A study was conducted on 122 new mothers to evaluate the possible correlations between sleep patterns and postpartum depressive symptoms.
Depression has the potential to creep up on new mothers and unfortunately affects both mother and child. It is reported that 13-19% of women experience postpartum depression with as many as 30% of women who have a history of depression in the family or within themselves.
The consequences of a new mother falling ill after giving birth include a lack of infant bonding, behavioural issues in the child throughout life, and a risk of depression in both parents. Previous studies have suggested that lack of sleep may be an important factor in terms of predicting depression or worsening the condition in the mothers. However, none have done follow-ups and observed how changing sleep patterns potentially impacted the depressive symptoms. Additionally, no studies have previously looked at women specifically who have had a history of depression or whose mother experienced postpartum depression.
Does Lack of Sleep Lead to Depression?
BMC Women’s Health published a study conducted in Minnesota, USA on predominantly educated Caucasian women who reported high risk for postpartum depression. The study evaluated the link between sleep and postpartum depression. The women were overall healthy at the time of the study and did not report to have been in the middle of a depressive episode. The women completed two different self-reports, one regarding sleep quality and another regarding depressive symptoms. The same self-reports were completed six weeks postpartum and then additionally at seven months postpartum.
Sleep patterns and disturbances were evaluated using several different measures, including sleep latency, daytime dysfunction, and sleep quality. Sleep latency is the amount time spent awake trying to fall asleep, daytime dysfunction refers to the need to fall asleep throughout the day, and sleep quality is the number of times the participant wakes up and for how long in the night time.
Less Sleep Led to More Depression
The results demonstrate that overall sleep patterns improved from the six-week self-reports to the seven-month follow-up, indicating that sleep problems generally improve over time after a baby is born. Changes in sleep quality at seven months did not predict symptoms of depression. However, what did predict depressive symptoms was the increase of sleep pattern disturbances from six weeks to seven months. The results showed that greater increases in postpartum daytime dysfunction, sleep latency, and sleep quality predicted higher depression at seven months postpartum. This important finding indicates that women at a high risk of postpartum depression are particularly vulnerable if the sleep problems typically associated with newborns worsen or do not improve over time.
Several limitations are highlighted by the researchers that may provide ideas on how to conduct future investigations. Since the current research relies solely on self-reports, the next step would be to objectively measure sleep. In addition, the current study is not considered generalizable since a majority of the participants were college educated Caucasian women. This is especially relevant since the prevalence of postpartum depression is higher in low-income households and among women of different backgrounds. There was also no consideration of whether mothers were sharing beds with their infants which may have acted as a third variable to affect sleep patterns.
The researchers were able to conclude that sleep is a vital part of a new mother’s health and thus strategies and interventions for improving postpartum sleep patterns could positively affect their mental health. Women who are at higher risk for developing postpartum depression should especially be educated on the importance of developing healthy sleep habits and adjusting to sleeping with an infant in the household.
Doctors Should Discuss Sleep Patterns with New Mothers
The study suggested many strategies for mothers to develop healthy sleep patterns. Some of these strategies include regular night-time hygiene habits, reducing electronic screen time, avoiding excessive caffeine, overfeeding the baby during the day so they are less hungry at night and going to bed at the same time as the child. These are all possible conversations to have with new mothers at their six-week postpartum checkup with the doctor. More research is needed to determine causal links to postpartum depression but if women who are experiencing symptoms at week six can improve their sleep quality over the following months, it may help mitigate further development of postpartum depression, bringing long-term benefits to both mother and child.
Written by Elena Popadic
Reference: Lewis, B., Gjerdingen, D., Schuver, K., Avery, M., & Marcus, B. (2018). The effect of sleep pattern changes on postpartum depressive symptoms. BMC Women’s Health, 18(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12905-017-0496-6