Postpartum Sleep Deprivation and the Effects on the Whole Family

Sleep deprivation is common during the postpartum period. Thankfully, there are some steps you can take to identify and overcome those long, sleepless nights.

We know that sleep is important, but just how important? Studies show that a lack of proper sleep each night can affect your physical and mental health, and for many new parents, sleep quickly falls to the back burner when a new baby arrives. 

Instead of the hospital tour or the class on how to properly swaddle a baby, I wish someone would have given me tips on sleep hygiene for babies and how to recognize the signs of sleep deprivation in myself. I truly feel that sleep is an area where we could have a more positive postpartum experience if educated about it during pregnancy. 

Where were the prenatal classes about sleep and the signs of sleep deprivation? That would have been more helpful than the hospital tour.

Yasmin Johnston

Practically every mom I talk to says this. And they’re right.

I, for one, know I didn’t benefit much from my hospital tours with either pregnancy. All I could think about was how much my feet hurt and that I wanted to pee, yet again. Besides, many people crammed into the room that I couldn’t see what the hospital tour guide was talking about anyway.

Common signs of sleep deprivation

If you’re reading this and wondering if you’re suffering from sleep deprivation, know that you’re not alone. It’s believed that only 10% of new parents are getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night, meaning 90% aren’t getting adequate sleep for their mental and physical health.

The common signs of sleep deprivation include:

  • Moodiness
  • Clumsiness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Unfocused
  • Unmotivated
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Increased appetite/weight gain
  • Decreased mental stability (PPD/PPA)
new mom and baby yawning

The effects of sleep deprivation

How sleep deprivation affects new mothers

New moms, especially those breastfeeding, typically end up being more sleep-deprived than their partners. Why is that, though?

  • All of the feedings fall on mom unless the baby takes a bottle
  • If the partner works, she might feel as though she has to handle the baby all on her own. 
  • Mom may feel like it’s just easier or done “better” if she does it herself.

What ends up happening is we moms put an entire load of nighttime parenting on ourselves, never giving our bodies the chance to rest.

This extreme level of exhaustion affects how we parent and interact with our partners and other family members while also putting us at risk for postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and drowsy driving. 

Now think about that last risk I mentioned.

As parents, we will never drive intoxicated, especially with our children in the car, but did you know that driving drowsy is just as risky as driving drunk? It’s estimated that over 100,000 police-reported auto accidents a year are due to driving while drowsy.

…and new fathers

Here’s a little not-so-well-known fact: the symptoms of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression are very similar. In fact, a lack of sleep can lead to postpartum depression. 

Furthermore, mom’s sleep deprivation has been proven to increase the risk of postpartum depression in both parents. That’s right, dad can suffer from perinatal mood disorders too. 

In fact, 1 out of every 10 dads suffers from postpartum depression. However, not all cases are diagnosed, leading some experts to believe as many as 20-25% of dads experience paternal postpartum depression at some point.

Sleep deprivation can also affect your relationship with your partner. You find that you’re too tired to spend time with them, let alone have sex. Tempers run short. Resentment can show up. Sitting down with your partner to discuss how you each can get the rest you need and put a plan can help you avoid these issues.

husband exhausted sitting on bed

…and the new baby

An overtired baby, unfortunately, does not lead to one who sleeps better. They tend to take shorter naps, have more trouble falling asleep, and have more frequent night wakings. These circumstances can lead to a cranky and sleep-deprived baby. 

What you may not realize is that a lack of quality rest negatively impacts their growth and development. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is primarily released at night, which means your baby does most of their growing while they snooze.

…and the siblings

Exhaustion can shorten our fuses. We don’t have the energy to give the attention we used to give to our older children. They sense our moods, our stress, and anxiety, and it affects them. You might find they start to act out more, resent the baby, or constantly whine for you. 

It’s not that they are doing it to annoy you; it’s just that they need you and don’t know how to say it. But how can you give more of yourself when you are in survival mode and barely making it through the day? It’s tough, but make sure you’re asking for help from others when balancing multiple children and motherhood.

newborn baby crying and tired

Sleep deprivation is more than just being tired

When I had my first son, the only sleep education I had was from a book. The lessons from that one book worked wonderfully. He was a napping champ and started sleeping through the night when he was three months old.

So, of course, I tried to implement the same methods for my second son. Very quickly, I learned that sleep training was not a one-size-fits-all. I felt lost. I had no clue what to do to help my son (and myself) sleep better.

Even though I knew I was tired, I was unable to understand that the level of my sleep deprivation had far exceeded “tired.” It took me five months to realize the lack of sleep was not just affecting me but my entire family.

The turning point of my exhaustion

I’m going to tell you something my husband said to me, and understand that it came from a place of concern. 

We were standing in the kitchen one morning after another night of multiple hour-long wake-ups with our 5-month-old. My husband said to me, “you look dead”. I looked up and yelled, “that’s because I feel dead!”.After that, I ran upstairs and cried in our bed. 

You see, I was bearing the grunt of sleep deprivation. My husband is a pilot, so there were 3-4 nights a week where I had no help. If he had an early report time, I would handle the wake-ups so he could be fully rested for his job.

If my husband was home, he helped, and yes, he would be tired from it, but he could recoup some z’s when gone for work. Over those five months, I never had a chance to re-coup sleep. I couldn’t “sleep when the baby slept” because I also had a 3-year-old at home, and well, the baby didn’t really sleep.

tired mom sitting on the couch with her baby

How do you deal with postpartum sleep deprivation?

There’s no need to tell you that you will lose sleep as a new parent. That’s kind of a given. But I can say that you can take steps to help ensure you get a bit more rest. 

Sleep deprivation does not have to be your new normal. It is not a badge of honor. 

Learn from my experience. Those first five months of my second son’s life were the loneliest and scariest period I have ever been through.

Sleep deprivation felt like torture, and it seemed as though no one knew how I felt. Depression and anxiety flooded in, and I became a shell of the mom, wife, and friend once was. I hit rock bottom. You don’t have to.

Sleep education and sleep deprivation awareness are just as important as being in the know about postpartum depression. These next tips can help you no matter what stage of sleep deprivation you are in.

Three tips to help overcome sleep deprivation

1. Take shifts

One parent gets six hours of uninterrupted sleep, where the other handles any wake-ups and feedings. Then they switch so the other parent can have six uninterrupted hours. 

For breastfed babies, this may be a time when you supplement with formula or frozen breastmilk to help get through, and that’s okay. Your sleep and mental health are worth it.

2. Ask for help

Hire a postpartum doula if it is within the budget, even if it is just for a couple of nights a week, so that you can catch up on some rest.

Enlist the help of friends or family. Call on them to help out one (or more!) night a week or during the day so you can take a nap.

If breastfeeding, have your partner bring the baby to you, change the diaper, and put the baby back in the crib.

3. Practice healthy sleep habits

Start from day one with healthy sleep habits for the baby to promote good sleep later on. Baby is already here? Start now! It’s never too late to start good sleep hygiene with your child.

Talk with/hire a sleep consultant if baby’s struggles are causing sleep deprivation.

Remember, mama, sleep is a basic need, so there is no shame in asking for a little help to get it. 

Yasmin Johnston

Pediatric Sleep Consultant

Yasmin is a mama of two boys, a pilot wife, and a certified infant and toddler sleep coach. She founded Mindful Sleep Consulting after experiencing sleep deprivation and its challenges following the birth of her second son. When she discovered the benefits of 1:1 sleep training and how it can support the entire family, she knew she wanted to provide this service for all of the other exhausted parents out there. Utilizing a supportive and holistic approach, she helps educate and guide parents through the sleep training process.

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