Poor Sleep Can Lead to Depression in New Mothers

Postpartum depression (PPD) is a serious form of depressive illness that can occur in a new mother in the weeks or months following the birth of her child. The severity of the illness varies considerably from person to person; in a worst-case scenario, women with PPD cease caring for their newborns and consider harming themselves or their babies. Current evidence indicates that sleeping problems can act as independent indicators for the onset of PPD. This is important because the presence of significant sleeping problems may act as a warning sign for the presence of PPD and give doctors a way to identify the illness as quickly as possible.

Postpartum Depression Basics

Following childbirth, about 50 percent to 85 percent of new mothers go through a period of mood instability known as postpartum blues, the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Health reports. Symptoms of this instability usually appear in a two- to three-day window after delivery and include such things as a generally down mood, angry outbursts, unpredictable bouts of crying, irritability, anxiousness, sleeping problems and fears of inadequacy regarding motherhood. Because of its widespread presence in postpartum women, postpartum blues is not considered to be a psychiatric disorder or illness. Most women recover from its effects in a period of hours or days. Anywhere from to 10 to 15 percent of all new mothers don’t recover from postpartum blues; instead, they develop the intensified condition called postpartum depression. In addition to the symptoms associated with postpartum blues, common symptoms of this condition include headaches, unusual levels of fatigue, an upset stomach, a decreased interest in pleasurable activities and the presence of classic depression-related emotions such as guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, and sadness.  As previously noted, women with advanced forms of PPD may stop taking care of their babies or actively consider injuring their babies or themselves. PPD typically appears within two months of childbirth, with most cases arising within one to three weeks following delivery.

Sleeping Patterns in New Mothers

During the three-month period following childbirth, women naturally experience ongoing fluctuations in their sleeping patterns, according to the results of a study published in 2009 in the journal Sleep. The researchers who conducted this study gathered their information by examining the sleep habits of almost 3,000 new mothers. Using reports gathered from these women, they concluded that the average new mother sleeps 6.5 hours a night; they also concluded that only roughly 40 percent of all new mothers view the amount of sleep they get as satisfactory or sufficient. Factors associated with unsatisfactory sleep in these women include giving birth to a male child, having another young child to care for, using formula in addition to or instead of breastfeeding, having no prior experience with motherhood, and experiencing symptoms of depression (whether or not those symptoms first appeared after childbirth).

The Role of Sleeping Problems

Doctors often have difficulty determining the precise cause of postpartum depression in a new mother. This is true, in part, because of the wide range of factors that can contribute to the presence of the condition. Examples of these factors include natural postpartum alterations in the production of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, postpartum alterations in normal blood pressure or immune system function, a perceived loss of physical attractiveness or self-identity following childbirth, financial problems, altered relationships with other children in the household, altered spousal or family dynamics, and problems with breastfeeding a newborn. According to the authors of the study published in Sleep, when all other factors are accounted for, poor sleep acts as an independent factor in postpartum depression. As noted previously, this information provides doctors with a new warning sign to consider when assessing new mothers for PPD-related problems. This is important because, for a variety of reasons, new mothers may fail to recognize or report symptoms of depression to their doctors. On the other hand, they typically don’t fail to recognize or report sleeping problems. Using the presence of sleeping problems as an indicator for potential PPD, doctors can find ways to indirectly broach the subject of postpartum depression with women who may be hesitant to reveal or discuss their mental state. In addition, by effectively addressing sleeping problems in new mothers, doctors may be able to lower the overall risks for the development of postpartum depression.

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