A new study published in the BMJ looked at infant sleep and child mental health.
“We wanted to find out if infants with very persistent sleep difficulties had increased odds of experiencing mental health difficulties during childhood,” study author Falin Cook told us. “We wanted to know if there were specific types of mental disorders that they were more likely to experience.”
Prior research had indicated that babies with sleep difficulties were more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems during the toddler and preschool years but researchers didn’t know whether these difficulties would still be present ten years later, or what types of mental health diagnoses these children might have.
“Infant sleep problems are reported by around 75 per cent of parents in the first year,” Cook told us. “These problems can be incredibly stressful for families, impacting family functioning and parental mental health. If we can better understand what outcomes to expect for infants with persistent sleep difficulties, it may help us develop better, targeted, early interventions that will help children and their families.”
Researchers followed a community sample of 1460 mothers and their babies from three months of age until they turned ten years of age. They asked about sleep during infancy and mental health at age ten.
“We found that 25 per cent of babies were settled and slept well during their first year,” Cook told us. “Fifty-six per cent had sleep problems that fluctuated during the first year, and 19 per cent had severe and persistent sleep difficulties right across the first year.”
In the babies who slept well across the first year, 15 per cent met criteria for a mental health disorder at age ten. In comparison, 23 per cent of babies who had persistent and severe sleep difficulties during the first year, met criteria for a mental health diagnosis at age ten.
These children tended to have more emotional disorders, and reported specific difficulties with separation anxiety, excessive fears about being physically injured and more elevated anxiety symptoms overall.
The researchers were surprised by the results.
“We know that sleep and mental health are closely related during childhood and adulthood,” Cook told us, “but we didn’t realize that sleep problems during infancy would be associated with mental health difficulties ten years later.”
Severe and persistent infant sleep difficulties may be an early indicator that a child is more susceptible to mental health difficulties during childhood. Cook explained that It’s important that parents know that despite the increased risk, most infants in this group did not have mental health difficulties at age ten. The findings indicate that these children need to be monitored for emerging mental health difficulties to ensure treatment begins early.
“Our findings highlight the need to increase support for parents and their sleepless babies,” Cook told us. “It’s important that parents of babies with persistent sleep difficulties receive timely, evidence-based support and treatment for their baby’s sleep difficulties. Speaking to your family doctor about local support and treatment options is a great first step.”
Mental health difficulties represent the largest cause of childhood disability worldwide. By better understanding which children are more at risk for developing mental health problems, there is a better chance of intervening early enough to prevent mental health difficulties in some children.
“We don’t want our findings to alarm already tired parents,” Cook told us. “If you are concerned about your baby’s sleep, or your child’s mental health, seek support and treatment early. Talk to your family doctor about evidence-based treatments available in your local area.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com