When I was in the final days of my first pregnancy, I thought, “I can handle being tired! At least once the baby’s born I can drink more than 6oz of coffee a day.” Fast forward to a few weeks after the baby was born and I was Googling, “Can you die from lack of sleep?”
I imagined sleep deprivation feeling like being really, really tired. I imagined yawning and stretching and looking forward to bed. The actual symptoms of sleep deprivation floored me. Being sleep deprived made me jittery, shaky, anxious, sad, confused, hungry, cold, overwhelmed, and, ironically, gave me insomnia. I forgot words. It amplified my social anxiety. There was no amount of coffee in the world that could make me feel anything close to normal. I felt like I was dying. I wondered if I had MS or a brain tumor.
I didn’t die. I survived and even decided to have another baby eventually. The second baby let me sleep more than the first, but there were (and are) still days when these feelings come flooding back.
Sleep deprivation symptoms:
- Changes in mood. Sleep deprivation makes new parents more susceptible to perinatal mood disorders.
Decreased cognitive and motor function. A study suggests that people who haven’t slept for 18 hours have the same capacity as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.
Metabolic and endocrine problems. Wondering why you feel so physically "off" when you're tired? Sleep deprivation can make you feel hungry and cold, among other things.
Weakened immune system.
Insomnia. When your circadian rhythm is constantly disrupted it can make it hard to sleep, even when you’re exhausted and have time to do so.
So… what can be done?
Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that a lot of what you’re feeling is sleep deprivation. Things will get better with time, and there are small changes you can make to help improvements happen more quickly.
Help yourself get more sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Take supplements like melatonin or magnesium. (Always check with your care provider first, especially if you’re breastfeeding!) Go outside during the daylight hours each day, and get a little exercise if you’re up for it.
Help your baby get more sleep. Make sure you have a consistent bedtime routine. Work toward getting them on a regular schedule throughout the day. You may want to read a book about baby sleep habits, or contact a sleep consultant.
- Ask for help. Your friends and family want to help you. If you are uncomfortable asking, or feel like you need more comprehensive support, reach out to a postpartum doula.
Sleep Deprivation: The Dark Side of Parenting by Alice Callahan (The Science of Mom)
The Walking Dead by Maria Konnikova (The New Yorker)
Yes, Your Sleep Schedule Is Making You Sick by Richard A. Friedman (The New York Times)
The stars appear each night in the sky. All is well.