Prenatal stress may affect babies' sleep

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A mother’s anxiety or depression during pregnancy may affect her child’s sleep patterns early in life, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that babies and toddlers whose mothers had such symptoms during pregnancy tended to have more sleep problems than other young children.

The investigators suspect that elevated stress hormones that mark depression and anxiety may shape fetal brain development in a way that disturbs early-life sleep patterns.

It’s important for young children to develop healthy sleep habits not only for the sake of their tired parents, according to lead study author Dr. Thomas O’Connor, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.

Sleep problems have, for instance, been linked to a higher risk of behavioral problems in childhood, he said. “Quality of sleep early on may be a good indicator of healthy development,” O’Connor told Reuters Health.

The implication, he said, is that taking care of mothers’ stress during pregnancy could help not only them but also their children.

“I think the message is, let’s take stress and anxiety during pregnancy seriously,” O’Connor said.

He and his colleagues report their findings in the journal Early Human Development.

The results are based on a survey of more than 14,000 British women who answered questions about anxiety and depression symptoms during and after pregnancy. They were also surveyed about their children’s sleep habits at ages 6 months, 18 months and 30 months.

In general, mothers with greater symptoms during pregnancy reported more sleep problems with their children -- such as frequent nighttime awakenings, difficulty falling asleep and, with older children, regularly refusing to go to bed.

Mothers’ symptoms of depression and anxiety after giving birth did not explain the link between prenatal symptoms and child sleep problems. “This supports the notion that there’s something special about the prenatal period,” O’Connor said.

It’s not clear yet how to best alleviate stress and anxiety in pregnancy, or whether this would lessen children’s sleep problems.

More study is needed, O’Connor said, but potential options include relaxation therapy and other non-drug approaches that would not carry a risk of adverse effects on the fetus.

It’s also important to remember that some worries and emotional ups and downs are to be expected with pregnancy, O’Connor noted. It’s when symptoms begin to impair a woman’s daily life, such as her ability to work or get along normally in her relationships, that there may be a problem.

SOURCE: Early Human Development, July 2007.