Note: If you or someone you love is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Before I became a new mom, I knew that night wakings were in my future. I had often heard that babies woke up every 3 hours to eat, so I expected that. And honestly, when I was pregnant, I was already waking up every 3 hours to pee.
In fact, I remember thinking one night, “Okay, so this is what it will be like to wake up with a new baby. This isn’t too bad. I can do this.”
But when my daughter was born and she was waking up all hours throughout the night, my mental health suffered.
The thing is, I was prepared for the night wakings. I wasn’t prepared for how long they would take.
You see, I had to wake up when she woke up, change her diaper, breastfeed her, supplement with formula, and pump. Then I would need to put her back to sleep and, by that time, I had to go to the bathroom.
By the time I was in bed and relaxing, I maybe got 1.5 hours of sleep before she was up again to repeat the process.
In addition to this, I was unprepared for the wave of hormones that overtook my body, leaving me feeling out of control.
I have very clear memories of laying in bed with hot tears streaming down my face because I was so in love with my newborn, but I was terrified that something would happen to me and she would grow up without a mom. I knew she deserved more.
I remember standing in the kitchen washing dishes yet again, my husband behind me pushing my buttons (and pushing me over the edge), and me screaming at him so loud that my vocal chords were shaking.
It was a perfect storm in my life.
Postpartum mental disorders and no sleep created a very out-of-control-Katie.
As a mom, it’s easy to put our needs out of the picture and focus on our baby. That’s our job. It’s instinctual.
But when we neglect our needs long term, it can have detrimental effects.
I want you to feel educated and empowered surrounding postpartum life, and the first step is realizing the impact a lack of sleep can have on a mother’s mental health.
Mothers lose more sleep than fathers.
Part of the reason my postpartum anxiety was so rough was because I felt unheard. I felt like I was carrying the weight of my newborn.
I was the one to wake up with my daughter to feed her. Even when my husband would help, I still had to pump, so I was waking regardless.
The fact that mothers lose more sleep than fathers isn’t just an anecdotal myth.
The National Library of Medicine has found that men lose an average of 13 minutes of sleep per night, while women lose an average of one hour of sleep each night. (1)
I don’t think I need to dive into reasons why this fact may be, but here’s a few:
- Women are usually the ones who feed the baby – breastfeeding or pumping mothers obviously need to wake up with the baby
- Women usually are able to take a few weeks of maternity leave (don’t get me started on the pathetic maternity leave that is the United States), and may feel obligated to wake up with baby since they “aren’t working”
- In my case, the minute my baby cried, I woke up. My husband? He could sleep for about 10-15 minutes after our daughter started crying. I have yet to do research on this, but I have a feeling most women are more in-tune with their children’s cries
I will say that I know this isn’t the case for every family. There are some families where dad stays at home and may take overnight wakings. Maybe the parents have agreed to alternate handling night wakes.
I can only speak from my experience and what the research has shown, and on average, women are losing more sleep than men.
Why does that matter?
Because this lack of sleep can worsen symptoms of postpartum depression.
A lack of sleep can worsen symptoms of postpartum depression.
The CDC claims that approximately 1 in 8 women will develop postpartum depression.
I don’t know why this topic wasn’t on my radar as much as, say, how big my child was in relation to fruit during my pregnancy, but it just wasn’t.
I had heard of “baby blues,” I had experienced situational anxiety, I’d had seasons of mild depression, but in no way did any of that prepare me for Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders (or PMADs, for short).
Every woman will experience PMADs differently, but I think it’s important to do the research and understand what they can look like. Because I wasn’t aware that my rage, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts were linked to PMADs until months after giving birth.
I can’t help but wonder how different my postpartum period would have been had I known that everything I was feeling and experiencing were related to PMADs, and maybe I could have seeked out professional support.
Instead, I was left feeling out of control and out of my element.
While studies have shown that postpartum depression can be worsened due to a lack of sleep, what I think is vital to realize is that suicidal ideation has also been linked to sleep deprivation (2).
I remember multiple occasions where I was up in the middle of the night for hours with my daughter thinking, “I literally can’t do this another night. I want to die.”
And I know I’m not alone in those thoughts, and I know sometimes they are more severe than that.
While I think it’s important for moms to have mental health support during the postpartum period, it’s not always possible, nor do many new mothers realize that they need help. And with sleep impacting so much, helping mothers get that sleep can be life-saving.
What can be done about sleep deprivation?
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “sleep when the baby sleeps” more times than you can count. I’m a big fan of that saying, but I’m also realistic and know that’s not always an option.
For me, I had to pump when the baby was sleeping. And eat. And wash bottles so that she could eat when she woke up.
In short, if you can sleep when your baby is sleeping, do it! But don’t feel bad if you can’t or don’t want to.
If you’d rather work, or clean, or watch Netflix, or go outside, or call your mom, or read, or literally sit on the couch and stare off into space, you have permission to do so.
So instead of saying, “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” I encourage you to “sleep when you can.”
I also think it’s important to let go of expectations. Your house doesn’t need to be Martha Stewart level. You don’t need to cook elaborate meals. Just get through each day and sleep when you’re able.
Also, ask for help. Many people will likely offer help, but they don’t really know how to give you what you need. So be specific and bold. Someone texts you and asks you what you need?
Tell them, “I need a healthy meal and for my toilets to be cleaned.”
What can be done about your baby’s sleep?
At the foundation of a mother’s sleep deprivation is, of course, her baby’s sleep.
Newborns sleep a lot, but that sleep is often broken up into unrealistic hours for mom to sleep. And while there’s not too much that can be done about that, reaching out for help is one of the best things you can do.
Let your mom or friend come over to hold your baby while you go take a nap.
Alternate night shifts with a partner.
Do something, anything, to help during those first few months.
Around 4-6 months of age, if things haven’t improved with your child’s sleep, you can consider sleep training. If you’re new here, I think it’s important that you know what sleep training is and what it isn’t, so be sure to read my definition here.
In sum, there is no shame in sleep training and you can maintain a strong attachment with your child in the process.
And if night wakings are your main concern, I have a free guide on how to end those night wakings that you can check out here.
Please reach out to the new moms in your life, and please ask for help if you are a new mom. I promise you, there are people in your life who love you, care about you, and would do anything if they knew it would potentially save your life or provide you a bit of relief.
It’s up to you to ask. And if that’s too intimidating, or you’re unsure of where to get support, visit Postpartum Support International.
- Richter, D., Krämer, M. D., Tang, N., Montgomery-Downs, H. E., & Lemola, S. (2019). Long-term effects of pregnancy and childbirth on sleep satisfaction and duration of first-time and experienced mothers and fathers. Sleep, 42(4), zsz015. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz015
Sit, D., Luther, J., Buysse, D., Dills, J. L., Eng, H., Okun, M., Wisniewski, S., & Wisner, K. L. (2015). Suicidal ideation in depressed postpartum women: Associations with childhood trauma, sleep disturbance and anxiety. Journal of psychiatric research, 66-67, 95–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.04.021