A study conducted by the University of Pittburgh has found that inadequate sleep patterns during pregnancy can increase the risk of low birth weight and other complications. The findings are published today in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

"Our results highlight the importance of identifying sleep problems in early pregnancy, especially in women experiencing depression, since sleep is a modifiable behavior," said lead author Michele Okun, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt's School of Medicine. "The earlier that sleep problems are identified, the sooner physicians can work with pregnant women to implement solutions.

The mother's sleep is essential to the child's development and future health, as the body's immune processes rely on an adequate quantity and quality of rest. Unfortunately, pregnancy is often marked by truncated sleep cycles, insomnia symptoms, and overall changes in rest patterns. Such disturbances can impair inflammatory responses by accelerating the production of cytokines - a group of signaling molecules whose excessive presence poses a threat to healthy cells.

"There is a dynamic relationship between sleep and immunity, and this study is the first to examine this relationship during pregnancy as opposed to postpartum," added Dr. Okun.

While the cytokine molecules facilitate internal communication among immune cells, an overproduction can restrict the body's ability to ward off disease and disrupt important spinal arteries.

The excess can also lead to depression, which is known to further disrupt sleep patterns. For this reason, a lack of proper rest can establish a self-perpetuating cycle of excessive cytokines and depression-related sleeplessness.

In the past, postpartum studies have revealed such excesses in women whose pregnancies were marked by adverse outcomes, like pre-term birth and preeclampsia. Researchers found that while many of these outcomes were caused by infections, behavioral processes like inadequate sleep may have been an additional factor, given the link between sleep and immune processes.

In the study, the researchers evaluated the extent of inflammatory cytokines, depression and insomnia in about 170 women at 20 weeks of pregnancy. Over a course of 10 weeks, the team monitored and analyzed the group's sleep patterns and production of cytokines. They found that virtually any shift in immune processes was enough to suggest an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes.

In addition, the results indicated that women suffering from depression and inadequate sleep patterns are at greatest risk for adverse birth-related outcomes.