The link between maternal depression and anxiety during pregnancy and adverse neonatal outcome has been well-documented in the medical literature and reviewed on our website. A recent study published in the journal Early Human Development suggests that a mother’s stress during pregnancy may also negatively affect her baby’s sleep patterns.

In this longitudinal, prospective study, more than 14,000 women completed a questionnaire at two points during pregnancy (18 and 32 weeks gestation) and two points postpartum (2 and 8 months postpartum). The questionnaire was designed to measure levels of maternal depression and anxiety. Sleep patterns in the women’s infants were assessed at 6, 18 and 30 months postpartum, measuring total number of hours slept per night, number of awakenings per night, and other more general sleep problems.

The results suggested that higher levels of maternal anxiety and depression during pregnancy correlated with infant sleep problems at 18 and 30 months. This is an interesting finding because it adds to the growing body of literature suggesting that maternal mood and/or anxiety problems during pregnancy, if left untreated, may be associated with longer term developmental issues for children. It is well-established that women who suffer from depression or anxiety have elevated levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and the authors hypothesize that in utero exposure to these stress hormones may lead to adverse outcomes in the child.

Laura Petrillo, MD

O’Connor TG, Caprariello P, Blackmore ER, Gregory AM, Glover V, Fleming P; ALSPAC Study Team. Prenatal mood disturbance predicts sleep problems in infancy and toddlerhood. Early Hum Dev. 2007 Jul;83(7):451-8.

O’Connor TG, Heron J, Glover V; Alspac Study Team. Antenatal anxiety predicts child behavioral/emotional problems independently of postnatal depression. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2002 Dec;41(12):1470-7.

Davis EP, Glynn LM, Schetter CD, Hobel C, Chicz-Demet A, Sandman CA. Prenatal exposure to maternal depression and cortisol influences infant temperament. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007 Jun;46(6):737-46.

Huot RL, Brennan PA, Stowe ZN, Plotsky PM, Walker EF. Negative affect in offspring of depressed mothers is predicted by infant cortisol levels at 6 months and maternal depression during pregnancy, but not postpartum. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1032:234-6.

Untreated maternal depression: What is the impact on the unborn child? CWMH Newsletter (March 2008)