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Danielle Pacheco

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Sleep deprivation is an unavoidable part of being a new mother. The sudden shifts in hormone levels, accumulated fatigue from pregnancy, and round-the-clock demands of caring for a new baby can take their toll, and it’s common for mothers to experience a dip in energy and mood during the first few weeks after giving birth.

A majority of new mothers experience the so-called baby blues. For approximately one in eight women, these negative feelings become a persistent condition known as postpartum depression. Distinguishing between sleep deprivation and postpartum depression can be difficult, especially as one condition can aggravate the other. In fact, fatigue is one of the criteria that doctors normally consider when diagnosing depression.

Knowing how to identify postpartum depression is important, as it’s a serious condition that may not go away on its own without proper treatment. A better understanding of the relation between sleep deprivation and postpartum depression can help you recognize when to seek help from a doctor.

What Is Postpartum Depression?

Women with postpartum depression may feel overwhelmingly anxious, hopeless, and unable to get out of bed. These feelings last for longer than two weeks and are more severe than just the baby blues. They can also interfere with the ability to carry out day-to-day life. In rare cases, some mothers go on to develop postpartum psychosis, and may have hallucinations, suicidal ideations, or thoughts of harming the baby.

Mothers with postpartum depression often have trouble bonding with their babies. As a consequence, postpartum depression can also have significant effects on the child’s development, causing problems with mood, low self-esteem, and difficulty relating to peers.

Having postpartum depression after the first child raises the likelihood of having postpartum depression after subsequent pregnancies. Postpartum depression is also more common in certain groups, such as first-time mothers, mothers of preterm babies, women with a prior history of depression, and those who lack a strong support network. An increasingly recognized contributing factor for postpartum depression and anxiety is a lack of sleep.

Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Postpartum Depression?

While there are many factors at play, it does appear that sleep deprivation can exacerbate symptoms of postpartum depression. This is true for both parents, with research suggesting that both the mothers and the fathers of young babies are more likely to have depressive symptoms if the mother sleeps poorly. Sleep deprivation is also linked to suicidal ideation in women with postpartum depression.

The relationship between sleep deprivation and postpartum depression is likely bidirectional, with depression often causing sleep problems as well. Furthermore, both of these conditions often have roots in similar issues, such as stress, anxiety, and changing hormone levels.

After pregnancy, women experience a sudden drop in levels of estrogen, progesterone, and thyroid hormones. This change affects the sleep cycle and lays the groundwork for depression. Over time, if sleep doesn’t improve, this raises the likelihood of developing postpartum depression.

Unfortunately, sleeping well is easier said than done when you are caring for a newborn. You may wake up multiple times during the night to breastfeed, change a diaper, or check on your fussing baby. Even when the baby is sleeping well, racing thoughts and to-do lists may keep you up at night. In short, sleep problems during early motherhood may be due to a lack of sleep, but also stem from fragmented sleep, poor-quality sleep, and difficulty falling asleep.

Mothers of infants who are difficult to soothe and who wake frequently during the night appear to suffer more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. To effectively treat fatigue and postpartum depression, doctors may need to help you improve your baby’s sleep schedule as well as your own.

Sleep problems for mothers begin as early as pregnancy, with many women never returning  to the blissful sleep they experienced before. Mothers who report very poor or drastically decreasing sleep quality during pregnancy are more likely to develop postpartum depression. Prioritizing better sleep during pregnancy may therefore be especially important for women who already have another risk factor for postpartum depression.

Postpartum Depression vs. Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation and postpartum depression are both characterized by irritability, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating, feeling low, feeling tired, and trouble sleeping at night. However, if you are experiencing any of these more serious symptoms, you may be suffering from postpartum depression:

  • Sadness and mood swings accompanied by frequent bouts of crying
  • Anxiety, fear, or panic attacks
  • Being unable to sleep even when your baby is sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy
  • Feeling so overwhelmed that you have difficulty functioning
  • Feelings of guilt and feeling like a bad mother
  • Excessive preoccupation with the baby, or, conversely, an inability to bond

Postpartum depression can begin right after the baby is born, but it often develops more slowly over the following months. Doctors may not recognize the symptoms of postpartum depression because many of them — such as changes to sleeping patterns, appetite, and libido — are so similar to the natural changes that occur after delivery.

If your mood doesn’t improve after a good night of sleep, or if it gradually worsens even as your baby starts sleeping better, you may have postpartum depression.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists asks doctors to implement regular screening for postpartum depression in all women after giving birth. Being tired is a normal part of having a new baby, but you should still tell your doctor how you are feeling. They can ask you some questions to rule out postpartum depression.

It is possible to have postpartum depression as well as sleep deprivation. In this case, your doctor can help you develop a treatment plan that addresses both conditions.

How to Sleep Better If You Have Postpartum Depression

Among the many risk factors for postpartum depression, sleep deprivation is one of the most straightforward to treat. Though life with a young infant requires some major adjustments, you can set yourself up for better sleep by following healthy sleep hygiene practices wherever possible. These include habits like getting sunlight early in the day, eating well, and getting regular exercise. You may find it helpful to go for a walk with your baby every morning.

Establishing a regular sleep schedule is difficult when you’re beholden to your baby’s shifting sleep patterns. Most doctors recommend seizing the opportunity to sleep whenever the baby is sleeping, even if this means napping during the day. However, some research has found that sleep quality may be even more important than total sleep time when it comes to postpartum depression.

During an ideal night of sleep, we complete a balanced cycle through various sleep stages. The most important stages, slow-wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, tend to occur after we have already been asleep for a while. Sleeping for only short periods at a time — and waking up every time the baby fusses — makes it virtually impossible to complete these restorative sleep cycles.

To increase nighttime sleep, consider switching baby duty with your partner so you can each get a few nights of uninterrupted shut-eye. The person off-duty should sleep in a separate bedroom without a baby monitor. For couples who prefer not to sleep apart, they may consider a scenario where the mother can breastfeed and the partner can be on diaper duty. Alternatively, you may be able to pump milk into a bottle so your partner can relieve you for some of the feedings.

When to See a Doctor

You should communicate to your doctor any negative feelings or problems sleeping, even if you believe they are just a normal part of being a new mother. This is especially true if the baby blues last longer than two weeks or if you have thoughts of suicide or about harming your baby. Your doctor can help you establish a treatment plan, which usually involves a combination of therapy and antidepressant medications.

As some women may be reluctant to share their feelings, it’s a good idea for partners, family, and friends to keep a close eye on new mothers. Treating postpartum depression as early as possible is important in order to prevent it from becoming a long-term health problem.

Suffering from postpartum depression does not mean you are a bad mother, or that you did something wrong. Though it may seem impossible to find a spare minute to yourself when caring for a small infant, one of the best ways to help your baby right now is to take care of yourself. Among other things, this includes making sleep a priority and talking to your support system to see if they can share some responsibilities.

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