This article was written in consultation with Kimberly C. Starr, BSN RN, a baccalaureate level registered nurse who commiserates on the new mom postpartum insomnia struggle and poor sleepers, because she’s been there. For more great information on family health and sleep training, be sure to check out her website.
Being tired is not fun. It’s that’s so obvious that it really shouldn’t have to be said, right?
But we’re also moms, so we’re used to being tired. Tired is our new normal. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves, isn’t it, especially during postpartum recovery.
I mean, so many new and repeat moms (me included!) bring home a baby only to learn that suddenly, sleep is almost nonexistent even when the circumstances are ideal for it. And we tell ourselves it’s just a stage. That surely things will improve soon. Surely we’ll be able to sleep – just as soon as our new baby reaches that next milestone of sleeping through the night.
But being unable to sleep and being so tired that you can barely function isn’t normal. That’s getting into zombie-mom (or mombie) territory.
Been there, done that. And it’s terrifying. This is more than just not sleeping – this is postnatal or postpartum insomnia. It’s dangerous – to us, our health, and our families. So let’s get you sleeping again, mommas.
What is Postnatal or Postpartum Insomnia?
“Regular” insomnia is when you experience difficulty falling asleep, even when the environment is perfect for sleep. Maybe it’s due to a health concern – or perhaps it’s due to anxiety. You know – when your brain suddenly starts working overtime trying to over-analyze every decision you made 10 years ago with what you **should** have done instead. Or because you need to be able to listen and hear every squeak your new baby makes – to make sure they’re fine. You know – mom brain at night kind of stuff.
So postnatal insomnia is insomnia after giving birth. It can be caused by:
- hormone changes due to childbirth and breastfeeding
- postpartum mood disorders, like postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety
- general anxiety
- it can be idiopathic (that’s fancy doctor talk for they don’t know why)
- or it can also be worsened by a baby who wakes up frequently (and you’re unable to fall back asleep easily, meaning you’re losing out on all sorts of sleep!)
Basically, there’s a lot of triggers that can cause it. Knowing which one causes yours may be different than what causes mine or another mom’s. That’s why the best way to treat it is to start by identifying it.
Do you have trouble falling and/or staying asleep at night? How long has it been going on? Have you noticed any other triggers that make sleeping harder?
And yes, having a new baby and being scared out of your mind is a totally legitimate trigger. In fact, it’s one sure-fire way to scare sleep right out of your body. Especially if your baby wakes frequently to feed. Then, you’re not falling asleep well due to the insomnia AND not getting hardly any sleep.
How Long Does Postpartum Insomnia Last?
Just like with “regular” insomnia, postnatal insomnia can be a quick, acute, short-term kind of thing. Or, it can be a longer, drawn-out and chronic kind of thing. It depends on many factors – the main one being your reaction to the whole situation.
For example, if you note a few bad nights’ sleep and begin a sleep journal, you may identify a pattern. Then, you can use that information to change your sleep habits to get more sleep. Or, you’ll keep looking at that data and begin to wonder if you’ll ever sleep again – because you won’t be able to quit worrying about it.
Now, that’s a bit of a simplification. But when you’re so tired that you can barely stand up straight (let alone hold the baby safely), it’s important to remember that there is a way to fix this. Things will get better. And you can do this. But you may need some help.
How to Treat Postpartum Insomnia – When You’ve Got a Small Baby
Once my babies were born, I had a terrible time trying to sleep. Our sleeping and feeding patterns meant that we were close pretty much 24/7. Which worked great, but also kicked my anxiety and insomnia into high gear. Never having had insomnia before, I blamed the whole insomnia on being a new mom. And, while I wasn’t exactly wrong, neither was I completely right. Because being a new mom is a type of situational insomnia. But just wishing it away wasn’t helping. What you need is help.
Some days that means doing what you have to – just to make it to the end of the day when your support or spouse gets back from work. Or perhaps it means asking a friend to tend the baby for a little while so you can take a nap. Or perhaps it means letting the whole house become a disaster zone so that you can rest. Those are all great options. Because, while baby is little and you’re adjusting to being a mom, it’s fine. This is a situational insomnia – and it can be managed with help and/or some other changes.
Create a Pro-Sleep Lifestyle
Another treatment option is to start trying to use various sleep aids to make your (sleep) life a ton better. The way we do that is by creating a pro-sleep lifestyle.
Let’s start the change by getting your mornings off to a good start. And that can mean limiting your caffeine intake. I know – it’s hard to give it up, especially when you depend on it to survive the day! However, I’ve noticed that I have a lot easier time going to sleep (and staying asleep!) if I limit my caffeine intake and the time when I drink it. In fact, my personal rule is to not have any caffeine after about noon. Because that way, it’s all out of my system before bedtime.
(And actually, after my SECOND baby my postpartum insomnia got so bad I abandoned caffeine 100%.)
Next, let’s try to better manage our stress levels. That can mean practicing mindfulness, meditation, or using lavender essential oils to help you calm down. Also, try to do some basic exercises or stretching. Yoga can do wonders for your stress levels!
Third, be careful with your device usage. The lights on your tablets, phones, and TV screens emit a light that triggers wakefulness in your bodies. You can either download one of various apps that simulate daylight changes (so that you avoid this issue!) or just set a rule of no devices for an hour before bed. And if you absolutely have to have your Kindle fix? Change the setting to night setting.
With our oldest, I used to use my phone in the middle of the night. And then, surprise surprise, I had a hard time going back to sleep! It got better after I switched from browsing social media to reading books on my Kindle app with the darker screen – and even better still when I just stopped using my phone in the middle of the night. So don’t be afraid to be smarter than I was – and just put the phone down each night.
(If you are up often in the night with the baby, consider replacing your lamp bulbs with a red bulb. It won’t “wake you up” as much as a bright white bulb will – and it will ALSO not wake baby up as much!)
Then, make sure that you’ve got a great support system and ask for help. Share the load! Ask your partner for help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to let them know exactly what you’re going through. And preferably ask them for help before they notice you’re so exhausted that they worry you can’t even walk to the kitchen. (yes, that happened!)
Finally, remember that baby who’s waking up way too often? That’s a problem. You may need to consider cosleeping or sleep training your baby (whatever is best for your family) – it could be a huge help. After all, if your baby is what’s waking you and keeping you from sleeping, that’s an insomnia trigger that will need to be addressed. More on that in a bit!
Postpartum Insomnia Treatment Options
Okay – now let’s cover some more treatment options that work on two levels. One, they work because of biology and chemistry. But more importantly, they’re also soothing, so they help us to emotionally and psychologically manage the insomnia. And that means better sleep!
1. Drink a nighttime team. Whether you prefer chamomile or lavender or sleepytime tea, enjoy a nice, warm, soothing cup. To get best results, try rotating between several flavors after a couple of weeks.
2. A white noise machine can help soothe your brain into sleep – the gentle, static noise literally helps your brain quiet itself down.
3. Exercising in the mornings can help us prepare for the day – while stretching in the afternoon can help our bodies begin to prepare for sleep. Save strenuous exercise for the morning hours – but a gentle yoga session in the afternoon could help you sleep better that night.
4. Acupuncture and back massages work miracles for many people! Maybe they’ll help you, too.
5. Mineral supplements could help. Especially if you’re nursing. Make sure you’re still taking a prenatal/ postnatal vitamin to make sure your body’s not being deprived of an important micro-nutrient that could be worsening your insomnia. (Magnesium works WONDERS for sleep – but too much can give you diarrhea.)
6. Sleep aids can be a life saver. While most prescription sleep aids aren’t recommended while breastfeeding, talk to your doctor and lactation consultant about what options could be best for you. Several over-the-counter options could work for you, too. Diphenhydramine (benadryl) can work great, although it can affect milk production levels. Doxylamine succinate (Unisom) is another. I got very desperate, and took Unisom despite nursing. My milk production was not too badly affected. TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE TAKING ANYTHING.
7. Therapy is another option. Many types of insomnia can be subconsciously and accidentally worsened by how we’re thinking and acting about sleep. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy can change that.
Getting Your Family Past the Insomnia by Cosleeping or Sleep Training your Baby
Once you’ve gotten your own postpartum insomnia under better control, you’re going to feel so much better. Suddenly, your brain will work again. You’ll begin to see what needs to happen next. And you’ll be able to cope with the stresses better again.
Sleep deprivation and insomnia feel and are awful. They can drive your anxiety through the roof!
So, if getting up and wandering around the house at night with a baby who wakes every few hours is adding to your postpartum insomnia, you might have to take steps help baby start sleeping better.
For our family, that meant cosleeping. Cosleeping is not for everyone, and if it’s not for your family, it may be time to consider gentle sleep training.
I found by cosleeping I was able to be far less “woken up” when the baby woke, and able to get to sleep again faster. Plus, the baby woke less with me near by.
While I chose to just wait it out until the babies were sleeping longer stretches naturally, and deal with my insomnia the best I could without sleep training.
This also included night weaning, taking Unisom, and dealing with my postpartum anxiety.
Cosleeping is not always the best route for everyone, and depends largely on what works for mommy. My sister sleep trained her children, and her mental health was all the better for it.
For you, the answer might be sleep training.
Once your babies are sleeping longer stretches, and you implement a bedtime routine that works for you, you’ll find it so much easier to get to sleep!
Trust me, I’ve been there. When you can make the transition from waking every few minutes to getting your baby to sleep through the night (even if it’s just for a few hours at a time), it’s a huge improvement.
Waking up every 30 minutes for months on end is torture (I know, because I have done this)! Getting 3 hours in a row after that was heavenly!
It also meant I could start healing, because there went my insomnia trigger. And once my insomnia trigger had been addressed to a more livable level, I was able to catch up on much-needed sleep, re-train my brain to sleep, and finally exit that new-mom sleep deprived state.
In other words, cosleeping or sleep training could be a key part of the treatment plan for your postpartum insomnia.
Because getting enough sleep is amazing – and once you find the right mix of sleep aids, sleep training, and options for you, you’ll be getting a better night’s sleep, too. You can do this, momma.
My Must-Have Postpartum Insomnia Resources:
- Lavender oil and Cedarwood oil (I diffuse them with this diffuser)
- Hey Girl, SLEEP tea
- My favorite book on cosleeping
- The Exhausted Mommy Survival Kit
More on Postpartum Life:
- How To Speed Up Postpartum Recovery
- Postpartum Sex – Everything You Need to Know
- Postpartum Hacks to Make New Mom Life Easier
You’ll Also Love:
- Free sleep training resources by a nurse who’s been in your exhausted shoes – including a free 30-day sleep training challenge