Waking up in the night. Waking early. Trouble falling asleep. Behavioural sleep problems like these affect 20 to 30 per cent of young children.
Much research has focused on the negative effects of children’s behavioural sleep problems on their own wellbeing. But less attention has been paid to the effects of children’s sleep problems on their parents.
Some studies have linked maternal depression to infant sleep problems, with depression scores decreasing after nurses have helped mothers improve infants’ sleep. Only minimal attention has been given to the effects of infants’ sleep problems on fathers.
Analyzing data from Canadian parents, our research team wanted to examine links between their thinking about sleep problems, mothers’ and fathers’ sleep quality, parental fatigue and depression in the context of infants’ behavioural sleep problems.
After an intervention for infants’ sleep problems, we found that mothers’ depression was associated with their sleep quality, fatigue and thoughts about infant sleep. (These thoughts included doubts about managing infant sleep, anger about infants’ sleep and setting limits around infants’ sleep). Fathers’ depression was linked with their sleep quality, fatigue and thoughts about infant sleep (doubts about managing infant sleep, and setting limits around infants’ sleep).
Sleep quality and fatigue are often viewed as symptoms of maternal depression. These findings are therefore important because paternal depression has been examined less often and parental thoughts about infant sleep have been largely overlooked.
Parental thoughts about infant sleep influence whether they are comfortable with helping their children learn to soothe themselves back to sleep. These thoughts also influence whether parents feel they are neglecting their responsibilities if they are not consistently getting up at night to respond to their children.
Without assistance with both their thoughts and infants’ sleep problems, parents can end up questioning their competence to care for their children or thinking they are bad parents.
Parents were excluded from participating in our study if they were diagnosed with or being treated for depression. Despite this, we found that, before the intervention, about half of the mothers and one-third of fathers reported high depressive symptoms. This decreased to 18 per cent of mothers and about 15 per cent of fathers following the intervention.
We also found that almost 30 per cent of mothers and 19 per cent of fathers reported depression scores that indicated clinically significant depression. After the intervention, that decreased to nine per cent of mothers and eight per cent of fathers.
These findings suggest that parents experienced depression directly associated with infants’ sleep problems, which was improved by an intervention to reduce infants’ problems.
Tips for parents
How can parents prevent or reduce their feelings of depression?
Parents need an opportunity to discuss their expectations and thoughts about infant sleep problems and manage them with a supportive care provider. It is important for parents trying to manage infant sleep problems to acknowledge their needs in addition to those of their children.
Healthy infants who are older than six months and feeding well during the day do not need to wake frequently at night to feed or have their parents resettle them several times a night.
Parents who are trying to help their infants learn to self-soothe are improving their infants’ wellbeing by preventing longer-term sleep problems linked to increased risk for children’s psychological problems, cognitive difficulties and obesity. At the same time, parents are also improving their own sleep, fatigue and wellbeing.
The best way to prevent parental depression is for parents to seek reputable assistance for infants’ behavioural sleep problems rather than hoping children will “grow out of them.”
Family and friends can help
For parents living with a partner, taking turns to manage infant sleep problems can permit the other parent to get some uninterrupted sleep, which is important. Enlisting support from family members and friends so that parents can get more rest can also reduce parents’ risks of depression.
Spending quality time with infants during the day and on weekends can help parents appreciate the loving and supportive relationships they have with their children and reduce their concerns about neglecting their children during the night.
Parental depression is linked to more intrusive or withdrawn parenting interactions with children and maternal depression has been linked with paternal stress, depression, and poorer interactions between fathers and children. So it is important for parents to share with each other and care providers when they are feeling down and having difficulty focusing on regular caregiving activities.
Parents’ thoughts about infant sleep problems can contribute to their feelings of depression before, and even after, an intervention to help infants sleep better. Helping parents manage their children’s behavioural sleep problems can improve the quality of infants’ and parents’ lives alike.