"All expecting mothers have heard the infamous and annoying advice, “sleep before the baby comes” as if sleep is easy to come by during pregnancy itself. This unsolicited advice usually is given with good intentions. What people are trying to tell you is that you’re going to be the most tired you’ve ever been in your life. While most people know this intellectually, living it is quite a different experience.
Its Impact Physiologically
During the postpartum period (typically from 0-4 months after birth), women are going through extreme physiological changes. After 9 months of rapid changes within the body during pregnancy, the process of returning to a new normal begins. Major organs are returning back to their usual place and size, hormones are coursing through the body, and milk production is in full swing. Just this process alone is exhausting, let alone the interrupted sleep patterns that come with having a newborn.
Sleep has a big impact on the body even without all of the added physiological changes occurring in the postpartum body. A lack of sleep can cause physical fatigue, manifesting in symptoms that may be attributed to other causes. Some frequently missed symptoms of physical fatigue include an interrupted circadian rhythm and inflammation that can lead to gastrointestinal issues. Both of these symptoms may be overlooked due to waking up every two hours to nurse a baby, and GI issues that are caused by a response to pregnancy and delivery.
Not getting enough sleep also affects the hormones in the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, the release of counterregulatory human growth hormone and cortisol are impacted by the quality and quantity of sleep the body is getting. A lack of sleep will disrupt the release of these hormones causing issues to appetite regulation, glucose tolerance and the circadian rhythm.
It’s Impact on Mental Health
Sleep deprivation can cause many negative impacts on your mental health as well. It contributes to poor attention and decision making, inability to perform routine tasks and an increase in anxiety, mood swings and irritability. People struggling with a lack of sleep find themselves easily frustrated or angered and struggle with coping skills.
All of these factors will also contribute to suffering in relationships with those around you. You may take your irritability out on your partner, close friends and family, and maybe even your baby, which might look like snapping, being curt, or being sarcastic. Even if you are not dealing with postpartum depression, sleep deprivation can contribute to mood swings and unpleasant moments.
Research suggests that sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor to postpartum depression. It can also be a symptom of postpartum depression presented through insomnia or an inability to rouse. Sleep quality is controlled by the same neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mood. Many women may attribute difficulty in sleeping during those first months to being on the schedule with their baby and overlook that it may be a symptom of a postpartum mood disorder.
The Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing conducted a survey and found that postpartum depression symptoms worsen for patients when the quality of sleep declines. Sleep is one of many factors contributing to postpartum depression, but one of the most important to address. Being well rested can help a new mother focus on managing her depression and ultimately recovering.
How to Get More Quality Sleep
Most new parents are aware of the toll sleep deprivation takes on the mind and body. It’s not a lack of awareness that is the issue, but rather a lack of resources prohibiting them for getting the sleep they need. Here are some practical tips to help with getting more quality sleep.
Utilize a Support Network
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and take people up on their offers. Whether they offer to cook a meal, watch your older child, or even come and snuggle with baby while you nap, accept them! This tends to be hard for Americans to do as we are used to the mentality of “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps,” but it really does take a village.
Look into hiring a postpartum support doula to come overnight a few nights a week or to come and help during the day. Their presence will be invaluable in maintaining a peaceful and functional home.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional psychotherapy support. There is so much going on within the mind and body during the newborn and infancy months, speaking with a licensed professional can help bring perspective and give you skills to navigate parenthood in a healthy way.
There’s a reason why the saying “it takes a village” has stuck around, it truly takes a community to keep a family healthy and thriving.
Have Realistic Expectations
Remember that the postpartum period is much longer than 6 weeks. Recent studies have found that a woman’s body still has postpartum effects one year after giving birth. After the major physical healing has occurred, the family is still enduring big changes as both parents return to work, or one parent is taking the lion share of caring for the baby. Don’t expect that you’ll still be able to do everything at full tenacity without a lot of help, or a lack of sleep.
Minimize Sleep Hindrances
- Caffeine- although caffeine may seem like a lifeline during this exhausting period, try to limit the amount being consumed. It does affect your ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep overall. If you need your caffeine (and we’ve all been there), try to consume it in the morning, and don’t take in more after 4pm.
- Electronics- try to make the bedroom an electronic free zone. Screens increase the hormone melatonin in your body giving you the physical cue to stay awake. Try to avoid electronics during late night feedings as well. They will make it take longer to get back to sleep. This means that finding a space that isn’t your bedroom to charge your phone is ideal.
If you find yourself needing more support in adjusting to your family’s new normal, contact Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington to discuss what therapy might do for your unique situation.