What Causes Postpartum Insomnia? And How to Get Rest

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It's pretty expected to feel tired after giving birth. Babies aren't exactly known for being very good at sleep, which usually means you're up all hours of the night tending to them. But for some women, the tiredness extends past the usual level and veers into insomnia territory. Postpartum insomnia is an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep on a consistent basis following the birth of your child.

Postpartum insomnia doesn't affect all parents, but it could happen to you for a variety of reasons, including hormonal changes or lifestyle changes. Experts share what you can do if you're experiencing postpartum insomnia and when it's time to see a healthcare provider for help.

What Causes Postpartum Insomnia?

Postpartum insomnia can arise for a few different reasons. One relates to hormonal shifts that occur after delivery. Once you give birth, your levels of estrogen and progesterone drop precipitously. These hormones influence circadian rhythms, your body's natural sleep-wake cycle. When your circadian rhythms are disrupted, you may be sleepier during the day and more alert at night.

The general stress of having a baby can also lead to postpartum insomnia, especially if you have other factors at play. "Stress regarding caring for a newborn and taking on the role of mother, financial constraints related to not being able to work outside the home, and the costs of caring for a newborn are all possible sources of stress," says Margaret Mike, MD, who specializes in sleep medicine at University of Missouri Hospitals.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) can also be a concern for new parents. Studies have proven that restless leg syndrome—an uncontrollable urge to move your legs while sleeping—can cause insomnia in anyone because of the constant disruption to sleep. Dr. Mike says new parents are susceptible to RLS because of being overtired, which can make insomnia worse.

How to Treat Postpartum Insomnia

There are plenty of lifestyle changes you can try to get rid of postpartum insomnia before seeking medical attention. While some of these may be difficult to implement with a newborn, your health is worth considering all of them.

Nap When Baby Naps

This is a tried-and-true piece of advice, and it applies to insomnia as well. To the best of your ability, get sleep where you can. While it can be difficult to get a few winks at the same time as your baby, make sure you put yourself in the right environment for it. Find a dark, cozy spot to curl up briefly and catch up on your sleep.

Try Meditation

Any kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy or meditation could help your brain relax if that's been a concern. "For women experiencing postpartum depression, cognitive behavioral therapy may help—and this may in turn help with sleep," says Lauren Demosthenes, MD, OB/GYN, and senior medical director with Babyscripts. "Similarly, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques may all help with insomnia, which may also help with depression." 

Keep a Schedule

This is easier said than done with a baby, but trying to get to bed at the same time each night, even if the times your baby wakes up are erratic, can help your body maintain some semblance of a sleep schedule. Good sleep hygiene helps with insomnia, and that includes giving yourself a comfortable environment to sleep in and the same sleep schedule each night.

"Other tips about good sleep hygiene include reducing electronics for an hour or two before bedtime or having a cool and relaxing room," Dr. Demosthenes adds. 

Make Sure You Have Support

Whether it's a partner, a family member, or hired help, try to get someone to help with the baby if you can. Persistent insomnia can become a serious concern very quickly because you may be too tired to properly care for your baby.

Have a conversation with your partner about it to see if you can share nighttime responsibilities more. If you have an older child, ask them to watch the baby while you grab a nap. Or if you have the means, consider a nanny who can ease some of your load, even if it's just temporary until you're feeling more like yourself.

Ease Off the Caffeine

You may be tempted to grab a strong coffee so you can keep going throughout the day, but that's only perpetuating the problem. Dr. Mike also suggests leaving the energy drinks behind as well. These drinks pile up in your system and can make insomnia worse.

How Long Does Postpartum Insomnia Last?

How long postpartum insomnia lasts can vary from person to person, but Dr. Demosthenes says that it hopefully won't last too long. "Generally, postpartum insomnia may improve when an infant begins to sleep through the night and a new mom can have uninterrupted sleep," she says.

If your insomnia continues past when your baby is sleeping through the night, you may be experiencing chronic insomnia, which is something you should discuss with your healthcare provider. Together you can work out a treatment plan to get better sleep, as sleep is crucial to your physical and mental health.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It's important to be aware of how your postpartum insomnia is affecting you so you know if it's time to seek medical attention. Not being able to sleep is more than just feeling tired—it can actually be detrimental to your health and the health of those around you.

"It's time to seek medical attention when the sleep issues are affecting daytime functioning, being able to stay awake to care for the baby, driving, or if the lack of sleep is causing anxiety and/or depression," Dr. Mike says.

In general, insomnia has been linked to heart problems, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, and more. Managing insomnia sooner rather than later can alleviate these health issues before they become too serious.

A Word From Verywell

Postpartum insomnia can be very serious if not addressed. While it's normal to feel tired when you have a new baby, experiencing insomnia to the point of not being able to function can be dangerous. Try lifestyle changes to see if it helps with sleep, and if not, speak to your healthcare provider to come up with a solution to your sleep issues.

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