When my kiddo started sleeping through the night, I stopped sleeping. After 6 months of losing sleep due to the usual — night feeds, diaper changes, comfort cuddles — we decided to do some version of sleep training. It was successful, although tortuous for me (I’m not a cry-it-out kinda gal) and finally we were able to see 5 – 7 hour stretches of sleep for everyone in the house. Then… I developed Postpartum Insomnia. I’d sleep maybe 3 hours a night (this went on for months), even when I had the opportunity to sleep. Finding help for sleep disorders is difficult, and when combined with perinatal mental health challenges, it can feel impossible. If I had to hear another person tell me to “sleep when the baby sleeps”, I might have become one of those parents who just leaves the house to get milk, never to return — I have so much empathy for the parents who have. But I didn’t. Instead, I reached out to my community, wanting to hear stories and find answers or clues among the other parents and mothers in my life — that might have had an experience similar to mine. I spoke to my doctor and my therapist, and I spoke to a sleep specialist. I spoke to someone who was going through sleep therapy and she said, “you need to stay up until you’re actually tired. Don’t go to bed at 9 pm because you think you need to catch up” — some of the best advice I would ever receive.
Overall health and physical changes can contribute to acute insomnia during the postpartum period. These include things like increased stressors, caregiving for an infant, changes in hormone levels, and any new or previously diagnosed (perinatal) mental health conditions. It’s a real mixed bag as you can see, and if you’re struggling with this, or have, know that we are here with you — you’re not alone.
You may be wondering, but when is it considered insomnia? Many experts advise seeking assistance for insomnia if you encounter difficulty falling asleep, wake up prematurely, or feel consistently unrested for a minimum of three nights a week over three months. We tend to see that parents become more aware of these changes and challenges as their babies begin to establish more regular sleeping patterns (usually 3+ months postpartum), like it did with me. Many parents expect to have interrupted and inconsistent sleep in the first few months of their baby’s life, but it shouldn’t continue once their babies are sleeping more regularly and for longer periods.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, at any point during your early parenthood journey — it’s crucial to engage in a conversation with your healthcare provider(s). They can perform a physical examination, delve into your sleep routines, assess stress levels, and review your current medications. Additionally, your care team might conduct further examinations, perform blood tests, or suggest a sleep study to eliminate the possibility of other underlying medical issues.
So you might be wondering, what worked for me? What made it better? For me it meant addressing my postpartum anxiety with medication, getting sleep support via sleeping aids, prioritizing regular exercise, avoiding alcohol (as much as possible) and leaning on my partner for nighttime kiddo support. I wish I had a clear-cut answer, but my journey to better sleep has been long. My son is now 3.5 years old and I have finally weaned off my medication, sleeping pills and other coping tools I used to support myself postpartum. IT TOOK THREE YEARS. But, you know what? I’m ok with that. I’m proud of it because there is no pill, or one thing, or easy fix for any mood disorder or sleep issue. It requires changes to lifestyle, mental health, your sleep environment and more.
Let’s dive in a little deeper and support our understanding of postpartum-related insomnia.
Postpartum-related insomnia is a sleep disorder that affects many new parents, making it difficult for them to fall asleep, stay asleep, or achieve restorative sleep despite being physically exhausted. The factors contributing to this condition are diverse and often multifaceted, ranging from hormonal fluctuations to the demands of caring for a newborn.
Hormonal Changes: Hormonal fluctuations, especially the sharp drop in estrogen and progesterone levels after childbirth, can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and contribute to insomnia.
Stress and Anxiety: The adjustment to parenthood, combined with the stress and anxiety of caring for a newborn, can create a heightened state of alertness that interferes with the ability to relax and fall asleep.
Nighttime Feedings and Caring for your Baby: The frequent nighttime feedings and care required by a newborn can lead to irregular sleep patterns, making it challenging for parents to establish a consistent sleep routine.
Perinatal Mental Health: Insomnia can be a symptom of postpartum depression (or anxiety), a condition that affects many new parents. Addressing underlying perinatal mental health issues is crucial for improving sleep. Therapy, support groups, and, in some cases, medication can be effective in managing postpartum mental health.
Prioritize Self-Care: It’s essential for new parents to prioritize self-care. This includes taking breaks, accepting help from others, and ensuring that basic needs are met. We understand this is a nuanced conversation especially when it comes to access to these things, based on the intersections of privilege, class, family and more.
Establish a Sleep Routine: Develop a consistent sleep routine that signals to the body that it’s time to wind down. This can include activities such as a warm bath, gentle stretching, or reading a book. Avoiding blue light and screen time for 1 to 2 hours ahead of bedtime can also significantly reduce sleep issues.
Create a Relaxing Environment: Make your bedroom a tranquil space conducive to sleep. Dim the lights, eliminate unnecessary noise, and consider using blackout curtains to create a dark environment.
Share Responsibilities: Enlist the support of your partner(s), family, friends, or postpartum doula to share nighttime caregiving responsibilities. This can provide the opportunity for parents to get more uninterrupted sleep.
Seek Professional Help: If insomnia persists, consider seeking the advice of a healthcare professional. A primary care provider can help identify underlying physical or mental health issues contributing to sleep disturbances.
Practice Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Incorporate mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, to help quiet the mind and reduce stress.
Postpartum-related insomnia is a common challenge for new parents, but it’s essential to recognize that help and support are available. By addressing the root causes, prioritizing self-care, and seeking professional guidance when needed, parents can navigate this sleep disruption and pave the way for more restful nights during this transformative period of their lives. Remember, you’re not alone, and with time and care, sleep can become a more attainable and rejuvenating experience. Sleep is possible.