In the of my first pregnancy, I began fantasizing about post-pregnancy sleep. The ability to sleep longer than 45 minutes at a time without having to get up to pee, or needing to roll over to relieve pressure on my hips, or drag myself down to the kitchen because I was starving.
In the hospital after delivery, I hardly slept for three days. Between the uncomfortable bed, regular checks from nurses, sweating out all of my IV fluids, and a baby who wanted nothing to do with sleeping in that little plastic box, I nodded off from time to time but didn't really sleep. All I wanted to do was go home, shower and .
As expectant moms, we know that sleep is going to be very different after baby arrives. We'll be up at all hours of the night feeding, soothing and rocking. We know this and expect it. So the bone-tired exhaustion on the fourth day home from the hospital came as no surprise.
What was entirely unexpected was my trouble sleeping during the times that my baby was sleeping. What was this nonsense? I was . My bed was so comfortable. My husband was peacefully snoozing next to me. A quick peek at the bassinet beside me reassured me that baby was sound asleep.
But not me. I was wide awake, tossing and turning.
Whatever form it takes, postpartum insomnia is a real thing that can have a negative impact on a new mom's life and adjustment to motherhood. Luckily, there are lots of things that can help. I recommend starting with some of the sleep basics—things that can help anyone struggling with sleep.
Careful with the caffeine
First, what is your caffeine consumption? The reality of new mom exhaustion means there may be more caffeine than usual in your life. Seeing if you can reduce it by one serving, or limiting consumption after 2 pm is a great starting point to make sure that caffeine is not negatively impacting your sleep.
Make your bedroom a sleep haven
Next, is your sleep environment sleep-friendly? Your bedroom should be reserved for two things: sleep and sex. If possible, it should not be the place you also spend time playing with your baby, hanging out with your partner, watching TV, or spending much time during the day. You want your body to know that it's sleep time as soon as you walk in.
You also want to check the temperature in your room. Sleep experts say the ideal sleep temperature is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit for adults. For babies, it's recommended to be 68-72, so you'll want to adjust a bit if the baby is sleeping in your room.
Watch for anxieties and overwhelm
When you're trying to fall asleep, what's going on in your mind? Concerns about baby's safety and a compulsive need to check on them frequently are very common in women suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. If this is part of what's going on for you, it would be a good idea to reach out to your OB, midwife, or therapist to discuss other possible symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety that you may be experiencing.
Being overwhelmed by all you have to do is also a very common cause of sleep disruption for new moms. Your life has just changed drastically, and there is a lot on your plate. If thoughts about everything you need to get done are keeping you awake, try keeping a notepad and pen (not your phone!) next to your bed. Write down your to-do list or any thoughts you need to remember—jot them down and let them go until the morning.
Assess the night wake-up situation
Frequent night wakings to feed and soothe your baby are part of life for new moms, but these wake-ups can become problematic if you're having trouble falling back to sleep once the baby is snoozing with a full tummy.
A common culprit here is the environment. If you're bottle feeding, you may be waking up, walking to the kitchen, turning on the lights, and standing around for five to 10 minutes while you prep the bottle. That's enough time and stimulation to fully wake up, making it much harder to go back to sleep when you're done.
If you're nursing, you may be able to avoid turning on lights, and you don't have to spend time prepping anything. But if you're like many moms, you're probably on your phone to pass the time while nursing. Unfortunately, the light and activity from your phone are not conducive to keeping your body in sleep mode.
So what can you do to make nighttime feedings less disruptive? Set yourself up for minimal-effort success during the evening. Measure out the water for formula bottles and keep them in the fridge. Set burp cloths and nursing pillows out where you'll need them. Refill your water glass that you know you'll be reaching for. Do whatever you can so you can stay sleepy through that night's feedings—while staying safe, of course.
Keep it dark
It's also important to keep light to a minimum. If you're going to be up in the kitchen mixing a bottle, try using a nightlight plugged into one of your counter outlets. It should provide just enough light to see what you're doing, but not so much that your brain thinks it's morning. There's no need to bring your phone out for night time feedings. Enjoy the quiet time with the baby and try to stay as relaxed as possible.
Speaking of relaxation, it's a good idea to get familiar with a few relaxation techniques that can help ease your anxiety when you're in bed trying to sleep.
One of my favorites is belly breathing:
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- Take a deep breath through your nose into your belly.
- You should feel the hand on your stomach rise, while the one on your chest should stay still.
- Breathe in, hold the breath, and then slowly exhale through your mouth, feeling your stomach fall back down.
- Do this for as long as you need to return to a calm state – or until you fall asleep.
Another technique I recommend for those nights when you seem unable to turn off your brain is the alphabet game: Get comfortable in bed, close your eyes, and pick a category—restaurant chains, girls' names, cities, etc. You then want to name one thing for each letter of the alphabet.
For example, if I was doing this with US cities, I might say Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, El Paso, and so on. Once you finish one category, go on to another. This gives you something to focus on so your mind isn't wandering, but it's boring enough not to keep you awake. Many people who use this game for sleep find that they fall asleep in the middle of a category.
Using relaxation techniques or distractions that help lull you to sleep are important in breaking the "I didn't sleep last night, and I'm afraid it's going to happen again, so now I'm anxious, which makes it even harder to sleep" cycle.
Remember, you're not alone.
When should you seek more help? If you have other symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety, reach out for help. Or if the lack of sleep is interfering with your daily functioning—making it so you can't function at work or drive safely—it's time for additional help. Yes, some amount of new mom fatigue is normal and to be expected, but when it crosses into something more severe, there is no need to suffer or try to get through it alone. Lack of sleep can make many other things, including depression and anxiety, worse, so ask for help if you're struggling. A good night's sleep is crucial to your wellbeing.