My Baby’s Sleeping. Why can’t I?! 10 Tips for Surviving Postpartum Insomnia
Updated: Sep 28
You’re laying in bed staring at the ceiling. You pick up your phone – 4:17 am glows back at you. Your 4 month old is laying on her back, snoozing, making occasional little baby grunts; she was up for a feed about an hour ago and probably won’t wake again. You haven’t slept all night….again.
Every fibre of your being is exhausted but your brain is like a hamster wheel…and the hamster just had six adorable hamster sized cups of espresso – whirrrr!
“If I get to sleep now, I might get an hour before the baby’s up again. I wonder when she’ll be up, will she sleep through? What if she sleeps for too long and then she’s not eating enough?”
“Why can’t I sleep! I’m exhausted! What’s wrong with me!?”
“If I don’t get some sleep now, I’m never going to make it through the day, it’ll be a disaster”
“I have to drive the baby to his doctor’s appointment. I can’t drive without any sleep. What am I going to do?!.”
If you’re like me, by this point, you’ve started crying giant, snotty tears of frustration, total sleep deprivation and hormones gone wild.
You look over at your partner, snoring peacefully, through every baby toss, turn, fuss, cry and wail and you think you might strangle him in his sleep. You’re sure that’s irrational but it doesn’t seem to matter.
You roll around restlessly, thinking the next time someone says to you, “sleep while the baby sleeps” or “you know you need to take care of yourself to take care of your baby” you are going to poke them in the eye with a fork.
You wonder, "how is it even possible that I’m still awake? How can an exhausted mom of a newborn even have insomnia? Shouldn’t I just fall over as soon as my baby falls asleep?"
And yet…here you are.
You nod off for a moment, then wake with a start that feels like electricity jolting through your body, “Is she still breathing?!”
If you find yourself here, or somewhere like it, you’re not alone. A recent poll suggests that up to 42% of postpartum women are struggle with insomnia. Many women have postpartum sleep issues beyond just waking up to feed or soothe a baby.
What’s going on?
We're not 100% sure what causes postpartum sleep problems, and it's probably a unique set of circumstances for each woman. That said, here are a few common factors.
Hormonal Changes After your baby is born, estrogen and progesterone levels plummet from their pregnancy levels. This can lead to insomnia for some women. At the same time oxytocin - the hormone of love and attachment – peaks. This can feel really good but it can also cause hyperarousal for some – and with hyperarousal comes sleep troubles.
Light Exposure Postpartum women tend to get less bright sunlight exposure during the day – probably because it’s hard to be out and about with a new baby. They frequently wake up at night to care for the baby which both interrupts sleep patterns and exposes them to light at night. Also, who among us doesn’t spend a little too much time scrolling through social media posts or Googling things like “postpartum insomnia” and “baby sleep” or “is my baby getting a flat head” compulsively? If you do, then you’re being exposed to blue light from your screen. Blue light reduces your melatonin production (the sleepiness hormone) along with exposure to bright light during the day and complete darkness at night, melatonin regulates your circadian rhythms; that is, your sleep-wake cycle.
You’re a Mama Bear... who’s also afraid of bears Yup you’ve got that mama instinct to protect your tiny, helpless human. It’s an ancient instinctive response making you vigilant to danger. If your balance gets tipped a little, vigilance can become hyper-vigilance. Now, your body is ready to spring into action, full of adrenaline – at 3:00am. Very inconvenient seeing that there isn’t really a bear lurking under your baby’s crib.
The Worry Loop If you start worrying about your sleep, it can become much harder to sleep. The more sleepless you are, the worse you feel, the higher the stakes feel around getting a good night’s sleep. The higher the stakes, the higher the anxiety, the more adrenaline and stress hormones coursing through your body…you get the picture (but not the sleep).
10 Tips for a Better Night
According to M.D. Danny Lickness, “with time, good diet, and some exercise, sleep issues improve” for most new moms. Putting some good sleep habits into action can help you to get a better night’s rest.
Cut down on caffeine (what??! It’s the only thing keeping me upright!). I know, it’s hard but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Try just one less coffee in the daytime or swapping a coffee for a tea; or have your morning coffee but switch to decaf after 2:00pm.
Keep the bed for sleep and sex only. If you can’t sleep, try getting up and doing something really boring until you’re sleepy.
Sleepy vs Tired. You can feel dead tired without being sleepy – and if you go to bed before you’re sleepy, you may just stare at the ceiling for another hour or two. Heavy eyelids, yawning and drowsiness are all signs that you’re getting sleepy.
Get the light right. There’s evidence that exposure to bright light during the day and darkness at night help bring you back to balance. Try to get some exposure to daytime sunlight by going for a walk or just sitting outside for a bit. In the evening, turn off the screens 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Make sure electronics, TV, your phone, and laptop are turned off when you go to bed, so you’re not hearing notifications. Try a warm coloured, dim light for nighttime feeds and changes.
Keep your bedroom dark and cool. Blackout blinds are your new best friend.
Exercise during the day but not within an hour or so of bedtime.
Reduce the Pressure. Try softening catastrophic or rigid thoughts that make you feel anxious. Instead of “I absolutely must sleep; it will be absolutely awful if I don’t!” try something like, “I’ll lie down and rest my body; we’ll see what happens” or “I really would prefer to get more sleep; I’ll take it easy on myself tomorrow if I’m tired”.
Try Mindfulness. Labelling (which can be practiced in this guided meditation) is a mindfulness practice that can create some emotional distance between you and the thought, for example, “that’s an anxious thought” or “there’s anxiety again”.
Bedtime routines aren’t just for babies. That’s right, you may need your own soothing routine. A hot bath, a warm milk, a few minutes of quiet reading time. If this is hard to get, see if you can negotiate with your partner or another helper to make sure you get some wind down time.
Eating Right for Sleep. There’s evidence to suggest that a diet high in refined carbohydrates – that’s right the sugars we tend to crave when really tired – is associated with a higher likelihood of insomnia. Try adding more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and sources of protein to your diet to balance out sugary treats. Sadly, your evening glass of wine can disrupt sleep too, while, some foods, such as warm milk, bananas and turkey are known to promote the release of hormones which may cause sleepiness – turkey and banana sandwich anyone? (eww!)
What is Postpartum Insomnia?
If your sleep doesn’t improve, you may have postpartum insomnia. It often occurs along with postpartum depression and anxiety and it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor, midwife or a certified counsellor if you’re struggling. Most people think of postpartum insomnia and depression starting in the “fourth trimester” when baby is a newborn; our healthcare systems and social networks are set up that way, with a lot of support early on, and not so much after the 6 week mark. Unfortunately, both insomnia and depression frequently start up later; around 3-4 months postpartum, when support starts to fade away and your baby’s sleeping patterns change.
You Don't Have to Get Through This Alone
Fortunately, there are very effective approaches to treating postpartum insomnia including CBT-I which works on reducing anxiety and creating more effective sleep habits or Interpersonal Psychotherapy which focuses on relationships and communication so you can get the kind of help you most need from your partner, family members or friends.
More importantly, a skilled counsellor goes beyond applying techniques to help with insomnia; they can help you to feel deeply understood and not alone - and that goes a long way to getting through a difficult postpartum well.
Christie Harrison, M.Ed., RCC, CCC is a Certified Counsellor with a specialization in maternal mental health. She works with parents virtually across BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
To book an appointment or schedule a free consultation Click Here.