Postpartum Insomnia and Strategies for a Better Night’s Sleep
During the first year of my child’s life, I told myself that sleep deprivation was normal. And it is, to a certain extent. Night feeds and wake ups are just a part of the initiation process into parenthood.
So I did not worry too much that first year about my sleep habits, as I was caught up in the haze of new motherhood and figuring out how to take care of a baby. I assumed I would get back on a regular sleep schedule once my son started sleeping through the night.
When my son finally did start sleeping through the night though, I was surprised to find myself continuing to struggle with falling asleep and staying asleep at night. I did not know that postpartum insomnia was something that many new mothers struggle with. And because I could no longer excuse my poor sleep habits on a frequently waking baby, I realized I had a problem.
I was also starting to feel the toll that long term sleep deprivation was taking on me mentally, physically and emotionally. For anyone who has experienced ongoing sleep problems, I do not need to describe what it feels like. There is a reason keeping someone from sleep is a form of torture!
Was my internal clock permanently disrupted? Were my hormones still shifting? Was I innately wired as a mother to now wake up to the sound of a pin drop? Was I simply not disciplined enough to work out a new sleep schedule? What was going on?
What is Postpartum Insomnia?
As I began to try and understand why I was having so much trouble sleeping, I came across the term “postpartum insomnia”. Apparently my issue is one that many women encounter after childbirth.
While not an official clinical diagnosis, the term “postpartum insomnia” is used to refer to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep after childbirth. What to Expect explains that it can either be short term (fewer than 3 months) or long term (3 months plus).
There can be a number of issues that contribute to the development of sleep problems after childbirth. MichiganMedicine explains that aside from the stress of becoming a parent and taking care of a newborn, sleep problems may develop due to shifting hormones and changes in the brain.
Possible Causes for Postpartum Insomnia
The SleepFoundation discusses how hormones progesterone and melatonin levels drop postpartum, which impacts our ability to sleep.
Additionally, Romper states that the hormone oxytocin increases after childbirth, and that this can cause hyper-arousal and trouble settling down at night.
And adrenaline is another hormone that may come into play when it comes to postpartum insomnia. Romper explains that a new mother’s hyper-vigilance as she learns to care for a new baby can trigger the body’s “flight or fight” response and a release of sleep inhibiting adrenaline. I used to sleep like a log at night. Nothing would wake me. Now I wake up to the slightest sound or movement in a room.
While I do not know all the details of hormonal changes after childbirth, I know that I didn’t feel quite myself for a long time after having my son. Especially with breastfeeding, my mind and body did not feel like they really belonged to me. And I did not get my period until well after a year post-birth, so this indicates to me that my body was still going through a lot of changes.
Postpartum Depression and Other Mental Health Issues Impacting Sleep
Sleep problems after childbirth can also be a symptom of postpartum depression and other mood disorders. A medical doctor or mental health therapist can determine whether postpartum insomnia is a symptom of a larger issue.
Ways To Manage Postpartum Insomnia
While I am still having issues with getting enough sleep, I am doing far better ever since I started making a conscious effort to tackle the problem. Just as we help our babies learn to sleep, we also have to retrain ourselves sometimes. Patience and consistency are key.
Keep A Sleep Diary
Keeping a sleep diary can help you gain a better understanding of what is having the biggest impact on your sleep. Here are some ideas of things you may want to track;
- Bedtime and wake up times
- Menstrual cycle (eg the week before my period I have a lot of trouble falling asleep at night)
- Stress level
- Blue light use before bed (tv/computer/phone)
- Caffeine consumption
- How much and how long before bed you are eating
Stick To A Bedtime
While it’s commonsense to have a respectable bedtime if you want to get more sleep, this topic warrants its own header in the context of parenthood. Because as a new parent, having the discipline to go to bed early is easier said than done! After you have put your baby or toddler to bed, it is easy to luxuriate for an hour or two too many in your “me-time”. And in my case, an hour or two too many watching tv. I have finally come to accept that that extra episode just isn’t worth it.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
In addition to maintaining a bedtime, I am also working on the following sleep hygiene practices:
- No caffeine after 1pm
- Exercise (Earlier in the day is better)
- A cool, quiet and comfortable bedroom
- Use blue light blocking glasses if using screens before bed or when waking up in the middle of the night.
- No heavy meals or snacks at least an hour or 2 before bed
- No daytime naps (I did take some naps when my son was younger and we were getting up frequently in the night for feeds etc, but I try to avoid them now since my son is mostly sleeping through the night and I’m aiming to do the same).
Take Care of Your Mental Health
Even after getting into bed at a decent hour and implementing my sleep hygiene practices, I still sometimes have a hard time falling asleep. So frustrating!
What I found is rarely mentioned on websites discussing sleep hygiene practices, is a discussion about mental health and its impacts on sleep and postpartum insomnia. For example, the Sleep Foundation discusses how depression can make it difficult for people to fall asleep and stay asleep. This is also the case with anxiety. Poor sleep can then exacerbate these mental health issues, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Particularly in the case of women, trouble sleeping can be a symptom of postpartum depression. And for both men and women, there are new challenges to navigate as a parent that can certainly trigger or lead to mental health challenges.
I have struggled with symptoms of anxiety and depression since I was very young, but have had a more difficult time managing these symptoms since becoming a parent. I think this is because there is less time to do the things I have historically done to manage my symptoms.
So I am now having to get a little more creative and intentional about taking care of myself mentally and emotionally. For me, this means making time to work on my passion projects. This keeps me connected to myself as an individual and also stimulates my mind and creativity. It is hard to make the time for yourself when life gets busy with a child, but it truly is important.
I also try to reach out to friends and family as much as possible. Feelings of isolation can be very real as a new parent, and maintaining a sense of connection with others is vital. Especially if you are feeling blue, it is hard to reach out to someone because you just don’t have the energy or tell yourself you don’t want to see anyone. Do it anyways. Family, friends and partners are wonderful sources of both emotional and practical support when you’re navigating parenthood and postpartum insomnia.
If an option, partners can also pick up a night feed if you are in the earlier stages of caring for a newborn. If you are doing breastmilk, you can pump before bed and have your partner give a bottle so you can get an extended stretch of sleep.
Good old distraction can be an excellent way to manage issues like worry, anxiety and rumination that are keeping you up and feeding that postpartum insomnia. I sometimes turn on a podcast with earbuds so that my mind isn’t dwelling on my own problems. And if listening to a podcast in bed isn’t enough to distract my busy mind, I will get up and do something until I start to feel sleepy.
Sometimes we need help from a mental health therapist or a medical doctor. We cannot always figure it out on our own and that’s why those professionals exist. Michigan Medicine explains that if you are having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep for more than a few weeks, then it is a good time to seek professional help. There is a specific modality that some mental health therapists are trained in called CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia). The Sleep Foundation explains that this approach focuses on addressing thoughts and worries that are keeping you up at night, as well as helping with sleep hygiene, relaxation techniques and sleep schedules.
Celebrate Your Sleep Successes
Even if progress is slow as you combat postpartum insomnia, don’t forget to celebrate any small success. If you manage to stick to your bedtime for 3 days in a row, celebrate that. If you fall asleep in less time than usual, celebrate that. If you reach out to a friend when feeling blue, and it helps you feel at peace when you get into bed at night, celebrate that!
Every small step is going to get you closer to where you want to be with your sleep goals. Progress is usually slow and tedious. Celebrating the small successes will keep you motivated along the way.
While I still struggle with postpartum insomnia, I am in a far better place than I was a couple of months ago. By consistently implementing sleep hygiene practices and addressing my mental health, I am slowly moving towards better sleep.
Change is rarely immediate. We must be kind, patient and consistent with ourselves as we are developing new habits. In the same way we practice patience and consistency with our children, we must do the same for ourselves.