestation, and when their infants were three, six, nine and 12 months old.

*Publication: Fallon Cook, Laura Conway, Deirdre Gartland, Rebecca Giallo, Elizabeth Keys, and Stephanie Brown. ‘Profiles and Predictors of Infant Sleep Problems across the First Year’, Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics

HTML linked DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000733

Available for interview: 

  • Dr Fallon Cook

Media Contact: 
Bridie Byrne                                
MCRI communications specialist                     
+613 9936 6211 / 0427 836 176                
bridie.byrne@mcri.edu.au                         

  • The study was supported by project grants #191222, #433006, #1048829 from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and small grants from ANZ Medical Research Fund and Rotary Health. SB was supported by a NHMRC Research Fellowship # 1103976, and RG was supported by a NHMRC Career Development Fellowship #1109889. Research at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is supported by the Victorian Government’s Operational Infrastructure Support Program.

Photo credit: Minnie Zhou