The Surprising Link Between Sleep & Maternal Mental Health

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Sleep deprivation practically goes hand in hand with new parenthood; newborn babies eat every two to three hours around the clock, and while they sleep a lot—14 to 17 hours a day—that sleep doesn’t usually come in long stretches or when you need it: at night.

It also takes months for infants to start secreting the sleep hormone melatonin, which means, well, months of nighttime meetings for babies and their caregivers.

Yet, while early parenthood is often tiring, too often, the impacts of this sleep deprivation are minimized by society, or worse, laughed about (see: jokes about parents with their cold coffee or memes about tired moms).

The US also lacks major structural support systems for new parents, which would help them get the breaks they need. Parents in the US, for example, are often required to return to work long before their babies are “sleeping through the night,” increasing the already high demands of new parenthood.

But sleep deprivation is no joke. In fact, it’s a large independent risk factor for perinatal mental health conditions such as postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA).

Sleep deprivation is a large independent risk factor for perinatal mental health conditions such as postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.

Perinatal mental health conditions have a slew of risk factors, including a personal or family history of mental health conditions, stress, a lack of support, and past trauma; sleep deprivation is just one. But sleep allows the body and mind to heal.

One study in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that poor sleep quality in the early postpartum months was a predictor of the development of later PPD.

Some are more vulnerable to mental health conditions postpartum than others (read: just because you’re sleep deprived doesn’t mean you’ll get PPA or PPD).

It’s important to realize that a lack of sleep can profoundly impact your mental and emotional health, general mood, and well-being in new parenthood—because knowing this can help you properly plan support around sleep.

After all, support throughout the postpartum months is a protective factor against perinatal mental health conditions. With the suggestions below, you can work to safeguard your sleep and, in turn, help yourself feel better.

How to protect your maternal mental health and sleep

Actively seek support around sleep

Adequate sleep is one of many factors that can help lower the risk of a perinatal mental health condition, but “adequate sleep” isn’t always readily available in new parenthood.

After all, it’s biologically and developmentally normal and appropriate for babies to wake and feed in the middle of the night.

That said, there are ways to plan for increased support—and you can start doing this in pregnancy. Think about things like who you may be able to lean on to get a little bit of extra sleep.

Can you ask a friend to help with the baby during the day here and there so you can sleep a few hours? Can you hire a doula or an overnight nurse? If you’re pumping breastmilk or bottle feeding, can you split the night with a partner?

Having sleep support systems in place can help you get the rest and recovery you need. You can even build in space for this on a registry, asking friends and family to contribute funds toward sleep support.

Aim for anchor sleep

To feel your best emotionally, your body and brain need long chunks of sleep (which is exactly what new parents don’t get).

“Anchor sleep” is—ideally—a four-hour chunk of sleep at one time (day or night). Even if your anchor sleep chunk is less than four hours (and early on, it will be!), one solid stretch of sleep during the day or night is helpful.

Simply try to rest

Sometimes, when you put pressure on yourself to sleep, the opposite happens: You have difficulty falling asleep. When you’re desperate for sleep and finally get the chance to sleep, the pressure can be high.

Remove it by simply aiming to rest. While it’s not sleep, rest can be restorative. Consider a restorative practice like yoga nidra (yogic sleep or psychic sleep), which involves lying on your back and listening to guided imagery.

You can find videos of it on YouTube for free. Yoga nidra has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and could even help release melatonin.

Learn about infant sleep

One way to help yourself along the journey of sleep in those early days is to learn about how much babies sleep, how often they need to eat, and safe sleep practices.

For example, young babies often require lots of naps throughout the day to help with their growth, development, and overall health.

As they grow, they’ll “drop naps” as their sleep requirements lessen. Specific products, such as a crib or bassinet, a pacifier, or a swaddle, might also help your baby sleep, and understanding how going back to work impacts your own sleep as a new parent can also help you make important decisions.

Remember, it’s not your job to make your baby sleep, and you’re not doing anything wrong if your baby isn’t taking a certain number of prescribed naps or sleeping through the night by a certain age; all babies are different.

But we can do our best to help babies anticipate sleep, building daily daytime/bedtime routines for them just as we do for ourselves, for example.

Remember, it’s not your job to make your baby sleep, and you’re not doing anything wrong if your baby isn’t taking a certain number of prescribed naps or sleeping through the night by a certain age; all babies are different.

Know that all perinatal mental health conditions are treatable—so if you’re struggling with sleep and/or your mental health, seek support

If you’re struggling with your mental health—you notice lots of crying, anger, a lack of interest in your child or activities or love, you have racing thoughts, constant worry, an inability to sit still, or you experience other issues such as delusions—and you’re feeling like your symptoms are getting in the way of your day-to-day or interfering with your ability to care for yourself or your child, you’re not alone.

Perinatal mental health conditions are the leading complications of birth in this country and they’re always treatable, often through a blend of social support, therapy, and medication.

For support around maternal mental health, utilize the resources below:

FAQs

What are factors associated with maternal mental health?

Sleep deprivation, lack of support for new parents, a history of mental health conditions, stress, and returning to work before an infant is able to sleep through the night are various factors associated with maternal mental health.

Why does maternal mental health matter?

Maternal mental health impacts both a mother’s and child’s well-being. Sleep deprivation can lead to complications like postpartum depression and anxiety, which can impact a mother’s ability to care for herself and her baby. It’s crucial that parents have access to support and resources so they can address these issues and protect their mental health and well-being.

This article originally appeared on Saatva and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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