Is Your Mother to Blame for Your Insomnia?

Patient Expert

ThinkstockPhotos-87164039.jpgAs research has shown, insomnia is rarely an isolated condition, and typically results as the symptom of another condition. For example, insomnia can stem from physical issues such as restless leg syndrome, chronic pain and menopause, or mental issues such as stress, depression and anxiety.

Identifying the cause of your insomnia is the best way to begin curing your insomnia. But what if you're unable to figure out what's causing your sleep issues?

What if you're living a happy, healthy life and have no way of explaining why it's so difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep? Well, science shows that it may be that you were simply predestined to be an insomniac.

Childhood stress as a result of neglect, loss of a parent, sexual, physical or emotional abuse has been found to increase the risk of developing stress related disorders such as depression and insomnia in later life.

Alternatively, your risk of developing insomnia may be determined before you're even born. Studies have found that:

  • Women in their second trimester of pregnancy who experienced high levels of anger gave birth to children with higher levels of cortisol and disorganized sleep patterns.
  • Women in their second trimester of pregnancy who suffered from depression gave birth to children who had more sleep disturbances and spent less time in deep sleep.

  • Mothers with higher levels of prenatal maternal anxiety and depression gave birth to children who were more likely to experience sleep problems at 18 and 30 months of age.

  • Women with higher levels of prenatal psychological distress were more likely to have babies who woke more often during the night.

  • Mothers who suffered from prenatal depression had children who slept less at both one and two years of age.

Although sleep disturbances in early childhood are common (a fifth to a third of infants are affected by them), half will go on to develop persistent sleep problems. Research also shows that when sleep issues that may occur during childhood aren’t addressed, they are more likely to persist into adulthood. But  why does prenatal stress in mothers appear to affect the sleep health of their children?

It's thought that the hormones released by a mother in response to anxiety, anger and depression are passed to the baby through the placenta. These hormones then disrupt the cortisol cycle in the fetus. Prenatal stress is also thought to decrease hippocampal development in babies, which can persist into adulthood and increase insomnia risk.

In short, disruptions in stress hormone regulation can lead to long term changes. As their bodies and biological environments develop, children born to stressed mothers tend to react differently to stress. The system that regulates arousal is also affected, which can lead to hyperarousal.

Hyperarousal that persists into adulthood can also affect how we react to negative life events, further contributing to the development of insomnia.

If you feel as though hyperarousal and stress may be behind your insomnia, speak to your doctor. Talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help address the causes of your anxiety and improve your sleep – without sleeping pills.** See more helpful articles:**

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Palagini, L., Drake, C., Gehrman, P., Meerlo, P., & Riemann, D. (2015). "Early-life origin of adult insomnia: does prenatal–early-life stress play a role?". Sleep Medicine, 16(4), 446-456. Accessed April 29, 2016.

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