Calm mama, calm baby ... Reducing your own anxiety will have a positive effect on your baby.

Calm mama, calm baby ... Reducing your own anxiety will have a positive effect on your baby.

Anxiety and sleep deprivation are common experiences in the first year after childbirth. As more research is done in this area, we share this story in the hope that it will help women seek help early. No mum should ever feel guilty for not coping or for having a baby with sleep difficulties.

If you’re an anxious mum, the last thing you want to hear is that your actions could be changing your child’s behaviour, or that you could be adding to any sleep problems they might have. That’s what one study has found – but the good news is that there ways you can lessen your anxiety, giving everyone a better night’s sleep.

She would eventually fall back asleep but then I’d be waking her up again. I was really paranoid about SIDS and didn’t feel in tune with her and what was really going on 

Rebecca Mugridge, author of the book The Pram Diet, says she was an anxious first time – and that this indeed led to disrupted sleep for her baby.

“I became really, really paranoid and anxious. I used to constantly go up and put my hand on her chest to make sure she was breathing. Of course it woke her up and changed her sleep pattern that she naturally would have had,” she admits.

“She would eventually fall back asleep but then I’d be waking her up again. I was constantly worried about her. I was really paranoid about SIDS and didn’t feel in tune with her and what was really going on.”

This lack of trust in your own parenting skills is a classic sign of anxiety, says Dr. Melanie Strang, from antenatal and postnatal education program Well Mum Well Baby.

“It’s a crisis of confidence. Mums might hear a little squeak or a little cry and not feel confident enough to know that that’s fine, that the baby doesn’t need them, that the baby will go back to sleep," she says. "And [they’re] often second guessing themselves: ‘Am I right? Am I doing the right thing for this baby?’”

Mugridge’s inability to stop worrying about things that could go wrong at naptimes meant she often wouldn’t trust others with her baby, preferring to be there whenever her daughter slept. The combination of not relieving her parental load, as well as the tiredness and irritability that comes with sleep deprivation, added to her stress and fuelled her cycle of anxiety.

“It is a bit of a vicious circle: Mum’s anxious, she checks on baby, baby wakes up … if baby isn’t sleeping well, Mum’s not going to sleep well, then feel more tired and more anxious,” says Dr Strang.

This anxiety can contribute to serious issues such as postnatal depression (PND) in the mother, and possible sleep problems for the child. This is what happened for Mugridge; she was diagnosed with PND by her GP, and her daughter, now six, still gets scared at night. She doesn’t know if her issues contributed to her daughter’s fears, or if she would have had them anyway.

In an effort to try to help mums avoid those anxieties, Jackie Hall has developed the 12-week Postpartum Depression Recovery program. She says that for the wellbeing of both mum and child, it’s not about learning how to get motherhood right, “but to understand that we can’t control how our children develop. We’ll encounter both ups and downs, so we need to change our mindset about those challenges to get through them.”

To handle the anxiety mums may feel during their baby’s sleep times, Hall advises to:

  • Try to think about your child’s body in the same way you think about your own and those around you. Remember that babies may make noises in their sleep, just like you and your partner do. They may get restless when under the weather, just like you. Their body will heal itself and let you know when it needs extra help, just like yours would.  
  • Understand that your baby has just spent nine months growing, sleeping, eating and surviving in your womb, independent of your opinion or input. It’s a rarity that something will occur within their body that you’re not going to be aware of before it becomes a major concern.
  • Realise that your fears about what might happen are in a future that doesn’t even exist – and probably won’t ever exist. All we ever have is right now, so enjoy the sleep you do get, deal with your baby waking when they do, and deal with that present moment then.

While you might need to change your mindset regarding your baby’s sleep times, Mugridge says you also need to change the way you think about looking after yourself.  Exercise and prescription medicine can help with anxiety, as can getting good sleep.

Dr Strang also urges mums to seek “practical help” with chores around the house. “Often women feel that they have to do it alone,” she says. “But it’s really important to be able to ask for help.”

Dr Strang reminds mums that it’s “not the end of the world” if your anxiety is disrupting your baby’s sleep.

“You can change this, and there is help available if [you] need to speak to professionals. And remember that there is no such thing as a perfect mum.”

For further information and help with post and antenatal depression issues, contact PANDA, your GP or maternal health nurse.