It’s unavoidable as a new parent that you are sleep deprived. You’ve got endless disruptions at night from numerous feedings, diaper changes, and the ever-present grunts and squawks coming from your newborn. You may be turning towards different coping strategies (e.g. asking friends and family for help, grabbing naps, consuming endless cups of coffee, or having an iron clad determination to figure out sleep training).
For many new parents, the lack of sleep is one of the most difficult parts of early parenthood. Poor sleep does not cause mental health issues, but it can influence your vulnerability. A lack of sleep can contribute to starting or worsening mental health struggles. But, there are things you can do to ease the exhaustion and reduce the mental health challenges of early parenthood. In this blog post, we’ll share some tips for getting better sleep and managing postpartum mental health.
What does sleep do for you?
Before diving in, let’s take a moment to understand why sleep is so essential. The ideal amount of rest for a person is approximately 7-9 hours. This is a laughable amount of time for new parents to consider, especially when night feeds occur every 1-2 hours. But, irrespective of the amount you’re getting at night, it’s the amount needed for an adult to function.
During sleep, your brain and internal organs are working hard. Your learning capacity is significantly influenced by this nightly practice. It is during sleep that your brain learns to integrate memories and new information. Your brain works through the various thoughts, emotions and information you experienced that day, and learns to sift through these details.
The neurons in your brain need this rest time to recover or else they become overloaded. This is a significant reason why your cognitive capacity feels diminished after a poor night sleep. With enough rest, you’re better able to stay attentive, learn new information, and create long-lasting memories.You can make better decisions, and have a better hold of your emotional capacity.
“Mommy Brain” Is Real
You may have heard of folks referring to the term “mommy brain” for new parents who present as forgetful or scattered. Often, this term is said with some laughter and derision. But, there’s a biological reason that “mommy brain” exists. Not only is your system going through numerous hormonal changes, but your sleep deprivation exacerbates the situation. Sleep impacts your ability to reason, problem-solve and pay attention to details. If you find that you are making lots of mistakes, forgetting details, or have limited capacity to handle stressors, sleep is a big part of this problem. Both your body and mind are craving the rest they desperately need in order to reset.
Sleep is also the time when your body recovers. During this rest period, your muscles strengthen and heal from the work it has done during the day. While your resting, your brain is producing the hormones needed to manage your well-being. These hormones regulate your immune system, your metabolism, your blood pressure, your insulin production, and even your hunger cues. When your body is working on limited sleep, recovery takes longer, and you’re more susceptible to colds and ailments.
The confusion with cortisol
Unfortunately, when we are sleep deprived, our body starts to produce more stress hormones. With limited sleep, your cortisol production increases, and this helps you stay alert. You go about your day, irritable and not up to par, but awake. When you take a nap, or get an extra hour of sleep, this production level decreases. Ironically, now that you’re less stressed, you become less alert and you’re more aware of how exhausted your body has become. People often walk away thinking that the naps have not helped, when in fact, it has gotten rid of that false alert experience caused by extra cortisol.
The cyclical effects of sleep and mental health struggles
When you are anxious or depressed, it’s hard to get quality sleep. Your mind is racing, your moods are low, and it’s hard to convince yourself to fall asleep when all of this internal turmoil is taking place. On the other hand, when you cannot get good sleep, you start to feel tired, overwhelmed, and irritable. While sleep is not the sole cause for mental health struggles, these two elements influence one another in this never-ending cyclical mayhem.
Tips to help get better sleep
So what do we do? When we’re so aware that sleep is good and needed, how do we get enough rest with a young baby? The following tips will give you some support in managing those first few months.
Find ways to soothe your newborn
When your baby can be quickly soothed and placed back down to rest, you’re able to get longer chunks of rest. This article explains the 5S technique that helps to settle newborns.
Establish a bedtime routine for your baby
Identify the ideal bedtime for your child. For newborns, this is typically around 6-7 PM. Create a consistent plan for nighttime routines that will take 10-20 minutes. While your newborn will not pick up on this pattern right away, your future self will thank you for beginning this practice so early on. Your baby will adjust to this routine so long as you’re consistent. Eventually, there will be an association of this routine with the final shift into nighttime. This bedtime routine can include: baths, getting on pyjamas, infant massages, reading stories, signing songs, final bottle/nursing, and placing into the crib.
Use “the pause” to retrain the anxious mind
Our anxieties often want us to intervene as quickly as possible when our newborns are making noise at night. While this makes you a very loving and caring parent, it comes at a cost. Your anxiety starts to build an automatic behavioural pattern with this practice: the baby grunts, and you bolt to check that the baby is okay.
The pause is a technique described in French parenting that involves observing our babies for a few minutes before intervening (this is different from the systematic cry it out method). You’ll learn a lot from these 2-3 minute pauses. You’ll notice your baby can sometimes be asleep and making noise (Newborns have two hour sleep windows where they move, make noise and even cry out despite being asleep). You’ll also become aware of times when your baby can settle and fall back asleep independently. Your anxiety will also learn that a few minutes is manageable and reduce its pattern of “I must fix the crying”-panic.
Pausing for two minutes can feel like a lifetime, especially for parents who are cautious of creating insecure attachments. However, I know that these parents are working all day, everyday to provide their babies a safe and loving home. Giving yourself two minutes to retrain your anxiety will only further support you to show up from a secure place versus an anxious one. If you show up as grounded, calm and loving when you check in on your baby, they will settle faster knowing that you’ve got them and you are not worried about this situation.
Address your sleep hygiene.
It’s not just your newborn that needs a bedtime routine. Your system needs it as well. Establishing good sleep hygiene habits may not get you to sleep on the first night, but it will help your body shift away from activation into rest more quickly. The following post offers some suggestions about improving sleep hygiene.
Wait a minute. You’re sleep deprived and you’re supposed to step on the treadmill? I know, it’s the worst advice. But there’s a reason that exercise helps our bodies settle. Getting some cardio into the day helps your body produce more endorphins, which helps you stay awake and alert. When you cool down following a work out, these endorphins leave the system, and helps your body settle back down into a calmer, rested state. This makes it easier when you get to bed shortly after.
Get some help
There may be some very strong, independent and capable parts of you that hate getting help. If this is the case, remember that it’s incredibly hard to raise a human all by yourself. If you have the support, and it’s safe to ask for help, please do so. Create a plan with your friends or family members to sleep chunk so that you can have at least 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. This gives you the chance to get through at least a few sleep cycles. Ask for helping in managing household chores so that you don’t have to spend your awake time stressing out about these details.
Rest when you can
Rest is different than sleep. If you’re unable to fall asleep, focus on tasks that are relaxing and comforting to your body and mind. Stretch, read a book, watch a show, listen to music. Give your active, thinking, and organizing brain the opportunity to slow down. Sometimes we get hyper-focused on the baby and the endless amount of chores that need to get done. Ironically, your attention cannot be sustained for the amount of time needed to complete these tasks. Giving yourself the time to rest is like recharging your batteries. The earlier tasks will feel less overwhelming when you consistently take breaks and get the chance to rest.
Use of medication and therapy
Anxiety, depression, and mental health struggles are complicated. It’s not based on will power. If you had the tools and resources to overcome it, know that you would have by now. Seeking help allows you the opportunity to heal from emotional wounds. When the root causes of your mental health struggles have been resolved, your day to day capacity (including your ability to sleep) will get better.
Remember that so much of your mental, physical and emotional capacity is influenced by your sleep. It’s not you that’s doing it “wrong”. It’s not your fault that life feels hard and challenging. By prioritizing your sleep, you can support your mental health and better cope with the demands of parenthood.
If you’d like to chat about any of the above pieces, or if you’re looking for support with your mental health during this postpartum phase, reach out.