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When babies can’t sleep, it’s all parents can think about, says study

When our babies don’t sleep, we don’t sleep, obviously. But even after finally coaxing an infant into unconsciousness, many parents still may have trouble getting rest.

Researchers are studying what infants’ behavioral sleep problems do to parents, and it turns out that those with babies who sleep poorly spend a lot of time thinking about why that is—along with other more serious consequences.

A recent study out of the University of British Columbia found there’s a complex relationship between baby sleep problems and parental depression and fatigue. After analyzing data from 455 parents with babies between six and eight months old, the researchers found links between depression in mothers and fathers and their sleep quality, fatigue levels and how much they were thinking about their baby’s sleep.

The difference for moms and dads was in what they were thinking about. Mothers reported doubts about managing infant sleep, anger about infants' sleep and thoughts about setting limits around their infants' sleep; while dads mostly just thought about managing and setting limits on their babies sleep.

When your baby can’t sleep it’s easy to become obsessed and depressed.

According to the lead researcher Wendy Hall, a professor and associate director of graduate programs in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia, the data shows that while the link between infant sleep issues and depression is often thought of as something that impacts moms, dads are suffering, too.

“Parents were excluded from participating in our study if they were diagnosed with or being treated for depression. Despite this, we found that, before the intervention [a group class or printed material about baby sleep], about half of the mothers and one-third of fathers reported high depressive symptoms,” Hall wrote for The Conversation. “This decreased to 18% of mothers and about 15 % of fathers following the intervention.”

Hall and her colleagues also found that almost 30% of moms and 19% of dads had depression scores that indicated clinically significant depression. After the intervention, that decreased to 9% of mothers and 8% of fathers.

So what does this mean? According to Hall, the results of the study suggest parents struggling with a non-sleeping baby should seek help before things get too dark.

“The best way to prevent parental depression is for parents to seek reputable assistance for infants' behavioral sleep problems rather than hoping children will ‘grow out of them,’” says Hall.

Babies over six months old who are healthy and eating well during the day do not need to wake frequently at night to eat or be resettled by mom or dad, says Hall. And additionally, parents who are partnered up should take turns on the night shift so each can get some rest. If that’s not possible, enlist help from family and friends to get some rest and reduce the risk of depression.

With support, things do get better. If all you can think about is how little your baby is sleeping, it’s time to ask for some help so you can put those thoughts to bed.

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