The truth about sleep deprivation
As a new parent, you may have been told to prepare for frequent feeds, dirty diapers, and lots of tears. But something that often gets brushed over is the level of sleep deprivation you can experience and how that affects a parent’s mental health.
You may expect a newborn not to sleep, and if you are lucky, you are able to share turns feeding and changing diapers in those early weeks. But what happens when the sleep deprivation goes on for weeks if not months? And what happens if a parent is struggling day-to-day just to get by. The combination of sleep deprivation and postpartum hormones can be a recipe for Postpartum Depression and Anxiety. Here are some ways to help minimize the effects of sleep deprivation while taking care of your own mental health.
Share responsibility with a partner.
Waking up every few hours all night long will not only amount in accumulated sleep debt, but you’ll struggle to be an adequate caretaker for your child the next day. Either take shifts each night with your partner or someone who can spend the night (one person takes the first 4-5 hours and the other person takes the other 4-5 hours) or switch off on night wakeups every two or so days. Have one parent do two nights in a row and have the other caretaker take the following two nights. For single parents you can bring in family if they live nearby or consider hiring a night nurse if your budget allows for it.
Find a sleeping situation that works best for your family.
In this day and age, everybody has an opinion about what is the right way for your baby to sleep. Some parents find that they sleep better with their baby in a crib in their own room. Other parents find it much more beneficial to co-sleep so that everyone gets as much sleep as possible in one place. There is no right or wrong answer as to where your child sleeps as long as you follow safe sleep guidelines (flat firm surface, nothing in the crib besides your baby, etc.) Although the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend room-sharing until at least 6 months, consult with your own doctor if you feel that room-sharing is doing more harm than good.
Create a routine
This is particularly helpful for my own anxiety. Whether you follow a schedule from day one or prefer to follow wake windows, having some outline to your day along with a consistent bedtime routine can help give you more control over your baby’s sleep.
If you feel that no matter what you are doing, your baby isn’t sleeping and it’s affecting your mental health, then get outside help. Besides sleep consultants, there are baby nurses, postpartum doulas and most importantly therapists who specialize in Postpartum Mood Disorders. There is no shame having someone take over some night feeds or getting on medication if necessary for your depression. Since postpartum depression and anxiety can be both the cause and result of sleep deprivation, try and maximize the amount of sleep you do get even if it means asking for help.
There is a reciprocal relationship between sleep deprivation and perinatal mood disorders. Studies have found that not only do the baby’s sleep patterns affect Mom’s mental health, but also a mother’s mental health can negatively impact her child’s sleep. As a new mom, I found that if I stressed too much about my son’s sleep, he would sleep worse and as a result I would get more sleep-deprived and my anxiety would increase. If this is your experience, you are not alone! Sleep and perinatal mood disorders go hand-in-hand and you never should be afraid to ask for help.
Nicole Cannon, The Sleepy Mama, is a certified sleep consultant through the International Maternity and Parenting Institute and member of The Association of Professional Sleep Consultants. Nicole recently completed a certification in Infant Mental Health through the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto and is finishing up a Maternal Mental Health certificate course from Postpartum Support international. Although she had previously done sleep work with families she nannied for, it wasn’t until Nicole had her first child in 2013 that she was able to experience how difficult sleep deprivation can be on both children and parents. Now a mom of three very different sleepers, Nicole looks at the entire picture and uses a variety of sleep techniques and methods with families to help everyone get more rest.