I sat on the couch nursing my 3-month-old in the dark, quiet hours of the early morning for what felt like the thousandth night in a row. Tears fell down my face and my body ached with exhaustion. I wanted to sleep — needed to sleep — and yet I felt guilty for not enjoying this moment with my baby.
I had expected to be tired as a new mom — to accidentally put my phone in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard, to give up sleeping in on the weekends and lazy Saturday mornings. But I was not prepared for the way fragmented sleep would wreak havoc on both my physical and mental health, resulting in an inability to focus, increased anxiety, difficulty eating and eventually postpartum depression.
Of course new parents will lose some sleep, but experts say mothers simply can’t be expected to function when experiencing dangerous levels of sleep deprivation—and we shouldn’t shoulder this burden alone. Our partners and support circles can and should be part of planning to prioritize a new mother’s sleep.
“I think the whole attitude and culture around motherhood needs to change and it has to be one of acceptance that yes, being a mom is hard, but it doesn’t have to be painful,” says Carly Snyder, a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist in New York City. “There are a lot of ways in which we can make it easier on ourselves by getting other people involved and that is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”
“As women we have a tendency to take on a lot of responsibility, but after a week or two of not getting adequate rest, nobody feels good,” says Snyder. “You can’t function without sleep.”
Prioritizing sleep, and therefore mental health, not only benefits mothers, but children too, Snyder says. Given that long-term untreated depression in mothers has been linked to negative health and life outcomes for children, it’s just as important for moms to be well-rested as it is for them to attend to the needs of their kids.
“I see over and over again moms not prioritizing their sleep and then everything falls apart around them,” says Jennifer Howard, a therapist and sleep consultant who specializes in perinatal mental health. “If you’re not sleeping, then you’re not able to really care for your children in the way that you want to.”
Sleep deprivation has been linked to lower mood and is often a contributing factor for postpartum depression, Howard says, yet moms are often told that sleep deprivation is something they just have to power through when they bring home an infant. While it’s true that losing some sleep is part of life with a newborn, it shouldn’t get to the point of jeopardizing your health.
“Mom’s mental health is imperative both in the short run and over the long term for children’s developmental outcomes,” Snyder says. “Women are wracked with guilt, but by choosing to prioritize their mental health, they are also choosing to prioritize their child.”
The exact amount of sleep everyone needs differs slightly from person to person, but in general the recommendation for adults is at least seven hours a night, which is admittedly difficult with a newborn baby, Snyder says. She suggests coming up with a plan before the baby is born and leaning on support from a partner, family or friends.
“Sit down with a partner and plan out who will be up with the baby and when,” Snyder says. Doing this planning ahead of time means that everyone involved knows what to expect and the primary parent — usually the mom — isn’t forced to ask for help. “If you wait until after the baby is born, it is much more difficult to establish a schedule.”
Sometimes moms will have a hard time sleeping even when baby is sleeping. Exercising during the day — even if it’s just a walk around the block — as well as eating a nutritious diet can help regulate the body and encourage sleep, Snyder says. If, however, insomnia persists or is overwhelming, it can be worth a conversation with a doctor.
Another way to get more sleep as a new parent is to encourage healthy sleep habits in baby from the start, Howard says, by establishing a consistent routine. Around the three-month mark babies are able to distinguish between daytime sleep and nighttime sleep. Choosing a bedtime that seems in sync with their typical sleep cycle, and creating a calm pre-bedtime environment can help parents ease into a consistent routine.
There’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to sleep solutions, but from establishing a schedule, to creating an environment conducive to sleep, to leaning on friends and family to help night or day, there are options for parents to find sleep solutions that work for them and their families, Snyder says.
Erin is a freelance writer living in the Kansas City area where she also works as a health insurance navigator for a community health center. She writes primarily about reproductive justice and parenting. Her work has been featured in Rewire, DAME Magazine and Refinery29.