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Postpartum Sleep

What came first? Sleep deprivation or postpartum depression and anxiety?

Improved sleep can play a significant role in reducing postpartum depression and anxiety symptoms in new mothers. The postpartum period is a time of significant physical, hormonal, and emotional changes, and sleep disruptions. This is common due to the demands of caring for a newborn and growing children. However, the connection between sleep and postpartum mental health is bidirectional, with sleep disturbances potentially exacerbating or triggering symptoms of depression and anxiety, and conversely, improving sleep quality can alleviate these symptoms.

A new mother holding her newborn baby.
Sleep deprivation can worsen symptoms of postpartum mood disorders.

Here's How Improved Sleep Can Help With Symptoms of Postpartum Depression and/or Anxiety:

  1. Hormonal regulation: Quality sleep helps regulate hormones that impact mood, such as serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol. Adequate sleep enhances the balance of these hormones, promoting feelings of well-being and reducing the risk of depressive symptoms.

  2. Emotional regulation: Sufficient sleep is essential for emotional regulation and stability. When sleep-deprived, the brain's prefrontal cortex, responsible for emotional regulation, may not function optimally, leading to heightened emotional reactivity and difficulty coping with stressors. By obtaining better sleep, new mothers are better equipped to manage the emotional challenges that come with caring for a newborn.

  3. Stress reduction: Sleep deprivation increases stress levels, making it more difficult to cope with the demands of motherhood. Sleep is crucial for stress recovery, and by improving sleep, mothers can reduce their overall stress levels, making them less susceptible to postpartum depression and anxiety.

  4. Cognitive functioning: Sufficient sleep supports cognitive functioning, including attention, memory, and decision-making. By getting enough rest, new mothers can think more clearly and make rational choices, which can positively impact their mood and overall well-being.

  5. Restoration and rejuvenation: Sleep is a vital process for the body to heal, repair, and restore energy levels. Pregnancy and childbirth can be physically exhausting, and quality sleep allows new mothers to recover and regain their strength. Feeling physically rejuvenated can positively influence their mental well-being.

  6. Supportive environment: Creating a conducive sleep environment can contribute to improved sleep. Partners, family members, or friends can assist in caring for the baby, allowing new mothers to have uninterrupted sleep or at least longer stretches of undisturbed rest. This support can significantly reduce sleep disruptions and improve overall sleep quality. It’s ok to advocate for yourself and ask someone to help with the baby so that you can sleep.

Tips For Improved Sleep

Improving sleep is crucial for overall well-being, and these evidence-based interventions can be particularly helpful for women.

Natural light exposure immediately upon waking supports the natural circadian rhythm
Natural light exposure immediately upon waking supports the natural circadian rhythm

Here are some evidence-based interventions that have shown promise in promoting better sleep for women:

  1. Sleep Hygiene Education: Educating women about good sleep hygiene practices is an essential first step. This includes establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, optimizing the sleep environment (e.g., keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet), avoiding stimulants (caffeine, nicotine) close to bedtime, and limiting exposure to electronic devices two hours before sleep.

  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I): CBT-I is a gold-standard psychological intervention for insomnia. It focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviors related to sleep. CBT-I can help women develop better sleep habits, manage anxiety or stress that may be interfering with sleep, and improve their overall sleep quality.

  3. Relaxation Techniques: Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and guided imagery have been shown to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation, leading to improved sleep. These techniques can be especially beneficial for women who experience high levels of stress or have difficulty winding down before bed.

  4. Light Therapy: Exposure to bright light, particularly in the morning, can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Light therapy has been found to be effective for individuals with circadian rhythm disorders and can be beneficial for women who experience sleep disturbances due to irregular sleep-wake patterns, such as shift work or jet lag.

  5. Physical Activity: Engaging in regular physical activity has been associated with better sleep quality. Exercise can help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and promote overall health, which can contribute to better sleep for women. However, it is important to avoid intense exercise close to bedtime as it may have a stimulating effect.

  6. Stress Reduction Techniques: Chronic stress can significantly disrupt sleep. Women may benefit from stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga, or journaling to manage stress and promote relaxation, ultimately improving sleep quality. Try putting pen to paper and brain dumping into a journal before bed tonight (must be an "old fashioned paper journal" in order to avoid stimulation from a device).

  7. Sleep Restriction Therapy: Sleep restriction therapy involves limiting the time spent in bed to match the actual amount of sleep obtained. This intervention aims to consolidate sleep and increase sleep efficiency. Sleep restriction therapy is often used as part of CBT-I and has shown positive outcomes for individuals with insomnia.

It is important to note that the effectiveness of these interventions may vary from person to person, and it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional or sleep specialist who can provide personalized guidance and recommendations based on individual needs and circumstances.

Resting mother.
Try leaving your phone and other devices outside of the bedroom.

Now What?

If you or someone you know is experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety, it is crucial to seek help from healthcare professionals, such as doctors, therapists, or counselors, who specialize in perinatal mental health. They can provide appropriate guidance and support tailored to individual needs. Postpartum Support International is an amazing resource that will connect you with a mental health provider and resources.

It's important to note that while improved sleep can be beneficial, it is not a standalone solution for postpartum depression and anxiety. It should be considered as part of a comprehensive approach that may involve professional mental health support, self-care practices, social support, and healthy lifestyle choices.

As a perinatal/pediatric sleep coach certified in perinatal mental health and an extensive background as a pediatric nurse, I’ve noticed that a lot of my clients are currently or in the process of overcoming postpartum mood disorders. That’s why it’s so important for me to normalize these symptoms and open up the dialogue in a safe space while offering the systems and resources that these families so desperately need. With all of my pregnancies, I experienced postpartum depression and wish that I could have had access and knowledge to all of the resources that are available now.

Working as a sleep consultant is more than sleep. It’s about supporting the parent and the child. It’s a collaborative effort with each family that will result in peaceful sleep and ultimately, rest.

So much of what we read and see online and hear from others is overwhelming and creates confusion. Everything we do together will be focused on helping you sift through that information and trust your gut. We will get through this together. Parenting is hard, no matter the stage, and you aren’t alone in this adventure. I see you doing your best and still feeling like you aren’t doing a good enough job. But know this, up until this point you have been doing all that you can to get through each day and there’s NO shame in that. Now, let’s get you and your family growing and thriving.

Schedule a free sleep consultation with a consultant specialized in perinatal mental health here.


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