The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is one of the most important, least expensive, most effective aspects of recovery from a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder.

In general, most healthy adults need 7-9 hours of sleep to function at their best. Sleep occurs in phases, and interruptions to the sleep cycle makes the body start over, meaning the most restorative, deeper phases of sleep might never be achieved.

Enduring several weeks of interrupted sleep was one of the things that caused my experience with postpartum anxiety when my son was a newborn. He refused to take a bottle, so I was awake breastfeeding every 2-3 hours for what seemed eternity. I remember telling another new mom that I shouldn’t be driving, that I felt like I was drunk. And, in fact, I was experiencing many of the same impairments as if I had too much to drink: my ability to think clearly was impaired, my reaction time was impaired, and my self-control was impaired.

When I talk with a new mother experiencing PMADs, I always ask how she is sleeping, if she is able to sleep when baby sleeps, and if she is able to fall asleep easily at night between feedings. And I always encourage her to aim for 4-5 hours of UNINTERRUPTED sleep. When I say this, two things usually happen: either she laughs or she cries. Because, really, how do new mothers get this kind of sleep?

Here’s how: split the night into shifts.

One adult is “on-call” for the first part of the night and another adult is “on-call” for the second part of the night. When we had Baby #3, I would go to bed as soon as my 4-year-old and 2-year-old were in bed. My husband would stay up with the baby, feeding her as needed, while I slept in the basement with ear plugs and ceiling fan and white noise so I couldn’t hear them. I would usually wake sometime after midnight (as I was primarily breastfeeding, nature, in the form of engorged breasts, was my alarm) and we would switch roles. This allowed each of us to get a good chunk of sleep while also maintaining breastfeeding.

Any adult can help a new mom: partner, grandparent, friend, sister, aunt, niece, doula. Single moms can invite another mother/baby duo to “sleep over” and split the night. People can hire (or “gift) night nurses or doulas.

Dr. Christine Truman, a psychiatrist specializing in treating women during pregnancy and the postpartum timeframe, says that no amount of medicine will ever replace 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

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