Women with a current or past history of PTSD have increased chances of developing symptoms of insomnia in the months following childbirth, according to recent findings from a team of American researchers.
While all new mothers may experience a decline in sleep in the aftermath of childbirth, some women develop unusually serious sleep disruptions. In some cases, such disruptions can contribute to the onset of postpartum depression. In a study published in December 2014 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from the University of Michigan assessed the role that a past or current history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) plays in making women susceptible to insomnia in the postpartum period. These researchers concluded that resolved or unresolved PTSD symptoms contribute significantly to new mothers’ insomnia risks.
Women and PTSD
At some point in their lifetimes, large numbers of men and women will experience highly traumatic events capable of triggering the damaging changes in mood and behavior that characterize post-traumatic stress disorder. Common examples of such events include natural disasters, physical assaults, sexual assaults, combat, acts of terrorism, sexual or physical abuse during childhood and life-threatening illnesses or accidents. When all sources of trauma are considered, men have a somewhat higher lifetime rate of exposure than women, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD reports. However, despite their overall lower rate of exposure, women develop PTSD more than twice as often as men (20 percent in the aftermath of trauma vs. 8 percent for men).
Part of women’s higher risks for post-traumatic stress disorder can be explained by their disproportionate exposure to acts of sexual abuse during childhood and acts of sexual assault during adulthood. Sexual assault, in particular, is known for its ability to trigger PTSD symptoms. In addition, women who live through traumatic situations have a greater tendency than men to blame themselves for what happened to them. Such self-blaming can substantially increase the odds that damaging stress reactions will occur in the aftermath of trauma.
People with insomnia have symptoms that can include unusual difficulty falling asleep during designated hours, unusual difficulty staying asleep during designated hours and/or problems with waking up prematurely as the time designated for sleep comes to an end. When these symptoms recur and are serious enough to disrupt an individual’s ability to follow a stable and productive daily routine, doctors may diagnose an officially defined mental health condition called insomnia disorder. Potential underlying causes of insomnia in a new mother include the altered hormone levels associated with childbirth and the sometimes drastic schedule changes associated with taking care of a newborn. In some cases, insomnia in a new mother can contribute to the onset of the major depression offshoot called postpartum depression; insomnia can also appear as a symptom of postpartum depression.
Impact of a PTSD History
In the study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the University of Michigan researchers used data gathered from 173 women to explore the connection between postpartum insomnia, childhood trauma exposure and a past or current history of post-traumatic stress disorder. All of the women enrolled in the project were new mothers who had given birth four months earlier. The researchers used detailed phone interviews to probe the sleeping patterns of each participant, as well as each participant’s history of child abuse (including physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect) and resolved or unresolved PTSD symptoms.
After reviewing the assembled information, the researchers concluded that, whether or not PTSD symptoms appear, women with a history of child abuse have clearly increased chances of developing insomnia during the postpartum period. Specifically, these women have heightened chances of experiencing difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. The researchers also concluded that new mothers with active symptoms of PTSD have significantly increased odds of experiencing difficulty staying asleep throughout a designated period of time. In addition, they concluded that new mothers who have previously recovered from PTSD have significantly increased odds of experiencing difficulty falling asleep at a designated time and staying asleep.
The researchers concluded that current symptoms of PTSD are somewhat more strongly linked to postpartum sleeping problems than previously resolved symptoms of the disorder. However, they also concluded that a childhood history of sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect is substantially more likely to appear in new mothers with insomnia than either current or past PTSD.