“Also, I could finally sleep. And this was the real gift, because when you cannot sleep, you cannot get yourself out of the ditch—there’s not a chance.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
One of the most identifiable aspects of the early days of parenting is exhaustion. Family and friends encourage you to prepare for lack of sleep, “sleep now – you won’t sleep once the baby comes”, suggesting that you can store it away for when you need it most. No one can prepare a first-time parent for parenting and the lack of sleep that often comes along with having a baby. As much as it might be considered a rite of passage to be an exhausted new mom, living on caffeine and “sleeping while the baby sleeps”, the bottom line is that humans need sleep to survive. Something to consider: sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Humans needs sleep.
Sleeping can become problematic during pregnancy with symptoms like restless legs, frequent bathroom trips, and general physical discomfort, but sleep difficulties can spill over into the postpartum period, even after your baby is sleeping soundly through the night. Sounds cruel, right? Many of the changes that new moms experience contribute to this sleeplessness like hormonal changes, changes in lifestyle, frequent feedings, and anxiety.
Have a Plan: Parents spend a lot of time preparing for a new baby with lovely nurseries and a myriad of equipment (most of which we never use). When you’re making your pre-baby to-do list, add “sleep plan” to the list, right at the top would be great. If you have a partner, come up with a schedule that includes both partners getting sleep. This might include swapping nights, sleeping in shifts, and sharing feedings. If you are a single parent, remember, it takes a village. Enlist the helpers in your life, parents, siblings, and friends are potential sources of support and most of them will be happy to help. If your options are limited, consider a postpartum doula, or consider adding gift cards/monetary contributions to a doula on your baby registry. Postpartum doulas are professionals trained in supporting you and your family through the postpartum period, including offering support at night so parents can sleep.
Stick to a Routine: Creating a separation between daytime and night is an important part of a healthy sleep routine. After baby is sleeping, around 1-2 hours before you plan on going to sleep, start your bedtime rituals: taking a warm shower, getting into fresh pajamas, brushing teeth, and meditation are all examples of a good bedtime routine. Basically, you are letting your mind and body know that it is time to prepare for sleep. If you are folding laundry and answering emails right up until bedtime, it is more likely that sleep will be elusive.
Things to Avoid:
Screens are not compatible with good sleep hygiene; most of us don’t like to hear this, but it can’t be avoided. Screens activate our brains and emit blue light, which disrupts melatonin productions, and both of those factors make sleep less attainable. Discontinue screens 1-2 hours before heading to bed. If this is difficult, plug your phone in another room or in an area of your room where you can’t easily grab it. Check in on your current sleeping arrangement. Are there any solvable problems to your sleep setup? Are there any kids or a dog impacting your nighttime
comfort? Does your partner snore? Is your room “too” quiet? Many people benefit from the sound of a fan, or noise machine to help with shutting down, and staying that way.
When Insomnia Strikes
This is where the meditation practice can pay off. Think of those nights where you are stuck awake with your racing thoughts. Mindfulness and meditation can help you catch your racing thoughts, and redirect your focus back to the moment. You can also focus on your breathing as you inhale slowly through you nose and exhale through your mouth. If all else fails, try to move to a different part of your home for 20 minutes and do something soothing like read a book, then return back to your bed to try again. Avoid the urge to turn on a screen.
Mentally sifting through worries, anxieties, and responsibilities can be a barrier to a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, for parents with an infant, time in bed might be the first time all day when your mind is quiet enough to think. One way to combat lying in bed and worrying, is to avoid relaxing in bed and head to bed only when you are truly tired. Another strategy is to have dedicated “worry time” earlier in the day. Setting aside time to mentally address worries through journaling, meditation, or just thinking can help you not think so much when you’re in bed. It’s important to try and find small windows of time during the day to do some decompressing and physical activity, which studies show it will help your sleep.
This is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to cause your sleep struggles. It’s normal to get less sleep than you’re used to with a baby in the house, but the idea of powering through the first several months of infancy is not feasible and can have serious consequences. Postpartum depression and anxiety can be causes of insomnia and lack of sleep is a risk factor for postpartum depression and anxiety. It’s important for new moms and their support system to keep in mind that a postpartum woman is a woman recovering from pregnancy and giving birth. A healthy diet, a solid self-care routine, and an adequate amount of sleep help mothers recover physically, emotionally, and are protective factors for perinatal mood disorders. If you’re a new mom and you’re struggling with sleep, help is available, and with an informed care team, sleep will come.