If you’re a seasoned mother, you would be familiar with this little peril called sleep deprivation. The little bundle of joy that wakes throughout the night is often a frustrating mystery begging to be solved.
Was the room too hot or cold? The swaddle too loose? Was she hungry? Or uncomfortably bloated from overfeeding? Do we need sleep training?
While those are all highly valid concerns, before we get to this point, scientists say there’s one way you can get an ultra-early start on improving your baby’s sleep: make mental health a priority while the baby is in-utero.
A recent study done in Singapore found that a mother’s mental well-being during pregnancy has an impact on infant sleep. In this research, which was carried out with 797 local mums and their offspring, a “general affect” factor score that integrated symptoms of depression and anxiety was used to reflect the mother’s mental well-being—a higher score reflected poorer mental health.
“We found that a one-point increase in the general affect factor score during mid-pregnancy was associated with a 71-minute decrease in the infant’s total sleep duration per day and 44-minute increase in awake time per night after falling asleep across the first year of life,” says Dr Cai Shirong, principal investigator from the Translational Neurosciences programme at the A*STAR Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (A*STAR SICS).
But how exactly does it happen?
“The development of a sleep-wake cycle starts in the womb. Exposure to poor maternal mental health in the womb is likely to have a programming effect on the foetus as parts of the brain involved in stress response change the ways they interact. This can affect daily patterns of wakefulness and sleep in the offspring. As such, the child may have difficulty sustaining sleep, as demonstrated by the shorter total sleep duration and increased wake time during night sleep that we observed in the study,” explains Dr Cai.
There are other possible reasons as well, according to Silvia Wetherell, psychotherapist with Alliance Counselling. “For instance, emotional struggles in pregnancy can carry over to the postpartum period and create obstacles in bonding or providing the attuned care infants need, resulting in reduced sleep,” says Silvia.
Even though mental health in pregnancy can affect infant sleep, the last thing anyone should do is make mothers feel responsible for frequent night wakings, especially in this challenging phase of life.
“It becomes another heavy stick for mums to beat themselves up with, another way to feel like you’re failing as a mother even before you hold your baby for the first time,” says Silvia, who shares that one in seven women experience mental health issues during pregnancy and postpartum.
Supporting mummies around us
There is loads that society can do to help alleviate some stresses that expectant women experience.
“We need to do a better job at educating women prenatally [on symptoms of depression and anxiety] and taking their feedback more seriously. We must stop dismissing a mother’s tears and worries as ‘just hormones’ and listen more carefully,” says Silvia.
Outside of preparing women for labour and delivery, there is room for having honest conversations about the not-so-sunny side of motherhood, so mums are more equipped to handle it postpartum, adds Silva, who also wishes for better education to help couples transition into parenthood and tools to help them communicate and support each other.
Preventive strategies for mums
If you are pregnant or have plans to expand the family (or even if you are already a parent), here are some of Silvia’s top management strategies for boosting your mental and emotional wellness.
- Don’t underestimate simple self-care
Rest whenever you can, eat a balanced diet (if morning sickness allows) and find one moment a day to recharge. This could mean taking a longer shower, taking your time to enjoy breakfast or going for a walk around the block with your favourite music playlist.
- Seek out your kampung
Pregnancy is the best time to start practising asking for and accepting support from others for a better transition to motherhood. For instance, you can ask your partner, family or friends to help with cooking, shopping or to simply, listen compassionately to your problems without jumping into giving advice.
- Bond with the baby
You don’t have to play Mozart or read Dr Seuss, but simply rubbing the belly and mentally saying “good morning” is a good way to forge a connection.
- Do mental health check-ins:
Use this free tool to monitor your mood during pregnancy and postpartum. Talk to your GP or obstetrician and obtain a referral for counselling if you receive a high score.
Even as you do your best to cope, be sure to be kind to yourself when things go awry in this season of life. “Start from a place of acceptance that this is often one of the hardest parts of early mothering and one over which you have little control,” Silvia reminds us.
She likens the role of a mother to a gardener who provides the best soil, ensures the seed is watered and looked after, “After that, we have to step back and allow the plant to unfold on its own.”