Postpartum Mood Disorders – How to Get the Sleep You Need!

Three solutions to help you rest, restore, resource, & recover

by Jen Varela, Certified Gentle Sleep Coach

It’s the middle of the night and your baby is wide awake—which means you are wide awake, too. Night after sleepless night can take its toll on you physically, emotionally, and mentally. Any parent can tell you that this is an incredibly challenging time, especially if you are dealing with a Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorder (PMAD).

It’s not uncommon to experience the “baby blues,” which can involve feelings of sadness or exhaustion. If that experience intensifies or persists longer than two weeks, however, then you may be experiencing a PMAD. The cause of these disorders is unknown, but typical PMAD symptoms can include despair and hopelessness, irritability, frequent crying spells, and changes in appetite. Up to 1 out of 5 moms experiences a PMAD; if you think you may be suffering from perinatal depression, talk with your health care provider or you can take this screening test from Postpartum Health Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women with PMADs and their families.

If you are experiencing a PMAD, one of the most important ways to relieve symptoms is with sleep. Adults should get 7 to 9 hours of sleep at night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Getting less sleep than that comes with many risks. You may have trouble staying focused on simple tasks or make poor decisions because your brain is foggy from lack of sleep. Plus, there are emotional symptoms such as irritability or anger, mood swings, frustration, depression, and anxiety. The problem is, you won’t get 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night when you have an infant. So how many hours of uninterrupted sleep do you really need to function properly?  

Dr. Christina Hibbert writes, “Five hours of uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours is a physiological imperative for healthy functioning in a normal adult. It’s easy to see, therefore, that a mother who does not get 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep will further her sleep deficit and has a high likelihood of developing physical and mental health symptoms as a result.”

So it’s clear that when you are suffering from PMADs sleep is not a luxury—it is a necessity. Sleep gives you the rest you need so you can restore, allowing you to resource the strength and resolve you need to recover. So how do you get the sleep you need? I have three tips that I use with my clients to help them get the precious rest they require.

  1. Sleep When Your Baby Sleeps

After your baby comes into the world and into your arms, disrupted sleep will be the norm for you. Although attending to your baby’s needs is your number-one priority, if you are struggling with PMADs it is vital that you also make your sleep needs a priority, too.  

You need to treat your sleep hygiene as you do your personal hygiene. You feel better and more refreshed when you brush your teeth or take a shower, and it’s the same when you get enough sleep. With a busy day of tending to baby, it can be tempting to stay up late to get other chores done you didn’t have time to tackle earlier. But this can rob you of that extra 20 minutes of sleep that can help get your sleep momentum going: sleep begets more sleep. Simply put, Baby-to-Bed = Mama-to-Bed. Your house will be clean again someday; it doesn’t have to be today.

  1. Build Your Sleep Support Team

We’ve all heard the term, “It takes a village,” and for good reason—back in those days when women lived in strong familial communities, they could call on a grandmother, sister, or aunt when they felt worn out. If your family lives near you and they are available to help, ask for help. You are not shirking your responsibilities; in fact, you are showing wisdom by asking for support so your baby can have a mother who can be emotionally present.

If you don’t have family living nearby, you need to build your village. During your baby’s first few months at home, you may want to look into the wonderful local community of postpartum doulas and night nurses. They can come to your home overnight or for part of the night, allowing you to get that vital 5-hour stretch of sleep you need to cope with PMADs. You don’t have to hire a night nurse or doula for every night of the week; you might find just a couple of nights a week makes all the difference.

If hiring a postpartum doula isn’t in the budget, think outside the box. If you have a female friend or neighbor who could watch your baby during a first sleep shift from 8 to 11 p.m., then your husband or partner could take the next shift from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., giving you that essential 5-hour stretch of sleep. Sleep shifts also offer you a mental break, allowing you to be “off duty.” You can sleep peacefully knowing that your baby is well cared for.

  1. Get Help At Bedtime First

You may have a team in place, but what if your baby can only go to sleep in your arms? Bedtime is actually a great time to teach an infant some new sleep skills, and once your baby learns to go to sleep with another loving caretaker, then your baby will be able to do that again in the middle of the night.

This bedtime routine benefits you as well as your baby. You may feel guilty that you don’t enjoy your baby’s bedtime routine after a day in which you feel you haven’t had a moment to yourself. These high expectations can rob of you of joy and leave you feeling isolated and frustrated.

So to start a new routine, have your husband or partner join you at baby’s bedtime for a few days so everyone gets familiar with this new change. If your baby has been able to take a nap on the go during the day during baby-wearing, that will be a great tool for this next step. Once your baby has gotten used to having your partner in the room, then at the end of the bedtime routine it’s time to do the handoff to your partner, who can baby-wear your little one to sleep in the bedroom.  

The first night, your little one may let everyone in the house know—very loudly—that they aren’t pleased with this new solution. It is important to remember that your child is not in any danger while in the arms of the only other person who loves your baby as much as you do. You must trust that your partner and your baby can figure it out. If you rush in to the “rescue,” then you will have taught your baby to protest louder, longer, and harder to get you to come in. Then you will miss out on getting the support you need.  

In about 3 to 5 days, the two of them will likely discover their rhythm and the protests will stop. Knowing that your little one is in the loving, secure care of your partner will help you let go of having to do it all. Now it is time for you to get that important 5-hour stretch of sleep.

Recommended and Resource Articles:

*PPD Treatment-Sleep

Postpartum Depression Treatment: Sleep

By Dr. Christina Hibbert

National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times

Jen Varela is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach®, co-author of “Loved to Sleep,” and founder of Sugar Night Night, a pediatric sleep consulting service. As a survivor of a PMAD herself, Jen has a deeper understanding of how to support parents experiencing PMADs in her sleep coaching practice. Jen has helped sleep-deprived families since 2010 through one-one-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and seminars; she’s also been featured on several podcasts. She is the mother of two children and holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Services with an emphasis in Counseling from California State University Fullerton.  She is serving on the 2018 Postpartum Health Alliance Board of Directors as President-Elect.  Jen is a member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants and received training from Infant Mental Health Community Training Program–Hospital for Sick Kids.  

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