Having a baby is one of the biggest changes that can occur in someone’s life. It also ushers in a range of physical, psychological, and hormonal changes for both new parents, but especially the carrying parent. The days immediately following birth can create a surge of hormones that are known as baby blues, but the heightened emotions, combined with sleep disruptions, can also put parents — particularly mothers — at risk of postpartum depression (PPD).
What is postpartum depression?
Postpartum depression is a type of clinical depression that primarily affects women after giving birth. It can start during pregnancy or anytime during the first year after childbirth. It causes severe sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and other symptoms. These intense emotions interfere with a mother's ability to care for herself and her baby.
PPD is a common condition that affects up to one in seven women after giving birth. PPD does not affect mothers based on race, ethnicity, income, culture, age, or background: Every mother is at risk. Postpartum symptoms can also occur in fathers and co-parents.
Symptoms of PPD include:
- Thoughts or fear of harming oneself or the baby
- Thoughts of suicide or death
- Feelings of sadness and depression that last more than two weeks after birth
- Severe mood swings
- Feeling sad, anxious, alone, hopeless, lost, scared, worthless, panicked, guilty, or irritable
- Excessive crying or tearfulness for no reason
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping
- Poor appetite
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Loss of interest
Some factors that might increase your risk for PPD include:
- History of depression or anxiety
- Past PPD
- History of sexual abuse
- Negativity toward the baby, pregnancy, or the baby’s gender
- High-risk pregnancy
- Emergency cesarean section or preterm birth
- Lack of support, poor home life, abusive home situation
- Lack of exercise, insufficient sleep, or poor nutrition
PPD should not be confused with “baby blues,” which many women experience within the first few days following childbirth. Baby blues often leave moms feeling tearful, sad, or frustrated for up to the first two weeks after the baby is born. However, this resolves in that time frame as hormones adjust and exhaustion decreases.
Postpartum sleep challenges
Postpartum sleep can be famously challenging for new parents. Newborn babies have near-round-the-clock needs and no circadian rhythm, meaning that parents are often awakened regularly in the first several weeks after birth. Decreased sleep can increase risk of postpartum depression and can also occur due to interrupted sleep cycles and hormonal changes. Sleep patterns change frequently as the baby adjusts to life outside of the womb, which means that routines and sleep patterns change frequently for parents, too.
During the first several postpartum months, mothers often report not getting enough sleep. The recommended amount of sleep suggested for an adult is an average of seven to nine hours, but many mothers report getting six hours or fewer, with night feedings and other awakenings punctuating those hours and interrupting sleep cycles.
Postpartum sleep deprivation is common for many new mothers. After giving birth, new mothers often must adapt to their babies’ feeding and sleep schedules, which can lead to disrupted sleep patterns. Hormonal changes after giving birth can affect sleep quality and time.
When able, mothers are advised to nap during the day, but many either cannot, or opt to skip naps and take care of work, errands, or chores, worsening their sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can result in physical and mental fatigue, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, decreased performance, and an increased risk of accidents and injuries. This can lead to an increase in anxiety, depression, tiredness, and even insomnia.
The relationship between sleep deprivation and postpartum depression
Postpartum sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on a mom's physical and mental health. It can even put her at a higher risk of postpartum depression and anxiety. And postpartum depression and anxiety can interrupt sleep.
“Women with postpartum depression often experience difficulty in falling asleep, waking up frequently during the night, and feeling tired, despite adequate rest,” says Dr. Flora Sadri-Azarbayenjani of Psyclarity Health. “Insomnia is one of the more common symptoms of postpartum depression, and it can worsen the negative effects of the condition. It is important for women suffering from postpartum depression to prioritize getting enough quality sleep, as this can help to alleviate many symptoms of the disorder. Making sure that factors such as caffeine and alcohol intake are kept in check may also be beneficial in helping with sleep disturbances.”
“Sleep quality is crucial for maintaining good mental health, especially during the postpartum period when new mothers are already at risk for developing PPD,” explains Dr. Raffaello Antonino, Counseling Psychologist at Therapy Central in London. “There is a clear relationship between sleep disturbances and the development of postpartum depression. Women who experience poor sleep in the postpartum period are at a higher risk of developing PPD.”
When poor sleep significantly impacts your physical health, it can lead to changes in your mental health, too. “The importance of quality sleep on mental health cannot be overstated,” says Sadri-Azarbayejani. “Studies have shown that lack of sleep can impact a person’s mood, resulting in feelings of depression and anxiety. Poor sleeping habits can also cause physical issues like headaches, stomach problems, and weakened immunity. In the case of postpartum depression, poor or inadequate sleep can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms and worsen existing ones.”
Better sleep can help new mothers in the postpartum period
Getting quality, restful sleep with a new baby is easier said than done. Add postpartum depression to the mix, and it can feel downright impossible. However, making sleep a priority is key in preventing the worsening of the PPD symptoms.
If you find yourself or your loved one struggling with symptoms of PPD or excessive sleep loss during the postpartum period, help is available. “It is important for new mothers to prioritize self-care and seek support from others during the postpartum period,” says Antonino. “This can help improve mental health and prevent the onset of sleep disturbances and PPD. Additionally, it is important to remember that seeking professional help for sleep and mental health issues is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
If you suspect that you (or a loved one) are experiencing PPD, seek immediate treatment with a professional. To improve sleep quality and minimize risk factors, here are some tips that can help improve sleep during postpartum time:
- Create a consistent sleep routine that includes going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Create a calming, peaceful sleep environment.
- Get regular exercise, which can help improve sleep quality and reduce depression symptoms. Once cleared by your healthcare professional after childbirth, try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can disrupt sleep. If you cannot eliminate them, avoid them in the hours before bedtime.
- Talk to your doctor if you are having difficulty sleeping. They may be able to recommend strategies or medications to help you get the rest you need.
- Lean on your support system of friends and family.
Minimizing the risk of PPD and poor sleep by taking care of yourself
“It is important for new mothers to prioritize self-care and seek support from others during the postpartum period,” says Antonino. Other new mothers can be very supportive during this time, as can friends and family.
Though the focus is often on the newborn baby, it’s OK to take breaks and take care of yourself. Common tips for improving mental health in the newborn postpartum phase include:
- Implementing self-care
- Taking breaks
- Getting out with friends
- Going for walks outside
- Minimizing other stressors like financial, relationship, or health concerns
Many factors can disrupt sleep during the months after a new baby arrives. Parents can be at risk for stress and poor sleep hygiene while adjusting to the new baby’s schedule, putting them at increased risk of postpartum depression. It is essential to be aware of the risks and to address them, even when they may seem small.
Other postpartum questions
How do you deal with postpartum sleep deprivation?
Dealing with postpartum sleep deprivation can be hard, especially if you’re a brand-new parent. Some of the best tips on how to combat sleep loss post-birth are to prioritize sleep and good sleep hygiene, ask for help, establish a routine, talk with your doctor, and practice self-care.
By implementing these strategies, you can help improve the quality and quantity of sleep and better cope with postpartum sleep deprivation.
How long does it take to recover from sleep deprivation after baby?
The length of time it takes to recover from sleep deprivation after having a baby can vary depending on several factors, including the individual's sleep needs and habits, the demands of caring for the baby, and the presence of any underlying sleep disorders. No matter how long it takes you to recover, sleep should begin to improve as the baby learns to sleep for longer stretches, typically a few weeks after birth. It is important to be patient and not to expect instant recovery. Additionally, seeking treatment for sleep disorders and managing symptoms of depression or anxiety can also help to speed up the recovery process.
What are the side effects of sleep deprivation postpartum?
Sleep deprivation postpartum can have a range of physical, emotional, and cognitive side effects, including fatigue and exhaustion, mood changes, decreased immune function, impaired memory and cognitive function, decreased libido, increased risk of accidents, and physical health problems.
How many hours of sleep do new moms need?
Just because you’re a new parent doesn’t mean you magically require less sleep. New mothers generally need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. However, the actual amount of sleep needed varies widely, depending on individual factors such as sleep quality and patterns, stress levels, and other physical and emotional demands. Additionally, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that new mothers avoid sleep deprivation and sleep restriction, and instead aim for consistent and adequate sleep as much as possible.
Why am I so tired 3 weeks postpartum?
There can be several reasons for feeling tired three weeks postpartum, including: physical recovery, overall sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, emotional stress, or an undiagnosed medical condition. Be sure to pay attention to your own needs and rest when you can, even if it means sacrificing housework or turning down visitors eager to meet the baby.