Severely Unsettled Babies An Early Warning Sign Of Mental Health

Brisbane mother Ashleigh Dunkley is all too familiar with the devastating toll that living with a severely unsettled baby has.

Diagnosed with debilitating post-natal depression and anxiety just months after the birth, the stress of her child waking for hours during the night due to her reflux prompted Ashleigh to suffer a mental breakdown.

Admitted to hospital with gastroenteritis when her daughter was born, Ashleigh was extremely unwell in the first few days of her life. This caused her newborn daughter Thea to develop jaundice, a tongue tie, severe reflux and oral thrush, and wake every two hours to be fed.

The 28-year-old, now mentoring other women as a consultant with the Healthy Mummy, remembers being brought to the brink of suicide after her child developed oral thrush, ultimately causing her to develop mastitis and for Thea to scream through the night from 10pm to 4am.

“The only thing I could say is horrific. It was really horrific to have not just to go through all of the medical issues but emotional issues and mental issues caused because of it," she told ten daily.

"It really impacted our bond for the first year of life. With the post-natal depression I was not looking forward to being her mum. Actually said I had no interest in seeing her grow up, I was really detached from her. We went through a lot.”

Ashleigh with her then newborn daughter Thea

After four weeks of sleepless nights, Ashleigh said she snapped, prompting her to see her GP and get a referral to a psychologist as well as an emergency appointment to a sleep specialist for Thea.

“When we first got there they were blown away by how difficult she was. They said she was an angel during the day and an absolute devil at night,” she said.

It wasn’t until after Thea received specialist treatment for her sleeping difficulties that she finally started to smile, and Ashleigh started to feel herself again.

But this kind of early childhood behaviour could in fact flag mental health problems for children later in life, according to new research from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

The research has found babies classified as severely unsettled are nearly 10 times more likely than their peers to score in the clinical range for mental health in their adolescence.

Although most babies have long crying stints or sleeping problems, it’s the 3.4 per cent who meet the threshold of severely unsettled -- meaning they present with multiple issues including extreme sleeping, crying, temper issues and feeding problems -- that are more likely to have mental health concerns later in life.

Almost half of the babies marked in this range presented with mental health concerns in the clinical or borderline range by age 11.

Dr Fallon Cook, lead researcher of the study, says it’s the babies with multiple and complex problems that should be a cause for concern for parents.

“If at 12 months of age you still experience quite severe difficulties with getting your child to sleep, or there’s frequent night waking, problems with feeding... that’s when we would suggest the family go to see their GP, health nurse or paediatrician to see what sort of help is available," she said.

Previously, most research suggested mental health disorders emerge in childhood or adolescence. This is one of the first studies with "compelling evidence" these problems emerge quite early, Cook said.

The study also found that mothers with either moderately or severely unsettled babies were also much more likely to report “clinically significant psychological distress” at 27 per cent.

But the research wasn’t all cause for concern, Cook says, with around 25 per cent of 12 month old infants having difficulties with sleeping but no other unsettled behaviour having no higher risk of mental health issues.

The research also presents a significant opportunity for early intervention to make a dint in the rising number of children diagnosed with mental health disorders, Cook says.

“I’m very excited about these finding because it’s not often we can come across something so strongly indicative that we could potentially intervene and maybe could potentially help reduce the rising number of mental health issues diagnosed in children.”

If this story has raised concerns for you, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the PANDA National Helpline (Mon to Fri 9am-7:30pm AEST) on 1300 726 306.