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Postpartum Insomnia: My Baby Is Sleeping, But I’m Wide Awake

By Ella (@ellalucie)

We all expect sleep to be a hot topic when we have a new baby. It’s commonly known to be in short supply. But what happens when your baby is sleeping but you can’t? Mother and journalist Ella explores her experience with postpartum insomnia.

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Sleep is the one thing that is pretty much guaranteed to be a subject of conversation, contemplation and often, consternation when we become parents. When we bring our newborns home, we’re already set up for the notion that we’re likely not going to be catching many zzzs over the next few weeks, or months. While this is completely normal and expected – as well as the well-intentioned but annoying advice that comes along with it (“sleep when the baby sleeps”, anyone?), as we lean into motherhood and everything becomes a little less ‘new’, it’s reasonable to expect that things will begin to settle and some semblance of a routine and therefore, some form of sleep, will return.

Not for me!

Fresh from the newborn bubble, my baby and I went from being up all hours cluster-feeding, to settling into a nice (but not always perfect!) routine for her nighttime sleep. You know, the usual – bath, feed, bed. Although not sleeping completely through the night, my baby generally wakes only once or twice a night for a quick feed or resettle, and wakes at a suitable time the next day, refreshed and happy. 

Now, doesn’t that sound ideal? However, while my baby sleeps on one side of me in the Next2Me cot and my husband dozes peacefully on the other side, I spend hours, night after night, staring at the ceiling, willing myself to sleep. There have been nights where my baby has slept for 11 hours, when I have snatched only one or two for myself, feeling at my most tired and weary when my baby begins to stir for another day of learning and growth. Intrusive thoughts and worries play a huge part, too: “Are you a good mum? A good wife? Friend? Can you ever afford childcare to work properly again? What if no one wants to give you any work anyway?” 

I’ve spent nights counting up how much sleep I’d get if I fell asleep right THEN, and reshuffling to-do lists in my head, knowing that my incoming planned day just isn’t going to gel on absolutely zero sleep. I’ll take myself off upstairs in the afternoons for a ‘nap’ after a night of no sleep while my husband supervises our daughter, only to lie there with my heart pounding, finally admitting defeat and coming down in tears because I just can’t fall asleep.

So, aside from feeling like I’m constantly in the newborn bubble sleep-wise (without the ability to stay in bed, the exciting parcels arriving and the constant offers of help, worse luck), I did some research and finally realised that I am suffering from Postpartum Insomnia.

With a traumatic pregnancy, birth and a natural penchant for feeling anxious and worried, I’m not surprised that this is the case and as such, for now, have settled into my “new normal”, bedding in with my insomnia for as long as it deigns to stick around.

That’s not to say that I didn’t consult an expert! Dave Gibson is the Founder of The Sleep Site and he tells me that between 50-75% of women report changes to their sleep pre and postpartum. Somewhere between 17% and 30% report their sleep interference as insomnia and a further 50% of these will still have some insomnia two years later!

He states that upping sleep hygiene is key to helping ease symptoms (“Getting sunlight first thing, the bedroom blacked out, regular bedtimes and limiting alcohol before bed and stopping caffeine at lunchtime”), but it’s also important to seek support from your partner, family and of course, your GP if symptoms worsen.

For me, the time when my baby has begun to settle, thrive and become more independent has been the hardest period yet. This is because when people see me, they tend to ask about the baby – and forget to ask about me. If anything, I’m feeling a lot worse physically and emotionally than I did when my baby was born, and that’s no mean feat. 

I hope that with time, and with trust that things will begin to resettle, I will begin to sleep again. 

In the meantime, I’ll be accepting all forms of help, kind words and being gentle with myself. Because that’s all we can really do, isn’t it? Be kind to ourselves when things are out of our control? If you’re having trouble with sleep after having your baby, know you’re not alone. 

And, if you’ve got someone in your life who’s baby is thriving and on the surface things look stable and calm, just don’t forget to ask: “…and how are you, mama?”

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