10 Questions with Clare Ladyman





Q1: Getting enough sleep is a huge issue for many people today, what drew you to sleep during pregnancy in particular?

I was a brilliant sleeper for the first thirty years of my life. I loved going to bed, and I could fall asleep easily. So, it was a massive shock when I was pregnant for the first time. I was waking up throughout the night to go to the toilet, feeling sick and just feeling uncomfortable. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I was having some medical issues and I wasn’t coping well with the anxiety and stress. After having our second son, the tiredness sometimes felt totally overwhelming. When I look back now, I can see that life felt so much harder because I couldn’t seem to get a good night’s sleep.

When our sons started school, I went back to university to study sleep. I really wanted to know how it affected people’s health, particularly their mental health. That led to wanting to help other mothers learn about sleep. Pregnancy seemed a logical place to start, as it’s a time when many women start experiencing disrupted sleep.


Q2: Were you surprised by any of your findings during your research into the links between sleep and mental health during and after pregnancy?

Not really! Anecdotally, it’s quite common for people to say their mood is worse when they sleep poorly. When I started researching these links, there was strong literature supporting this, including during pregnancy and after the birth of a baby. Sleep and mental health also share a reciprocal relationship, which means that poor sleep increases the chances of having poor mental health, but also that poor mental health increases the chance of experiencing poor sleep. That’s quite a difficult negative cycle to get out of, but it also means that improving sleep could have a considerable effect on improving mental health.

What I was surprised to find out about during my PhD research, was that not too long ago, pregnant women were thought to be ‘protected’ from mental health problems. The notion of the glowing pregnant women being immune from depression stalled research into antenatal depression while postnatal depression became better recognised. But we now know that women are just as susceptible to depression during pregnancy as after the birth.


Q3: What would be your top tip for pregnant women struggling to get enough sleep?

It’s so easy just to let sleep fill in the left-over hours between our waking activities. This often means that we don’t get enough sleep, or we miss the times when our body is most receptive to sleep. My top tip for pregnant women is, over the next few months, to allow sleep to become a priority. This doesn’t mean you have to become an expert sleeper, it just means giving yourself time to understand how sleep works, what your sleep patterns look like now and trying ways to improve your sleep. And let your friends and family know that it’s going to be a priority so they can help you!


Q4: Last year you made the final round of the three-minute thesis competition for the Asia-Pacific region. How hard was it to tell the story in three minutes?

Although we had only completed a small trial, we had some amazing, and really important results we wanted to share about how sleep education helped minimise depressive symptoms for the pregnant women in the study. But yes, it was incredibly difficult to condense all the research we’d done into three minutes — basically my 480-page thesis into just one page! The best part was having so many people at the competition, whether a fellow participant or audience member, come up afterwards and tell me their pregnancy stories. Specifically, how much they wished they knew more about sleep during their pregnancy and postnatal journey. It made me realise just how important it was to get this book out there!


Q5: What did it mean for you to be able to complete your PhD at the Massey Sleep/Wake Research Centre?

The Sleep/Wake Research Centre is an incredibly special place. Some of the most world-renowned sleep scientists are located there in the best little capital in world. I feel very fortunate to have spent four years there; not only with passionate sleep experts who were so generous with their knowledge, but also a group of lovely and supportive people who are now and will always be firm friends.


Q6: What is your next step?
The Sleep/Wake Research Centre is currently applying for more research funding to continue the work on sleep and mental health in the perinatal period. If successful, we will attempt the challenging task of recruiting women before they become pregnant to study the sleep changes that occur before and during pregnancy. I have also recently moved to Perth and will look for research funding opportunities with Australian universities here.


Q7: What do you wish you had known when you were pregnant with your boys?
Just how many bananas I was going to eat! In hindsight, I should’ve set up a weekly home delivery of banana boxes. I remember falling apart late one night when my husband walked into the lounge room peeling a banana. It was the last one in the house and I had been earnestly saving it for the morning — it was the only thing I could stomach during the morning sickness phase. Not surprisingly, he quickly got in the car and went down to the 24-hour store to find more bananas!


Q8: Do sleep researchers have great sleep hygiene? What’s your go-to solution for getting a good night’s sleep?

Yes, I think I so, but I think we are all guilty of working into the night on our computers or binge watching our favourite TV show every now and again. The benefit of being a sleep researcher is having the strategies up our sleeve if we notice our sleep deteriorating. My kids would certainly say I encourage them to have good sleep hygiene! I’m sure they must be sick of me telling them that it doesn’t matter if it’s Friday or Saturday night, 10pm is bedtime!

 My go-to solution for getting a good night’s sleep when I’m going through a patch of waking at 3am, is to keep a notepad by the bed and before I go sleep I write down all the things that I have to do the next day, as well as the things that are worrying me. I look at the list and decide if any of them are going to be better solved by thinking about them at 3am or whether I’m going to be in a much better position to tackle them after a lovely hot coffee at 8am in the morning. Funnily enough, it’s always the later, and this seems to allow my brain to rest throughout the night knowing the list is still going to be there for me in the morning.


Q9: Do you find that once people know what you do, they always have questions about their own sleep?

Always! The usual reaction is something like, ‘Well, I would make a great study participant, my sleep is terrible,’ or ‘is there something that can stop my partner from snoring?’


Q10: A lot of people like to read in bed — what are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading the final book in the Don Tillman trilogy called the Rosie Results by Graeme Simsion. The whole series is beautifully engaging, insightful and very funny and I would highly recommend it! I’m just about to re-read Jasper Jones by another Australian author, Craig Silvey, as my son will soon be reading this for school (which I’m very happy about — it’s a very powerful story!). I thought it would be good to reacquaint myself with the story to help with any questions he might have.