Congratulations! You’ve recently welcomed a new bundle of joy into your life. Your days are filled with giggles, snuggles, feedings, and diaper changes. Unfortunately, there’s probably one thing missing from these new additions and that’s much-needed sleep! Most new moms get between 4 and 5 hours of sleep per night during the first few weeks of their newborn’s life. That’s about half the recommended amount.
Lack of quality sleep causes more than just bags under your eyes and an increased need for coffee. Long-term sleep deprivation and sleep disturbances can negatively impact both your mental and physical health. When caring for a newborn, you need to be at your best. That’s why, in this article, we’ll discuss the importance of sleep for new moms (and their partners!), plus tips for improving your sleep quality during those crucial first weeks of motherhood.
How Sleep (Or Lack of Sleep) Affects Your Health
As a new parent, sleep is that precious quiet time between feedings, diaper changes, and naps. But sleep is about more than just getting a break from motherhood. It’s a vital part of your overall health and wellbeing.
It’s during sleep that both your body and mind recharge and recover. Quality sleep supports a healthy immune system, positive mood, healthy weight, and cognitive function among other things. While all the stages of your sleep cycle play an important role, deep REM sleep is the most essential for staying healthy and waking to feel rested and rejuvenated. Sadly, this deep sleep doesn’t occur until about 90 minutes after you drift off. If your baby is waking every 2 to 3 hours for feedings, that doesn’t give your body much time in this restorative state.
Your body progresses through three stages of non-Rem sleep (NREM) before entering a deep sleep. The first stage lasts about 10 minutes, with each stage getting progressively longer before you enter REM sleep. This progression is known as your sleep cycle and it repeats itself about 3 to 4 times per night. A full sleep cycle takes about 120 minutes to complete, or 2 hours. If you’re sleeping as long as the average new mom (4 to 5 hours) your body is only progressing through 2 full sleep cycles – and that’s on a good night!
New moms, and parents in general, wake up between 3 and 5 times per night. Sometimes it’s to tend to a crying baby but other times, nervousness over your baby’s safety or wellbeing can startle you awake without warning. These constant breaks in sleep, plus the added stress of being a new parent, can take their toll on your physical and mental health.
Some of the most common side effects of chronic sleep deprivation include:
- Heart failure or heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain and obesity
- Low sex drive
- Cognitive decline
- Mood swings
- Problems with focus and memory
- Compromised immune system
- Increased risk of depression
As you can see, lack of sleep can have devastating effects on your health and ability to function as a new mom. This is especially serious when discussing the risk of postpartum depression. Up to 75% of new moms report feeling “the baby blues” after delivery. This is characterized as feelings of sadness or moodiness. Another 15% will develop a more serious condition known as postpartum depression. Symptoms include a feeling of hopelessness, the inability to bond or connect with your baby, and increased irritability or emotional outbursts. Women who develop postpartum depression are at a higher risk of developing major depression later on in life.
Why Sleep Quality is Especially Important for New Moms
Now that you know more about the importance of sleep and how lack of sleep affects your body and mind, let’s discuss these symptoms as they relate to new moms.
Reduce Stress and Risk of Depression
The biggest benefit of sleep for new moms is that it wards off feelings of depression. Moms who sleep well at night are at lower risk for postpartum depression. They also report feeling less stressed by their new role as caregivers. Getting enough sleep gives you the opportunity to bond with your newborn and cherish those irreplaceable moments.
Lack of sleep and lack of patience doesn’t just affect moms. Your partner is likely sleep-deprived as well. Even if they’re not physically getting up at night for feedings, their sleep is disrupted each time you get out of bed, turn on a light, or make noise. Because lack of sleep causes increased irritability and mood swings, you might find that you and your partner are fighting more than usual. Silly fights over where you put the diaper cream or whose turn it was to sanitize the bottles can lead to big blowouts when you are both running on just a few hours of sleep.
Reduce your stress by coming up with a system for nighttime feedings. Take turns and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Create a schedule that works for your family dynamic. When you’re both active participants in the caregiving process, not only will you increase the amount of quality sleep you both get, you’ll also prevent feelings of resentment and increased emotional turmoil.
Keep Your Baby Safe and Healthy
Another common side effect of poor sleep quality is impaired cognitive function. This includes difficulty focusing, trouble remembering things, and an overall “foggy” feeling. While you may think these symptoms only affect you, you’d be mistaken.
Memory prowess and focus are crucial for giving your baby the proper care they need and keeping them safe and healthy. Small errors can have major consequences during these early stages of life. For example, forgetting that you already gave your little one medicine for teething and then accidentally doubling the dose. Or nodding off during feeding or while rocking your baby to sleep only to have them slide off your lap and injure themselves. These are all very real, unfortunate, and avoidable accidents that can cause a ripple effect of negative consequences.
By investing in quality sleep, you’re investing in the safety of your precious baby.
Give Your Baby a Positive Foundation
People say that you’re a product of your environment – and they’re right. Studies show that babies as young as one month old can sense when parents are frustrated, angry, or even sad. Understanding that your emotions can also impact your baby’s health and happiness may just be the motivation you need to make a change in your current sleep patterns.
In addition to getting enough sleep, you can adopt other stress-reducing habits that promote a balanced mood and positivity. Meditation, yoga, and other forms of exercise are all great ways to not only reduce stress but improve your mood and help you maintain a healthy weight. (Bonus tip: exercising during the day can help you feel more tired at night, making it easier for you to fall asleep faster.) If you’re struggling with anxiety, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven way to help reduce negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. When sleep troubles are causing your anxiety, consider a CBT-I program to address both your insomnia and your stress.
How to Improve Your Sleep as a New Parent
Certain things are out of your control as a new mom. You can’t always predict or prevent your baby from having a restless night’s sleep, teething, being gassy, or even getting sick. Once you become a parent, lack of sleep becomes part of your daily life. But with a little planning and forethought, you can make positive changes to your routine that will increase the likelihood you get much-needed rest.
Here are a few more tips to consider.
- Avoid drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages as a substitute for sleep
- Put your newborn to bed at the same time you go to bed to get you the best chance at a longer stretch of sleep.
- Keep your sleep environment ideal – make it dark, calm and comfortable. Avoid getting on your phone while you are up with baby or at least switch your screen to night mode.
- Ask for help from your partner, family, and trusted friends (chances are, they’ll be more than happy to get a little one-on-one time with your infant)
- Remember, dishes, laundry and other chores can wait, take a nap when you can!
Investing in Sleep as a New Mom is an Investment in Your Baby’s Bright Future
It can seem impossible to get more than a few minutes of shut-eye as a new mom or parent. While a certain level of sleep deprivation during those early days and weeks is expected, if it goes on too long, you may be facing other more serious side effects. Nip your sleep troubles in the bud by enlisting the help of your partner, focusing on your mental wellbeing, and staying active and present during the day.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!
Guest Post by Katherine Hall
More about Katherine Hall:
Dr Katherine Hall is a Sleep Psychologist who specializes in treating insomnia. She holds degrees with specializations in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia.
With over 13 years of clinical experience working in the public and private sector, Katherine is dedicated to improving sleep health.