English: I took this photo of my baby last sum...

Do you know what might really be waking up the baby? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have ever had a newborn baby in your house, you understand why people say, “Never wake a sleeping baby.”  Babies have a way of disrupting the sleep schedule of the adults around them and don’t follow the normal schedule the rest of us have become accustomed to, which means new parents rarely get as much sleep as they need.  Generally, this sleep deprivation is the result of having to live on the baby’s schedule until he or she is old enough or big enough to be able to sleep for more hours in a row.  There is a new study, however, that shows it may not be the baby’s schedule that is causing all this sleeplessness, at least not for mothers who are depressed or dealing with a lot of anxiety.

A new study completed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and recently published in the journal Child Development sought to figure out why infants of mothers with depression wake up more at night than other infants.   Previous research has shown this to be true, but the cause of the higher frequency of waking has never been clarified.  In order to uncover what was going on, the research team needed to go under the covers and see what was happening once the lights went out.

There were 45 participants in the study, all of whom were mothers who had one baby between the ages of one month and twenty-four months.  Fourteen of the participants were experiencing some symptoms of depression during the study.  The research team used cameras placed throughout the participant’s house to record what was happening during the night in order to look for clues or patterns of behavior that might shed some light on why the babies whose mothers were depressed woke up more often than the other babies.  Common locations for camera placement were where the baby sleeps, the door of the room where the baby slept, and any other room in the house where the parents frequently took the baby during the night.  Each camera recorded 12 hours of activity starting at the baby’s bedtime.  The participants also kept sleep diaries and recorded, among other things, how many times their baby woke up during the night.

Going into the study, the research team didn’t have a strong hypothesis they were looking to prove. They were really searching for some piece of the puzzle that would give them the next avenue of exploration into understanding why these babies wake up more than their peers.  The thinking was that it would either show that these babies woke up more often, which meant their mothers were getting less sleep which can contribute to symptoms of depression, or that because these mothers were depressed they checked on their babies more often which increased the perception of how many times the baby was waking up.

What they found was something unexpected.  The depressed mothers were checking on their baby more often than the other mothers, but not just checking on them.  This group of mothers was actually waking their babies up from a sound sleep so that they could spend time with them.  It wasn’t that the babies were waking up more than their peers; it was that their mothers were waking them up.  There seems to be two motivations for this behavior.  First, depressed mothers seem to worry more about their baby during the night.  Second, depressed mothers seem to be seeking out their baby at night as a source of emotional comfort.  The long range implications of this study aren’t yet known, but the findings provide a solid foundation for helping these mothers and their babies get the sleep they need.


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