Postpartum Realness: Postpartum Sleep
Updated: Sep 13, 2020
As I write this on the morning after the 4th of July, I am reminded of the 4 hardest nights for postpartum moms in the U.S. (or moms in general): the Fourth of July, New Year's Eve, and both of the Daylight Savings Times. If you haven't figured out why by the title of this post, it's because of SLEEP. Or should I say the lack thereof. These are four nights of the year I began to dread as a new mother dealing with postpartum anxiety. It shouldn't have been news to me that it would be reasonably louder after it became dark on July 4th or December 31st, and that the sun would seem to rise an hour earlier or later in the Spring and Fall. It WAS a surprise to me, however, how much those few hours of the year could disrupt my child(ren)'s sleep patterns for nights or even weeks on end. In turn, it affected MY precious few hours of highly-coveted sleep as a new parent. Now that I think of it, maybe it's no coincidence that all of these "Baby Sleep Destroyer" nights are spaced out somewhat evenly. Maybe pre-modern history moms got together and signed a petition demanding that the household sleep only be disrupted once a quarter. I'm sure that's what happened. But I digress: back to postpartum sleep.
As I sat in my first Perinatal Mental Health Training as a mental health professional but also a mom 3 months postpartum and EXHAUSTED, I was shaken to the core to hear the trainer say that a lack of sleep is perhaps the number 1 contributor to perinatal mood and anxiety conditions. Well that made sense! Even in those Utopian households where mothers claim their sweet bundle of joy seemed to sleep through the night from the day they brought them home from the hospital, becoming a new parent can be hard. In my opinion, perhaps the most difficult "new job" you'll ever start since there's only on-the-job training and no employee handbook (not to mention ZERO paid days vacation). So, coupling the hardest job in the world with a handful of catnaps or even stretches of sleep that semi-resemble a reasonable night's rest, you're basically in survival mode for much of the first year of baby's life.
What became most discouraging to me as a new mom was that on any regular hard day, I would tell myself that after a good night's rest, things would look better in the morning. Unfortunately, while trying to survive the newborn phase, I realized that day and night seemed to blend together creating an endless loop of 1 hour catnaps. There didn't seem to be any "better tomorrow" because there was no definitive break between days. In any context, severe lack of sleep is known to have profound psychological and physiological effects. This can range from experiences of minor agitation to lack of proper diet and nutrition (I would always choose a nap over making myself a proper meal in the early days) to extreme symptoms such as psychosis or long term effects linked to heart disease. This is not to mention the obvious ramifications and risks of caring for a new baby or small child when not fully rested. While the issue of lack of sleep is pretty common knowledge to most new parents, there is rarely a plan in place for how to overcome it.
It is vitally important that new parents, especially mothers responsible for the majority of caretaking or nursing/feeding, have a concrete plan in place for periods of rest. I remember doing a major eye-roll to those telling me to "sleep when the baby sleeps" or "you'll just find the time to sleep". The truth is, however, you need to make a concerted effort to MAKE time. This might look like working out a loose plan with your partner of taking shifts, trying to sleep during baby's naps, or even calling in reinforcements on the weekends to assist in designated mommy naptime. This is truly easier said than done since this often proves challenging when baby is on a strict 2 hour feeding schedule, mom needs to pump milk, there is another child/ren in the home, the laundry hasn't been done in weeks, oh, and it's somehow 1pm and you haven't had your breakfast yet. I get it. This is where the mommy superpowers of careful planning and also loose flexibility come into play. Some days, there might need to be a detailed plan cross-referencing feeding schedules, older toddler naptimes, and meal prep. Other days, it might be throwing all of those plans out the window when your mother-in-law stops by and asks if you'd like a break. (Pro Tip: the answer is always YES).
At a later time, I hope to go into more detail on actual newborn sleep schedules, sleep training and the like. But the truth is: it's all a crap shoot. There are surely tips, tricks and even expensive sleep programs or consultants to hire, but until you get a handle on your own sleep, none of the rest makes a ton of difference. You'll lose sleep, that's for sure. So in the meantime, equip yourself with the plans for success early on by talking with your support network, mapping out a loose plan, and checking in regularly with yourself and health professionals about what you need. Also, if no one has told you: It Gets Better. I promise. Hang in there, mama. You've got this.
**BONUS: For your viewing pleasure, below is a picture of me 2 months postpartum taking perhaps the best, most-needed nap of my entire existence.