Amidst the newborn cuddles and lullabies, there's an aspect of new parenthood that often remains in the shadows: sleep, or rather, the lack of it. In the whirlwind of caring for a newborn, postpartum sleep is often elusive and frequently interrupted. While sleep deprivation might seem like an inevitable part of new parenthood, understanding the science of sleep, its challenges, and its profound impact on postpartum well-being can shed light on why prioritizing sleep is essential for new parents.
The Science of Sleep
To comprehend the importance of sleep in the perinatal period, let's begin by examining the science behind sleep itself. Sleep is not merely a passive state; it is a complex and dynamic process that is regulated by our internal body clocks. A typical sleep cycle consists of several stages, including light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each stage serves a unique purpose, from physical restoration to cognitive processing and memory consolidation.
Women’s sleep patterns undergo significant changes during pregnancy and the postpartum period. While hormonal fluctuations prepare the body for childbirth and bonding with the baby, these changes, particularly the rise in progesterone, can also disrupt sleep patterns.
Challenges to Perinatal Sleep
As a woman progresses in her pregnancy, physical discomforts, such as heartburn, restless legs, leg cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, and frequent urination, can all cause significant disruptions in sleep. Hormonal fluctuations in pregnancy, particularly increases in progesterone, can cause increased fatigue and changes in sleep patterns. Postpartum depression itself can cause sleep disruption. In fact, sleep and depression have a bidirectional relationship, which means sleep disruption can lead to depression, and depression can cause sleep disruption.2
During the postpartum period, one of the most immediate challenges to getting quality sleep is the newborn's sleep patterns. Newborns have undeveloped circadian rhythms, which means they wake frequently, irrespective of the time of day or night, to feed, be changed, or seek comfort. This unpredictable sleep schedule can leave new mothers and fathers exhausted.
In addition to infant sleep patterns, new mothers often face physical discomfort from childbirth, including soreness and hormonal changes. These discomforts can make it challenging to find a comfortable sleep position or stay asleep for extended periods.
The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health
For new mothers already grappling with the emotional challenges of adjusting to parenthood, sleep disturbances can make matters worse. Sleep and mental health are closely intertwined, and this connection is particularly evident in the postpartum period. Sleep disturbances can significantly impact mood and well-being, and research shows a strong link between postpartum sleep problems and the development of mood disorders such as postpartum depression and anxiety. The relentless fatigue, coupled with the demands of caring for a newborn, can create a perfect storm for emotional and mental health vulnerability. Many studies indicate that sleep deprivation can exacerbate symptoms of postpartum mood disorders.1, 2 Even more concerning, maternal mental health research has identified a strong correlation between sleep disturbances in depressed postpartum women and suicidal ideation.3
Other Ways Sleep Disruption Affects New Mothers
Physical Recovery: Childbirth is physically demanding, and the body requires adequate rest to heal and recover. Inadequate sleep can slow the recovery process, making mothers more susceptible to pain, which can contribute to feelings of depression.
Hormonal Regulation: Sleep deprivation also affects the regulation of hormones such as thyroid hormone and cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Imbalances in these hormones may contribute to postpartum depression.
Cognitive Function: Cognitive functions such as memory, decision-making ability, and attention are all affected by inadequate sleep and can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed and hopeless. This can affect a new mother’s ability to cope with stress and make her more vulnerable to emotional disturbances.
Immune System: Sleep deprivation also affects the immune system and can make the body more susceptible to infections.
Breastfeeding: Mothers who get sufficient sleep are able to better establish and maintain breastfeeding.
Parent-Infant Bonding: Quality sleep can improve a mother’s emotional well-being, enhancing her ability to bond and care for the newborn.
Decreased Accidents: Adequate sleep reduces the risk of accidents, helping parents provide a safe environment for their newborn.
Practical Strategies and Tips
There are practical strategies that can help new parents employ to enhance sleep quality:
- Start planning early: During the third trimester, figure out what your support system will look like during the first month. Postpartum doulas, lactation consultants, or even someone to help pick up housecleaning and cooking duties can all be a great help to new, sleep-deprived mothers.
- Exercise: Regular exercise can drastically improve sleep quality.
- Sleep (or nap) when the baby sleeps: It's important to take advantage of the periods when the baby is napping during the day to get some much-needed rest.
- Sleep hygiene: Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Create a comfortable sleeping environment (dark, quiet, cool room). Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and screen time before bed.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness-based interventions: These have been shown to significantly improve sleep quality.
- Pharmacotherapy: There are many medications that can help with peripartum and postpartum sleep. These medications need to be carefully considered and monitored, however, due to potential risks and benefits, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Please talk with your clinician about options that might be appropriate for you.
While sleep may seem like a luxury in the postpartum period, it is a crucial component of well-being for new mothers. Understanding the science of sleep, recognizing the challenges, and proactively addressing sleep disturbances can significantly contribute to a smoother postpartum transition and better mental health.
Remember, you are not alone on this journey. If you're a new mother, father, or caregiver struggling with sleep issues or postpartum mood concerns, remember that help is available. Reach out to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional for guidance and support. Prioritize self-care, and don't underestimate the power of a good night's sleep in your journey through new parenthood.
About Moodr Health
Moodr Health recognizes the profound impact of sleep on perinatal well-being. We utilize innovative technology to help clinicians monitor, diagnose, and treat the overall mental health and well-being of new mothers, fathers, and caregivers using objective data and wearable technology.
- McEvoy, K. M., Rayapati, D., Washington Cole, K. O., Erdly, C., Payne, J. L., & Osborne, L. M. (2019). Poor postpartum sleep quality predicts subsequent postpartum depressive symptoms in a high-risk sample. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15(9), 1303–1310.
- Okun M. L. Sleep and postpartum depression. Current opinion in psychiatry, 28(6), 490–496.
- Sit, D., Luther, J., Buysse, D., Dills, J. L., Eng, H., Okun, M., Wisniewski, S., & Wisner, K. L. Suicidal ideation in depressed postpartum women: Associations with childhood trauma, sleep disturbance and anxiety. Journal of psychiatric research, 66-67, 95–104.