If you look at a photo of a friend that was taken a few days after the birth of her child, she probably looks pretty good, in that new-mom sort of way. She's likely exhausted and nowhere near ready for a night out, but she's dreamy-eyed and glowing, caught up in the wonder of this awesome life experience and the brand new person she made happen.
Fast forward a bit and take a look at a picture of her when her baby was about 3 weeks old. What, she doesn't want you to see those? She tossed them, lost them, or accidentally dropped them in the shredder? I don't blame her. The red-eyed, sallow, slumped over woman in those photos isn't really your friend; it's the person who appears after a solid stretch of sleepless nights.
Sleep derivation is often shrugged off or laughed about by our culture; it's seen as the "breaks of the game" for new parents, but in reality sleep deprivation is a serious problem. Some moms are affected more than others. How well you fare sleep-wise following the birth of your baby depends on a lot of factors, including your mental state, your physical health, your sleep patterns prior to the birth, and more.
Of course, your baby's sleeping habits figure largely into the equation. Most of us know a mother whose newborn slept for 4-hour stretches, and fell right back asleep following a feeding. If you end up with this type of baby, congratulations! However, most moms have it a bit tougher.
That's not to say that every baby is an all-night colic screamer who can't be comforted; most infants fall somewhere in the middle, and all babies go through periods where their sleep patterns don't match those of the mother.
Before we discuss ways to combat sleep deprivation, let's take a look at what it really is and how it works.
Sleep Deprivation Overview
Although sleep is something every human body does, science still has a lot to discover about the specific purposes of sleep and all the parts of the brain sleep (and lack of it) affect.
What we do know is that sleep deprivation causes disturbances in the normal function of the brain and body. It leads to poor memory, irritability, lowered immune function, and a host of other adverse effects. Sleep deprivation likely plays a role in the post-partum mood disorders many women experience.
You don't have to have full-blown insomnia to suffer the effects of sleep deprivation; chronic insufficient sleep or broken sleep can cause your productivity and mood to slump. In our ultra-busy day-to-day lives, many people don't even realize they're not getting enough sleep, or that unhealthy sleep habits are the root of their physical and mental disturbances.
New moms tend to suffer the worst from sleep deprivation, because it comes at a time when the body needs to heal and refresh itself, and sleep is one of the ways it accomplishes this.
Tips to Cope With Sleep Deprivation
- Get some sleep! Yes, it's obvious, but in many cases it's easier said than done. Being a new mother is exciting, and a bit stressful, so you may be running on adrenaline without even realizing it and bypassing some chances to take a rest. The good old advice to "sleep when your baby sleeps" is actually very useful. Those little catnaps may not seem like much, but they can help you a lot in the long run.
- Ask for help. You may want to prove your competence as a mom by handling everything on your own, but that's not always best for your health. If there's anyone (the baby's father, your mom, a nanny) who can help you care for the baby or get things done around the house so you can get some sleep, take the opportunity.
- If you find yourself nodding off at inappropriate times, you may want to use some natural pick-me-ups to get you through. Citrus scents like lemon and orange are energizing; use essential oils in these scents to help kick-start your day. Caffeine isn't generally recommended, but in a pinch, a cup of coffee won't hurt you, especially if you have to be alert enough to competently complete an important task or safely drive a car.
- Be wise about what you eat. Many new mothers experience appetite changes following the birth of their baby. Your appetite may have waned or you might still be riding the wave of your pregnancy cravings straight to the local pizza place. Whatever the case may be, taking control of your diet may help you handle sleep deprivation. Make sure you're getting a good balance of protein and carbohydrates. Try not to rely on sugary treats for fuel; they'll make you feel energetic briefly, but then you'll crash and feel more drained than before.
- Drink plenty of water. This may seem like the answer to everything these days, but it really does do wonders for your body. It flushes out toxins and helps boost a lagging immune system.
- Don't pressure yourself to sleep. If you want to sleep when your baby does, but you have trouble falling asleep in the middle of the day, just rest. Sit or lie down, do some simple meditation, look through a magazine. You may find that you can nod off after all, but if not, at least you've had some quiet time.
Looking Ahead To (Hopefully) More Restful Nights
With help, support and a positive attitude, you can tough out the sleep-deprivation phase. Your baby will fall into a less challenging sleep pattern within a few months of birth.
In some cases, a mother's sleep problems continue even after her baby has begun a more normal nightly sleep routine. If this happens to you, you may have acquired a sleep disorder. Speak to your health care practitioner. You may need to be treated with natural or pharmaceutical medicine, or you may be referred to a sleep clinic.
Remember not to use any bottled sleep remedy, even if it's advertised as "natural", until you consult your healthcare practitioner. This is especially true if you're still breastfeeding your baby.