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Depression May Lead Mothers to Wake Babies, Study Shows

Posted by Kara Baskin  May 7, 2012 08:00 AM

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Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? When I was dealing with depression and anxiety several years ago, I couldn’t imagine throwing a kid into the mix. A baby would have upset my busy schedule of Golden Girls reruns and napping. Of course, plenty of moms suffer from mental health issues, especially post-partum. And it turns out that these women actually want to spend more time with their babies—to a detrimental degree.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University, writing in the new issue of Child Development, found that mothers with high depressive symptom levels are more likely to worry excessively about their babies at night, seeking them out and sometimes even waking them from a sound sleep.

“Especially interesting about this was that when depressed mothers sought out their infants at night, their infants did not appear to be in need of parental help. They were either sound asleep or perhaps awake, but not distressed,” said Douglas M. Teti, associate director of the Social Science Research Institute and a professor of human development, psychology, and pediatrics. The researchers also found that mothers’ depressive symptoms were “significantly correlated with the mothers’ feelings of helplessness and loss of control.”

In my experience, sleeplessness exacerbates anxiety and depression—so it’s a vicious cycle. The less sleep mom gets, the more unbalanced she becomes. In turn, she's possibly driven to check up on her baby, who then emerges from slumber. News flash: Sleep-deprived babies are even less fun to be around than sleep-deprived moms.

The problem is that nighttime is a playground for worry, as every committed fretter knows. The world turns sinister in darkness; possibilities grow horns and fangs. What seems manageable at 3 p.m. becomes overwhelming at 3 a.m. At night, we’re alone and our daytime burdens—a phone call for medical results, a conversation with a troublesome colleague—must go untended until morning.

And so it makes sense, really: Our children are one of the few things that we can control, just a little bit and for just a little while, especially while they’re cocooned in the next room. Children represent a repository for our helplessness. Kids can allow us to deceive ourselves into thinking that we have some kind of mastery, some kind of influence when life doesn’t make sense. The world might not need us, but our children do. (I’d love to see a similar study done on the correlation between depression and helicopter parenting.)

For those of you who have suffered from post-partum depression, did you have trouble sleeping? And did you wake up your babies in the process? Why?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Kara Baskin (@kcbaskin) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and mom to Andy. She thinks Sriracha and garlic make everything tastier. She loves Steely Dan and "Murder, She Wrote." Her More »

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