Sleep is essential — without it, we all suffer. This is particularly true for new parents, who are juggling the needs of a baby along with adjusting to all that comes with new parenthood.
Exhaustion heavily contributes to symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can have lasting negative impact on parents and babies. Prioritizing everyone’s sleep can minimize the risk of mood symptoms and allow for an easier, more fulfilling postpartum period
Sleep in the Postpartum Period
Between nighttime wakings, feedings, and the stress of having a child, falling or staying asleep can be difficult for new parents. Sleep deprivation, or not getting sufficient sleep, extracts a toll on all of us in terms of mood, health, safety, and even longevity in all of us. Here are a few consequences of sleep deprivation that are particularly important for new parents to be aware of:
- Irritability: Under conditions of insufficient sleep, you may be more irritable, anxious, or likely to lash out at friends, co-workers or spouses and other loved ones.
- Anxiety and depression: Without sufficient sleep, we are at greater risk for negative moods, anxiety and depression. If you experience symptoms of poor mental health, consider speaking to your healthcare provider.
- Accidents and injuries: Without sufficient sleep, we are at greater risk for longer reaction times, which can increase risk of accidents, such as motor vehicle crashes. Try to avoid driving or operating other machinery when you are sleep deprived.
Sleep Deprivation and Parenting
Sleep deprivation can negatively impact positive parenting. Positive parenting involves being responsive and warm toward your child. Caregivers who sleep less often experience higher levels of stress.
Higher levels of stress are associated with difficulty regulating emotions, which may explain why caregivers who have less or fragmented sleep, or who take longer to fall asleep, show less positive parenting in the hour before their child’s bedtime than caregivers who get more sleep.
Postpartum Depression and Sleep
Postpartum depression is mild to severe depression that ultimately begins during pregnancy or during the postpartum period and affects eight to 13% of new mothers. It can range in severity from mild to severe, and the onset can begin before delivery, within days to weeks after delivery or within the first year postpartum.
Many women have significant anxiety symptoms in addition to depression, and signs can include difficulty sleeping or excessive fatigue.
“It is imperative for mom and baby that mom seeks professional help from a trained psychiatric provider for any symptoms of postpartum depression.”
Dr. Carly Snyder, Reproductive and Perinatal Psychiatrist
Primary treatments for postpartum depression in people with moderate to severe symptoms are medications and therapy. Mild symptoms can be managed with lifestyle changes, including getting as much rest as you can, socializing when possible, and asking for caregiving assistance from partners, family, and friends. Your healthcare provider may also recommend medication, therapy, and support group attendance to help improve your symptoms.
Good Sleep Hygiene for New Parents
Prioritizing your own sleep helps you have the energy to care for your new child, so learning what works best for you and your child is key. The following elements of sleep hygiene are especially important for new parents:
- Nap when the baby naps. Try to sleep when the baby sleeps. This can be challenging with mounting household tasks, but power naps can help you recharge.
- Be comfortable saying no. There will likely be many friends, family members, and other loved ones who want to meet your baby. Before their 2-month shots, this may be ill-advised from the standpoint of their health, but as you navigate a new life with your little one, be comfortable saying “no” or asking to delay a visit until you and your baby have a bit more of a routine.
- Create a good sleep environment. A good sleep environment for adults is cool, quiet, and dark. The same recommendations apply to your baby’s bedroom.
- Have “on” and “off” nights. If you sleep with a partner with whom you share parenting duties, a common mistake new parents make is to both be awoken by the baby at night. Instead, consider having one person be “on” and the other be “off.”
- Have a bedtime routine. Nighttime rituals are important. Make sure there is a chance to bond as a family at the end of a long day. This may look like reading a story together, lighting candles, or taking a warm bath with your baby once they are able to do so.
- Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask friends, neighbors, and family members for help when you are in need of some sleep or alone time. Be sure to communicate with your partner to create a functional and consistent schedule while the baby is awake, plus also dividing responsibilities evenly.
- Get outside. Making sure you have time to get outside, even for a quick stroll around the block, can have many positive effects on your mental health.
- Consider starting sleep training around six months . Sleep training helps your child sleep better. Research shows that sleep training also improves maternal mood. Some pediatricians recommend starting to sleep train before six months, presuming the baby is at least 12 pounds
You might also consider connecting with a new mother or parent support group to talk about your sleep experiences. The members may have suggestions that meet your specific needs and provide a vital support system to help you know you are not alone.
“Sleep is a critical part of any treatment plan for all postpartum conditions. Medications, therapy, and a support network are important, but women need sleep to fully recover.”
Dr. Carly Snyder, Reproductive and Perinatal Psychiatrist
If you struggle to sleep in the weeks and months after giving birth, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can determine if your experiences are part of normal postpartum fatigue or something requiring further medical attention. They can also suggest additional strategies for helping you feel your best.