sleep deprivation and new moms

The shocking truth about how Sleep Deprivation affects new Moms

Are you having trouble sleeping at the moment? If you do, then you are one of the 84% of pregnant Mums who experience insomnia a few nights a week. This is according to the US National sleep Foundation of America Poll in 2007 – btw that seems to be the most recent poll that includes specifically pregnant women and new Mums. What you might not want to know is that if you are having sleeping problems now – you are likely to get even less sleep after your baby is born!

I’ve just finished reading Jodi A Mindell’s “Sleep deprived no more” who investigates sleeping problems in pregnancy and new Mums. (Jodi is associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital Philadelphia and Professor of psychology at St Joseph’s University.) Having read it – I wish I had found out more about sleep issues, before I took my baby home. I was so sleep deprived during the last 3 months I was pregnant – and if I told you how long I was sleep deprived AFTER my baby was born – it would frighten you – so I won’t tell you. The main thing I want to say is that many of her strategies may help YOU, so I’m going to share what I have learned here.

Let me say upfront why it’s important that you know about this BEFORE your baby comes home. Sleep deprivation will affect your life, plus your Partner’s life plus how well you are able to care for your baby. Because it affects how you feel – your mood, tolerance levels etc, how well you cope with things, it affects how you care for your baby, it affects your relationships.

Sleep deprivation also increases your risk of going on to develop Post Partum Depression. You may not realise how serious this is – but I want you to know that if you do develop PPD your baby is going to miss out on all that LOVE and devoted CARE you are wanting to give. And that’s a fact – because with PPD you become less and less able to think clearly and are less likely to go and get help, and also less likely to accept offers of help from others.

Some studies have shown that persistent fatigue of more than 2 weeks can predict Post Partum Depression, and another study found that 13 out of 14 of these fatigued Moms had Post Partum depression by the time baby was 1 month old!

So let’s look at the direct effects of sleep deprivation on the body.
It affects your mind – you can’t think clearly, you forget things, and working through problems becomes difficult and it also affects the decisions you make.

You don’t do things as well as you used to do them and are more likely to make mistakes.

In order to keep your immune system strong – you need adequate sleep. If you’re not getting this, your immune system is weakened and you are more likely to get sick. (Which makes caring for a little baby even more challenging)

You feel less happy with your lot – the whole experience of becoming a Mum is not what you thought it would be like, you find your Partner is not doing what you expect him to do, you are tired and irritable. Your decision making is impaired and you do things like drive a car when you know all you want to do is sleep.

Your body needs adequate sleep in order to function optimally.

An overview of how sleep works (as I understand it) is: sleep is controlled by “sleep drive” – your desire to sleep increases the longer you have been up, and also by our internal sleep clock (circadian clock).

Not getting enough sleep can happen to expecting mothers for various reasons.
1. Progesterone – one of the pregnancy hormones increases and it causes you to feel sleepy in the day but disrupts night time sleep.
2. Anxiety, depression or obesity can cause sleep loss – and a huge number of expecting mothers spend their time worrying about all sorts of things!

Things that will make it harder to get a good night’s sleep:
1. Sleeping with animals in the room (I mean cats or dogs!) just kidding but I thought we might have a laugh!
2. The temperature of the environment may not be comfortable – pregnant Moms are more sensitive to heat, or the bed may not be comfortable, a snoring partner may keep you awake. Come up with a solution to these issues.
3. Caffeine and nicotine affect your sleep.
4. Lack of exercise affects your sleep.
5. If you drink a lot of fluids shortly before going to bed.
6. Eating spicy or acidic food which can cause heartburn.
7. Going to bed hungry
8. Eating sugary foods
9. Drinking alcohol before bed
10. Restless Legs Syndrome (More about that later)
11. Electronics in the bedroom


1. Work WITH your body clock and develop a good sleeping routine
2. This routine could include going to bed at the same time each night, having a set number of activities as you prepare for bed eg. combing your hair, moisturising your skin, brushing your teeth, reading a boring book or listening to soothing music – giving signals to your body that it’s sleeping time. In other words develop a RELAXING sleep routine.
3. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, mattress is comfortable, bedding is comfortable, that the bedroom is quiet cool and DARK. (I think this is something really important that Jodi suggests and is well worth investing in. If you think how little an expense some dark blinds or curtains would be and that you’re going to need all the help you can get during that first year. I know my bedroom was always very light – and I wonder if this would have helped me)
4. Jodi also talks about making your bedroom beautiful calm and relaxing, and that you sleep in comfortable clothing, use socks for cold feet etc
5. If you are going to worry – set aside 30 minutes during the day for it – and don’t allow your mind to go to those worries again at night. (Easier said than done – but an incredible life skill to develop!)
6. If your bedroom is affected by noise – do something to drown out the sounds by using a fan or some other “white noise”
7. Sleep on your side – so that circulation to the uterus is not interfered with, and use pillows to make yourself comfortable.

1. Put into practice all of the above if you have not yet done so.
2. Discuss with your partner the risk of Post Partum Depression and what the TWO of you will do to ensure that Mom gets adequate sleep – this is a VERY important discussion to have with your partner BEFORE baby comes home. It is best if this discussion includes domestic chores and home tidiness – and how this will be handled if Mum is needing to make catching up on sleep a priority.
3. This may involve Mom having to go to bed early at night when baby goes to sleep – just so she clocks up an extra hour or two.
4. In the early weeks and months, Mum needs to make the most of ALL opportunities for sleep and often the best time to get an hour or two is to sleep during the day – when baby is sleeping. This can go against the grain for many new Mums as they want to run around and catch up on other things – but I can’t stress how important it is that you take care of yourself as your No 1 priority – so that you can be in good shape to care for your baby. Recently I had a discussion with a couple of Mums who had Post Partum Depression and they both said that they underestimated the effect sleep deprivation was having on them and their life.
5. With regards your baby – your baby’s circadian clock is not yet developed so your baby doesn’t know the difference between night and day. However – it’s a good idea to maintain your own sleep rhythm and keep all activities during the night low key – with subdued lighting. In time, your baby will realise that this means sleeping and not playing.
6. With regards breastfeeding, be very gentle with yourself in the early weeks. However – whether it is day or night – get into the habit of observing your baby as baby feeds and encourage your baby to stay awake during feeds. If baby drops off to sleep on the breast – gently unwrap the baby which will usually wake baby – and then offer the breast again. If baby is not hungry baby won’t take the breast again. As you get to know your baby – you’ll know that just for example – 2 minutes of good sucking is not enough to satisfy baby – and baby will wake again 30 minutes later and want to feed again. By the way – this is absolutely fine for your baby – but if this continues day after day – YOU will end up exhausted, then sleep deprived, then thinking less clearly, then not enjoying the process, then on your way to Post Partum Depression.
7. If you find that you are not getting much sleep – it is important to discuss this with your Doctor and be very open about the way you feel, and if you’re still enjoying becoming a Mum. Your Doctor will then be able to advise you.

Just a quick word here about Restless Legs Syndrome RLS – this is not pleasant – I know because I had it, and you can’t sleep cause you keep having to move your legs into a more comfortable position.
Apparently, in the last 3 months of pregnancy one in three expecting Moms will experience this. It is caused by low levels of iron and folic acid so make sure you do what you can to maintain your levels. It is also aggravated by caffeine, alcohol and lack of exercise so do some stretches before going to bed.

In retrospect – I think that realising how important MUM’S health is, we – the Mum herself needs to make caring for herself a priority – that way Mum is in fact also better able to deliver that superb LOVE and CARE she wants to give to her baby.

PS Jodi Mindell goes into a lot more detail of course, but I hope this little summary of what I got from reading her book is helpful to you.