The Impact of Sleep loss on Mothers

We begin to adjust to not having a regular 8 hours sleep a night during pregnancy. The position of our baby, or the discomfort of our hips, contributes to the 2-3 wake ups a night, particularly in that last trimester. This is mother nature’s way of easing us in gently into our new role, where sleep deprivation becomes the norm, and that we really do survive on 4 hours a night in the first few days, weeks, months……. (or sometimes years for some!!).

Sleep is a huge factor in our recovery after we birth our babies. Sleep is vital to help us re-set our body systems, from boosting our immunity to repairing our heart muscle tissue to regulating our hormones. Circadian rhythm disorders are disruptions in a person’s circadian rhythm — a name given to the “internal body clock” that regulates the (approximately) 24-hour cycle of biological processes. There are patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration, and other biological activities linked to this 24-hour cycle.

As a culture, we tend to look down on sleep. Getting too much — or even just enough — implies softness. Some sleep-deprived mothers take pride in doing too much and sleeping too little, trading stories of sleepless nights with other mums. But we really should change our attitude about sleep. Sleep is something that’s just as important to good health as diet and exercise.

Whilst mothers cope quite well in the first few weeks of motherhood with this expected lack of sleep, over the long term chronic sleep deprivation leads to all sorts of problems. hormone imbalances, such as elevations in cortisol, which can increase the likelihood of diabetes and obesity. Sleep deprivation also affects our cognitive skills. Studies have shown that lack of sleep negatively impacts learning and thinking. Attention, alertness, reaction time, memory, reasoning skills, and creative thinking all suffer when we don’t get enough sleep. Studies have linked sleep deprivation to depression.

There are real risks to chronic exhaustion, too — risks that many sleep-deprived mothers just don’t take seriously. Not getting enough sleep really affects your ability to function. You’re more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired. You’re more likely to slip and fall, or cut yourself when chopping vegetables, or forget to fasten the straps of your baby’s high chair. Some of the scariest risks come when a sleep-deprived mother gets in the car. Studies have compared the risks of driving drowsy with the risks of driving drunk — it’s estimated to cause 100,000 auto accidents a year. And yet mothers who would never, ever drive their children after having a few glasses of wine drive exhausted every day.

I feel that mums put a lot of pressure on themselves to be back to ‘normal’ in such a short space of time. It takes almost two years to physiologically recover from having a baby. The physical restoration that women go through would be better supported if women let go of trying to keep everything running as it did before baby came along. If women planned for their 4th trimester in the antenatal period, they may feel better equipped to follow through the steps required to become optimally recovered after childbirth, with minimal risk to their physical and emotional health. If you’re getting enough sleep, it will help you be a more involved mother.

So, what is the answer for mums to keep on top of their health and ensure they cope with this lack of sleep? This list is not by any means exhaustive, but it is what I felt was important to me, as a mum with two very different experiences of the postnatal period. With my first I refused to acknowledge that my life has changed, and I experienced a major crash at two weeks and 4 months postnatal, where, after the chronic lack of sleep, I found it physically and mentally difficult to cope. With my second baby, I recuperated at home for a month after my daughter was born, put less pressure on myself to return to ‘normal’ (whatever that is?!), and napped and rested more. This certainly worked better for me, and I felt stronger for it.

My top tips for surviving the lack of sleep:

1) Stop. Just stop and sit down. No need to go out every day. No need to rush everywhere, get to the shops, see all your friends or family. Slow down and appreciate you just birthed another human from your body, and that amazing feat should guarantee some time to just ‘be’.

2) No need to wear make-up, wash your hair, wear your going out ‘nice clothes’ EVERY DAY. Just relax, enjoy and take the emphasis out of what your appearance is like. No one expects a mum to look immaculate. They really don’t.

3) Limit your visitors. Unless they are coming to do your vacuuming, washing or washing up. Most visitors are oblivious to your lack of sleep, many over stay their welcome, and don’t wash up their cups. Remember that pretty much all your visitors slept the whole night and are not sleep deprived. Entertaining should be done on your terms when you feel up to it. Too many visitors can interfere with you understanding your baby’s cues too, and you may be up more that night, with an unsettled baby.

4) Prioritise your basic needs. Make sure you have bottles of water around the house and drink regularly. Your body needs fluid at a cellular level to repair and your brain works so much better when you are hydrated.

5) REST! You MUST have a rest in the day. You may not get a sleep, especially if you have a toddler or two. But even toddlers have a time when they need to sit down, so you must too. There are no awards for mums who get 2 hours sleep per night and are busy all day. This is not sustainable, and you will make yourself ill.

6) Before you go to bed at night, think about a ritual that will prepare you for more quality sleep. Aim to have a bath in Himalayan salt to calm down the nervous system. Adding lavender oil to your pillow can make you drift off and sleep deeper. Getting your partner to give you a back massage before bed or doing 10 minutes of stretches all help to have better quality sleep. Ensure your bedroom is as much of a sleep cave as possible. Your baby will sleep better too.

7) Don’t compare yourself to others. What you see is not always the reality. Everyone has times when mothering is tough. Everyone. It’s is better to be honest and say when you are exhausted and just want to rest and can’t make a get together with your mum friends, than try and fake it, as you will only put your further into a sleepless cycle of despair.

8) Spend less on your buggy or travel system. You can invest some money then to your postnatal recovery by hiring a cleaner for 6 weeks or someone to bring you some nourishing meals. Postnatal doulas are a god send, they instinctively know what you need and give you that extra pair of hands.

9) Prepare in advance. There will be very little time for you to be preparing loads of meals from scratch, so it is wise to do the prep in pregnancy, freeze all your nourishing meals, and ensure you have an online weekly food shop organised so that’s one less thing to worry about. Ensure you get clean protein, good fats, and plenty of veggies into your 3 meals a day, to support your recovery.

10) Build a tribe around you. There are friends, mums, in-laws, aunts/uncles, neighbours that want to help. As a society, we are just rubbish at talking about our needs and just accept that we are alone in this mothering journey. Plan how this can work for you when you are pregnant. You will be so thankful that you thought about this.

11) Give yourself time out. You may only get 20 minutes a day, but those 20 minutes should be without disturbance, so you can have a clear head space to think, or to just to be clear. Hand over the baby to a responsible adult and go and be alone.

12) Confide in your bestie. That person who knows you inside and out. Who gets you, who you don’t have to pretend to be superwoman in front of. If you haven’t made many friends in your area, make sure you nurture the friendships of those around you to discover that one person who you feel you can be yourself with, and who you trust with your feelings and who can give good advice. We all need someone to help us feel understood and tell us when we are overdoing it.

13) Be mindful. Most mums spend a lot of time on social media, and not appreciating being in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I know that daily parenting of a child can be quite mundane, but when you really study your child, and notice their little hand movements, facial expressions and noises they make, you can communicate so well with them, better understand their needs, and feel in tune with your role, rather than what other mums are doing in theirs. This is less mentally exhausting than mindless trawling Facebook or Instagram.

14) Know that this time of sleep deprivation will pass, and you will look back on your journey as a memory, so give it your best shot, and make that memory warm-hearted. Honour your own needs and know that all mothers are worthy of self-focus and breathing space.

If you would like a place that you can have that undisturbed time for you, or have trouble switching off and relaxing fully, my stretch and relax class gives you a chance to unwind from the daily grind, to enjoy focusing on yourself, and bringing you to calm state in both mind and body. Find out more about this class HERE