Insomnia more common in teens whose mums had postnatal depression
More than a third (36%) of teenagers whose mothers suffered from postnatal depression experienced sleep problems at the age of 18, compared to only one in five (22%) teenagers whose mothers didn’t suffer from postnatal depression.
Insomnia affects between one in two and one in 10 people worldwide and can be debilitating. It can lead to memory problems and fatigue, and raises the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease.
Such health problems have a high economic cost, both direct (healthcare, drugs, tests and research) and indirect (absenteeism, lack of productivity).
Now, for the first time, researchers have looked to see if postnatal depression in women could contribute to their children having sleep problems in adolescence. It is already well established that postnatal depression can affect a child’s mental health and how well they do at school but the impact of it on sleep has not been examined before.
By looking at Children of the 90s (University of Bristol), a unique 25-year-long study of 14,500 mothers and their children (born in 1991 or 1992), researchers were able to ask teenagers when they were 16 and 18 about their sleep problems and compare their answers to the information more than 10,000 mothers had provided years before about postnatal depression. The study is based at the University of Bristol.
By assessing the problem so many years after the children were born, the researchers were able to rule out sleepless nights during infancy as the cause of the postnatal depression and ask the teenagers themselves about their sleep problems rather than rely on what their mothers said (which may have been affected by their depression).
What they found is that more than a third (36%) of teenagers whose mothers suffered from postnatal depression experienced sleep problems at the age of 18, compared to only one in five (22%) teenagers whose mothers didn’t suffer from postnatal depression.
This was the case even after a number of important factors were taken into account:
- Whether the teenager suffered from depression when they were aged 16
- Whether the teenager had experienced sleep problems as a young child (measured at the ages of 6, 18 and 26 months)
- The mother’s education, her age when the child was born, and the number of other children in the family
- Whether the mother smoked or experienced depression when pregnant
Although a mother’s depression increases the likelihood that her child will have sleep problems, the reasons for this are not clear.
Dr Rebecca Pearson from the University of Bristol, who supervised the research, suggests three possible reasons:
- Shared genes between the mother and child can affect sleeping patterns
- Antenatal depression which precedes postnatal depression can have a biological effect on the child while it is still in the womb
- Postnatal depression can make it more difficult for mothers to help regulate their baby’s emotions and their ability to establish regular and calm sleeping patterns. Continued depressive symptoms in the mother during her child’s early years (up to age 12) were also found to play a role.
Speaking about the findings, she said:
“Postnatal depression can make it more difficult for mothers to interact with their babies and this could make it particularly hard to establish a regular sleeping routine and help babies to learn to regulate their emotions and settle themselves to sleep. A noisy, disruptive house can also make it difficult for children to sleep and such environments can be linked to maternal depression.
Depressed mothers are increasingly offered support to improve their mood and to promote positive interactions with their babies and we would advocate that such support also considers the child’s sleeping pattern. As we’ve shown here, maternal depression can potentially have serious long-term implications for the health and wellbeing of both the mother and her child.
There is substantial evidence that postnatal depression is linked with a broad range of child difficulties. Individual risks are often small but because depression in mothers can influence so many aspects of their child’s development, in total it is very costly.”
Anna Taylor, a medical undergraduate student at the University of Bristol who led the research, explained that:
“Poor sleep affects school performance as well as physical and mental health, all of which can have significant impact on the child’s life and what they are able to achieve, so preventing sleep problems is really important. The cost of supporting depressed mothers is far smaller than the longer-term costs of dealing with multiple problems later in life.”
Dr Pearson added:
“As far as we’re aware, no one has ever looked at the long-term effects of postnatal depression on a child’s sleeping habits as reported by the children themselves as teenagers. Luckily, Children of the 90s, with its 25-year dataset, allows us to go back in time and examine these issues in great detail.”
The full paper, The association between maternal postnatal depressive symptoms and offspring sleep problems in adolescence has been published Open Access in Psychological Medicine, and can be viewed here.