Exhaustion is undoubtedly part of parenting, but it’s important to be aware when what you’re feeling is not just tired.
In the weeks leading up to my son’s birth, when I’d wake up multiple times a night to pee, I’d pass the diaper changing station we’d set up outside our bedroom on the way to the bathroom.
In those dark, quiet moments, I remember thinking about how we’d soon be up for much of the night, every night — and would get filled with a sense of dread.
Despite the fact that Eli was (by newborn standards) a good sleeper right from the start, my husband and I never got more than a few hours of sleep at a time early on. It was physically exhausting, but the emotional fallout was worse.
I was constantly anxious and had trouble bonding with my boy. I was distraught because I felt like my life had been taken away from me and that I’d never, ever get it back.
I cried every day, but could rarely explain why.
At the time, no one suggested that the state of my mental health could have been caused by a lack of sleep. It didn’t cross my mind either. After all, intense sleep deprivation is something that every single new parent deals with.
There are plenty of bleary-eyed moms and dads who are still perfectly happy, right?
But here’s what I didn’t know: Sleep and mood are very closely related, and mounting evidence suggests that the fewer Zzzs you get, the more likely you are to have a mood disorder.
In fact, people with insomnia are significantly more likely to have depression compared to those who get enough sleep.
Considering that only 10 percent of new parents report logging the recommended 7 or more hours of shuteye, it seems like most of us baby-having folks are at risk of having a big problem on our hands. And it’s time we started talking about it.
Parenthood changes the way you sleep
Everyone knows that you accrue far fewer hours in the snooze department with a baby.
From the second people find out you have a little one coming along, many feel the need to say things like, “Rest while you can!” or “You won’t be sleeping in once the baby comes along!”
Yes. Great. Super helpful.
Babies are sleep stealers for obvious reasons. In the very early days, they have no sense of day versus night. They need to eat every few hours, round the clock.
They don’t like being put down to sleep alone and would rather be snuggled or bounced or rocked or walked around the block in their stroller a hundred times.
But it’s not just the baby that’s keeping you up. Even if you’re exhausted, the intense pressure to sneak in sleep whenever possible can actually make it harder to doze off.
“You may end up ruminating over whether you’re going to be able to fall asleep. You might think, ‘This is my time, this is the 3 hours I have, I have to sleep now.’ That doesn’t work for anybody,” explains Catherine Monk, PhD, professor of medical psychology in the departments of Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University.
And even if your mind isn’t revved up over trying to fall asleep, when you actually have that quiet time when you’re not tending to your tiny human, all the things you didn’t have a chance to think about before suddenly start flooding your brain — from big questions like what life will be like after your parental leave ends, to mundane ones like what’s for dinner tomorrow.
The sleep situation can get even worse if you recently gave birth.
The steep drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone that comes right after your baby is born can affect parts of your brain responsible for helping you snooze, leading to major sleep disruptions.
The result isn’t just fewer hours of total sleep. It’s lower-quality sleep that doesn’t sync up with your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
Dozing in 1- or 2-hour snippets deprives you of REM sleep, which plays an important role in emotional health, learning, and memory.
Missing out means the sleep you do manage to sneak in is less restorative. That can leave your nerves shot and send your mood straight to hell.
When you sleep badly, you feel bad, and then you sleep even worse
A night or two of crummy sleep means you might be in a crummy mood. But things can get serious when the sleep situation goes south for weeks or months on end — which is exactly what happens when you’re caring for a newborn.
Sleep deprivation sends your stress hormones skyrocketing and impairs your ability to think clearly and regulate your emotions.
For some people, that might mean having a little less energy or enthusiasm or getting pissed off a little more easily. But for plenty of others, it can be a tipping point toward major depression or an anxiety disorder.
And since we tend to sleep worse when our emotions are in a bad place, you can end up getting hurled into a vicious cycle of poor sleep, feeling bad because you’re sleep deprived, and then not being able to sleep because you feel bad, and the next day feeling even worse.
This sleep-depression cycle is possible for anyone who doesn’t log enough shuteye.
But more and more, the evidence is showing that sleep deprivation and lower sleep quality play a role in the development of postpartum psychiatric disorders — and the worse a new mom’s sleep is, the greater her risk might be.
The situation can easily keep on snowballing from there.
Women with postpartum depression (PPD) sleep about 80 fewer minutes a night compared to those without PPD. And infants of depressed mothers tend to sleep worse themselves — making it even harder for parents to get the sleep they so desperately need.
But you don’t have to give birth to be at heightened risk for serious mood issues when you have a newborn.
Studies show that new fathers report just as much sleep disturbance and fatigue as new mothers. And since fathers or partners who don’t give birth often tend to return to work sooner, any chance of sneaking in a short nap during the day ends up going out the window.
Feeling a little off is normal, but there’s a point when it becomes too much
No one feels like themselves right after having a baby. Some people don’t feel like themselves for months and months. That’s partly from feeling very, very tired, but it also just comes with the territory of navigating a major life change.
But there’s a point where the typical not-feeling-like-yourself that comes with having a baby morphs into something more serious.
The best way to reduce the chances of that happening is by being proactive.
“It would be fantastic if you thought about how you might respond to sleep deprivation as part of preparing to have a child, by taking a sleep inventory and seeing what works for your baseline,” Monk says.
Chances are if you’re reading this, though, you’re already in the throes of a baby-driven sleep upheaval. In that case, Monk recommends taking a few days to keep a sleep diary and track how your shuteye (or lack thereof) seems to be affecting you emotionally.
“You might notice, for instance, that on the day your sister was over and you got 4 hours of sleep in a row, it made a huge difference in your mood,” she says.
Once you’ve gathered some specifics on what you need to feel your best, you can take steps to make it more achievable.
If you’re partnered, taking shifts with the baby as equally as possible is the obvious first step, so if that’s not your current reality, find a way to make it happen.
If you’re breastfeeding exclusively, strive for more equal shifts than actually equal.
In the early days, you pretty much have to breastfeed every 2 to 3 hours to establish your supply and keep it up, making it harder for your partner to split the feeding duties. This can be excruciatingly hard.
But your partner can help make it so you can get back to sleep after nursing ASAP.
Maybe they could bring the baby into bed so you can breastfeed lying down and supervise in case you doze off, then put the baby back in their bassinet or crib, Monk suggests.
Beyond that, maybe a family member or friend can come over on set days each week so you can get a block of protected sleep. (Sometimes just knowing that block is coming can give you a boost.) If that’s not doable, it might be worth factoring a nanny or night nurse into your budget. Even one day a week can help.
Be open about your feelings too, both with your partner and friends or family members or with other new parents you might meet at a local support group.
Research shows that sometimes just talking about the challenges of being sleep deprived with a new baby can make you feel a little better.
Ideally, you’ll take these steps before things reach a level where you feel the need to talk to a mental health professional.
But if at any point your sleep deprivation has totally zapped your interest in the things you usually enjoy, is making it hard for you to bond with the baby, has caused you to lose your appetite, or has left you feeling like you’re not capable of being a good parent, reach out to your healthcare provider about talking to a therapist.
You really won’t feel like this forever. Really.
The thing about falling into an emotional well as a worn-out new parent is that it can sometimes be hard to see the light at the end of the crazy, very exhausting tunnel.
My own mental state definitely improved in fits and phases after Eli was born, and it took close to a year before I felt like things had reached a new normal.
But the first step toward feeling better definitely came when he started eating less at night, and eventually, sleeping straight through.
While you may not be able to picture it now, your little one will, with time, get better at sleeping — and allow you to get more rest.
“There can be this panic that this is what it’s like now, but it will end,” Monk says. “You can pause and remember that a year ago you may not even have been pregnant, and now look how your life has changed. Time, development and maturation do happen.”
By Marygrace Taylor