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Postpartum sleep: how to get a bit more even if baby isn’t sleeping

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Dr Jodi Pawluski
Counsellor and neuroscientist

Sleep is medicine for our brains. I think we forget this far too often, particularly as new parents. We focus so much on getting our babies and kids to sleep, but our sleep is just as important.

I read a brilliant article in the scientific journal Biological Psychiatry recently that said, ‘just telling a mother to sleep is as ridiculous as telling her to fly. Protecting her sleep requires challenging deep cultural and structural factors, both within families and within the medical establishment’, and I couldn’t agree more. It takes concerted effort to improve postpartum sleep from everyone involved, but here are some tips from a few different sources to get you started:

1. Change the narrative

We can all contribute to letting mums know that their sleep is so crucial in supporting the health of the whole family. This should be a priority, not a nice-to-have.

2. Start in pregnancy

I’ve heard it said many times that disrupted sleep in pregnancy is preparing mums for the postpartum sleep disruption, but science says otherwise. Improving your sleep and sleep habits during pregnancy, even just a bit, can really improve your postpartum outcomes related to mental health and breastfeeding (if that’s something you’d like to do).

3. Stick to a sleep schedule

Set aside no more than an eight-hour window for sleep, and stick to that same window of time everyday as much as possible. Make sure you go to bed earlier than when your eight hours begin to give you time to wind down before you start putting pressure on yourself to sleep.

4. Pay attention to what you eat and drink

Try not to go to bed either on a super full or empty stomach, and try not to drink caffeine later in the day, however tired you are during the afternoon!

5. Create a restful sleep environment

Make your bedroom an ideal space for sleeping. Blackout blinds, no screens in the room, cosy bed sheets, whatever screams restful sleep to you.

6. Limit day time naps

You want to be super tired at night. And although this might sound like a simple ask as a new mum, you can help yourself out by avoiding lots of naps during the day. Sleeping when the baby sleeps isn’t always the best idea if you’re struggling to sleep at night.

7. Consolidate sleep

Following on from the last point, if you are in need of a nap, try to have one larger block of sleep rather than lots of little kips. These will have a larger impact on how you feel.

8. Recruit help

Accept as much help as you can from your partner, your wider family, and your friends. You might need to be flexible with your sleeping arrangements with your partner, e.g. one person sleeping with the baby and one person in a quiet separate room, swapping places in the middle of the night. The person sleeping first should go to bed as early as possible (forget the dishes)!

9. Flex the breast

If you’re breastfeeding or expressing and feel comfortable, add additional pumping sessions during the day to allow a second person to get involved with feeding at night.

10. Add some exercise to your day-time routine

Exercising even gently will help you feel more energetic in the day and help you sleep better at night.

11. Find techniques to manage your worries

If you’re finding that your mind is racing with worries as soon as you get into bed, there are techniques you can try to reduce this. You might like to try meditation, journaling, or a worry window, which is when you set aside a time each day where you allow yourself to worry so that then, hopefully, the rest of the time you don’t have to.

<u>Sources:</u>

  • 'Prescribing Sleep: An Overlooked Treatment for Postpartum Depression', Nicole Leistikow, Erica B. Baller, Phillip J. Bradshaw, Julia Nardi Riddle, David A. Ross, Lauren M. Osborne. Biol Psychiatry 2022, online ahead of print.
  • 'A mixed methods study of perinatal sleep and breastfeeding outcomes in women at risk for postpartum depression', Gordon LK, Mason KA, Mepham E, Sharkey KM. Sleep Health. 2021 Jun;7(3):353-361. doi: 10.1016/j.sleh.2021.01.004. Epub 2021 Feb 25. PMID: 33640360.
  • 'Why We Sleep', Matthew Walker.