New motherhood and sleep deprivation go together like babies and pacifiers. An hour here, an hour there — it never seems to be enough. In fact, you miss long, uninterrupted sleep so much that you'd dream about it…if only you could sleep!
From wacky new sleep patterns to hormonal changes, there's a complicated mix of things happening in the first weeks after giving birth. Moms aren't alone; a National Sleep Foundation poll found that a whopping 76 percent of parents endure frequent sleep problems.
When you feel you've reached your wit's end, it helps to remember that this phase of parenthood is fleeting. Have faith: the first three months typically bring the most severe sleep interruptions, and by month four your baby will likely be inching toward a more regular sleep schedule, something many babies will achieve by around six months.
Here's a look at some of the unique sleep challenges facing new moms, plus a few strategies to help overcome them.
1. Sleep Fragmentation
Ever feel like waking up several times a night makes you feel even more tired than only getting a couple hours of solid sleep? There's a reason for that.
Once you fall asleep, it takes around 90 minutes to descend into the deepest stages of sleep, known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep or the "dream state." Sleeping for four or five hours straight — while still quite short of the recommended seven to eight hours — can get you at least some time in the most restorative realms of sleep.
Multiple wakings, on the other hand, can mean you never quite get there. Night after night, this can lead to serious (and dangerous) sleep deprivation, resulting in grogginess, slower reaction times, and forgetfulness, none of which are a good idea with a new baby in your care.
Try sharing late-night feeding duties with your partner or a parent who may be staying with you in the first days or weeks after childbirth. One of you can take the first “shift” and the other takes the second shift. This gives both of you a chance to catch some solid, uninterrupted sleep to rest and recharge.
Nursing moms can consider pumping milk so that their presence isn't needed for every feeding.
2. Newborn Sleep Patterns
No big surprises here. Having an infant means being on call for late-night feedings and other wee-hour wake-ups. And here's the thing: a newborn's sleeping pattern bears no resemblance to yours, or that of any adult.
Babies’ circadian rhythms start forming at around six weeks. Until then, newborns tend to wake up every two to three hours per night. It's not until around six months that baby will begin sleeping in long stretches of several hours through the night.
Try sleeping when your baby sleeps. It sounds easier said than done, and oftentimes it is. Newborn naps are as unpredictable as their nighttime sleeping habits, but you might just get a three-hour window of afternoon sleep that will help you sneak in some rest. One word of caution: avoid naps after 4 p.m., as they may cause nighttime insomnia.
3. Bright Lights, No Sleep
Baby cries. You wake up, flip the light on, and begin the midnight ritual of feeding, rocking and whatever else it takes to soothe him or her back to sleep. What's wrong with this picture? It might be the light. Just like anyone trying to sleep, light can keep you awake. Darkness cues your brain that it's time to rest — which is a good thing for you and your baby.
Use a soft night light instead of a table lamp or bright ceiling light. Also, flipping through your phone or reading on a tablet during these late-night sessions can drive sleeplessness, as the blue light from mobile devices have a stimulating effect.
4. New Mom Stress
Similar to what expectant moms may experience during pregnancy, the weight of bringing a child into the world can keep you up at night — only now you have the added stress of having a living, breathing little human under your care. The list of questions and worries may be rattling through your brain at the very time you should be catching much-needed Zzzs.
The advice is the same for new moms as it is for expectant ones: make relaxation a real priority. Meditate to empty your mind of worries. Sneak in 10-15 minutes of relaxing yoga or take a calming bath while Dad takes over.
5. Coffee Overload
Tired, bleary-eyed mornings may drive you to drink more coffee than usual to get you through the day. But if you're relying on caffeinated beverages too heavily, you may be feeding a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.
Curb the coffee intake in the afternoon to sleep better at night. If possible, schedule afternoon snoozes. A good nap is worth five cups of coffee.
6. Hormonal Changes
Just as they do during pregnancy, hormone fluctuations can continue to rob you of sleep after baby is born. Talk with your doctor about supplements, dietary changes and other remedies for keeping your hormones at healthy levels.
7. Baby Monitor Blues
Babies are notoriously noisy sleepers. They gurgle, groan, slurp and sigh. These aren't always sounds that require you to jump out of bed. In fact, not leaping into action at every whimper will help teach your newborn to sleep through the night.
When you feel comfortable, turn down the volume on the monitor (enough that you can't hear every peep but will still wake up when you need to) and begin weaning baby from your usual sleep-inducing strategies. If you're unsure about when to start making these changes, you can always get advice from your baby's pediatrician or nursing staff.
Sleep Deprivation Can Be Serious
It's important to note that sleep interruptions in new moms can sometimes be linked to postpartum depression. Some emotional upheaval is normal, but if you are experiencing major mood changes, pervading sadness or suicidal thoughts, call your doctor immediately. Remember, you may be responsible for taking care of your baby, but new moms need care, too.
If you'd like to speak to a physician or therapist, or are interested in joining a mom-and-baby support group, learn more by calling or scheduling an online video visit.