new mom and baby sleeping on couch

7 Things No One Tells You About Postpartum Sleep

by
/ July 26, 2021

Whether or not you have kids, you’ve likely heard about the sleep deprivation that comes with new parenthood. If you do have children, you’ve lived it. 

When babies are born, they don’t have the established circadian rhythms that we as adults have; they don’t know the difference between day and night. Think about the environment in the womb: It’s loud and dark. The outside world with its bright days and silent rooms is a stark contrast. 

Over time and with a little help, babies develop a circadian rhythm and sleep through the night. I’ll always remember the morning sometime in late August a few years ago when my husband and I woke up in a panic at 4:45 a.m. to find our daughter peacefully sleeping in her crib; her first "through the night" slumber.

But that takes time. And while the no-sleep narrative of those early infant days is a well-known one, there are other more unexpected ways having a child impacts your sleep.

Here are some of the biggest, most surprising hurdles to rest—and how to secure some peace and quiet in your day.

Breastfeeding is a round-the-clock job

Before I had a baby, I severely underestimated the amount of work that breastfeeding entails. From essentially the moment the baby is born up until you wean—weeks or months or years later—you'll be feeding your baby every two to four hours or so. 

It’s a big job with a big-time commitment and lots of yawns. And while it's rewarding—your baby is quite literally growing because of the food you are producing and providing!—it's also exhausting and constant.

But breastfeeding can help you sleep too

It’s true. While babies do feed every two to three hours around the clock (and breastfed babies might eat more often since breastmilk is more easily digestible than formula), research suggests breastfeeding mothers get more sleep than those who formula feed

Hormones such as prolactin and melatonin, implicated in the production of milk and in milk composition, are at play. That means that while those 3 a.m. feedings jolt you up, your body naturally works to soothe you back to sleep.

Pumping in the middle of the night could become a necessity

When my daughter finally slept through the night (remember, that can be a five-hour stretch for some babies!), I remember thinking my middle-of-the-night wake-ups were done. Unfortunately, my body was still waking up, though. 

When your baby starts to sleep longer stretches at night, you might find yourself up at 2 a.m. because you’re uncomfortable from having full breasts. That’s normal.

Most lactation consultants advise new moms to listen to their bodies and pump to comfort levels—just enough to relieve discomfort—in the middle of the night if they wake up unable to sleep.

Your sheets might be a mess

After delivering a baby, your body goes through one of the biggest hormonal shifts of your lifetime. When you deliver the placenta, levels of hormones that were once sky-high (estrogen and progesterone) plummet—a hormonal change that’s necessary for your body to produce breastmilk to feed your baby. 

But this massive hormonal change can also come with side effects such as night sweats—which help your body rid itself of excess fluid from pregnancy and are a reaction to a quick drop in estrogen. 

Night sweats are often shocking and uncomfortable for new moms and can make sleep difficult (hi, soaking wet sheets and chills). Moisture-wicking sheets and time (usually, night sweats start to taper off around six weeks) can help you feel more comfortable. 

Another reason why your sheets will find their way into your laundry pile faster than usual: When your milk “comes in” a few days postpartum, you’ll likely notice engorgement and leaking.

Comfy nursing bras (like this one from Bodily) and expressing milk to comfort levels, as well as time, can help you feel better—and keep things contained.

Postpartum anxiety can keep you up

Not being able to sleep when you want to sleep is incredibly frustrating—but it can also be a sign of something more serious postpartum.

Maternal mental health conditions, often referred to as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), happen in about one in five to one in seven new moms—and incidence has been higher amidst the pandemic. 

PMADs include perinatal depression, anxiety, OCD, and more. Anxiety in particular—common in new moms, especially in the early weeks of hormonal changes and acute sleep deprivation—can be a contributing factor to issues such as insomnia and further sleep deprivation. 

If you’re constantly checking the baby, find yourself so anxious you can’t rest or sleep when the baby is sleeping, or feel as though your symptoms are getting in the way of your ability to care for yourself and your baby, you could have a PMAD. 

Seek support! PMADs are highly treatable. Peer support and education (I run virtual mom groups through my company Dear Sunday), therapy (you can find a provider trained in perinatal mental health via Postpartum Support International’s online directory), and medication (many medications including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, have good safety data during pregnancy and while breastfeeding) can all help. 

There are ways to lay the foundation for good sleep

When it comes to helping your baby adjust to life outside the womb, sometimes, it’s easy to feel helpless. Often babies cry, they “cluster feed” for what feels like hours on end, and they’re not easily soothed. That’s all commonplace with a brand new baby. 

But there are also ways to help soothe a crying baby and calm them for sleep (try Dr. Harvey Karp’s the “5 S’s”), support their natural sleep patterns (newborns aren’t able to stay up very long—usually only 60 minutes or so at a time), and start to develop a rhythm. 

Kids, even babies, thrive on routines, and it’s never too early to start a bedtime routine—or begin exposing your child to bright, lit environments during the day and dark ones at night—to help them along. Just remember that infants are infants, and these things take time.

Eventually, babies do sleep

I remember when I was about one month postpartum with my first, sitting on my front doorstep bleary-eyed and tired and texting a friend who had a six-month-old at the time. Do you ever sleep again? I asked her. She responded by saying that the early days with a baby are tough. 

Adults are used to—and biologically require—a long, solid chunk of sleep every night. But she also reminded me that those days are temporary (a short “blip” on the radar in the big scheme of parenting—even only a few months later).

That’s not overly helpful if you’re living for three-hour chunks of sleep at night, but it’s a nice reminder that the phase of newborn sleep deprivation is a season—one that does (I promise!) end.

Should you let your baby sleep in the same bed as you? Here's a look at how co-sleeping can be dangerous for your child.

Cassie Shortsleeve

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor with a decade's worth of experience reporting for the country's top health, travel, and parenting magazines. She's also the founder of Dear Sunday, an online platform for new and soon-to-be moms. She lives in Boston, MA with her husband and their daughter Sunday.

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