It is not at all a surprise that new mums can suffer from sleep loss. It's a normal and natural thing that very young children wake in the night, and of course, a new parent (often a mum, but not always) needs to wake up to tend to their little one's needs.
Often a mum with a young child will complain of having insomnia when at first, the sleeping issue is not a matter of insomnia disorder. Insomnia is a self-perpetuating sleeping problem - when this sleeplessness is caused by waking with a crying infant. Rather than insomnia, mum often struggles with insufficient opportunity to sleep because she is regularly being woken up.
Why does that difference matter?
Suppose mum has an inadequate opportunity to sleep rather than insomnia. In this case, she'll be able to sleep if, say, no baby wakes her that particular night. If mum develops insomnia, she may slowly be unable to sleep even when the baby is. She might even continue to struggle to sleep through the night long after their child stops waking in the night.
So how can a new mum get through those months of disrupted sleep without slipping into insomnia that could last for years?
The crux of the issue lies in how mum responds to her wakefulness. If she views it as part and parcel of the experience and knows it will eventually pass, she is more likely to return to sleeping normally. Suppose she views it as very threatening and sleeplessness as something she needs to fear or control. In that case, she is more likely to develop insomnia.
Why is that?
Our 'arousal system' is part of the safety features we have in our big human brains. It works to keep us safe - and it also can override our ability to sleep. Imagine being asleep in a cave after an exhausting day of hunting, gathering and fleeing predators. A large animal comes into the cave with you while you're asleep - and the least helpful thing your body can do is let sleep drive be in charge of the situation. The arousal system creates a high alert - and takes charge. You can then fight or flee - but not sleep.
Mum's threat radar is already super sensitive because there's a newborn in the house. However, she's often exhausted and will be able to sleep when she has the chance. If she worries excessively about her sleep, though, this turns sleeplessness into the 'predator'. Her 'threat radar' is pointed right at the sleeping problem and increases the level of arousal that her system is experiencing. The arousal system is supposed to be helpful. Still, when it's pointed at something she can't control (like sleep), it will just continue to raise her 'alert' level. It's a vicious circle that will continue to override her biological drive for sleep, creating more arousal. This is how insomnia can develop from a spell of sleeplessness that is so commonly experienced by new mums.
So what is a mum to do? Here are three things to think about:
- Often anxiety about 'not doing things' feeds the worry about not sleeping well. Learn to ask for help with things around the house and with the baby - you don't have to do it all yourself. Let yourself heal and adapt to your new life.
- If you feel overwhelmed by your feelings, talk to your doctor. There could be something else going on, and an unbiased and informed view could be helpful. There's no shame in needing guidance or medical support.
- Remind yourself that you are amazingly powerful and resilient. The sleepless spell is normal, and you are adapted to cope with it. It will pass.
Tracy Hannigan is one of the UK's leading sleep coaches and insomnia experts, running a sleep therapy practice for individuals with insomnia (www.tracythesleepcoach.co.uk). Tracy uses her background in psychology and her experience as a healthcare professional alongside her CBTI training to help people reclaim their sleep so they can live the active and vibrant lives they want and deserve.