How Postnatal Insomnia Can Affect Your Body, According to Experts

by Steph Montgomery
Originally Published: 

In my opinion, the worst part of new motherhood is the overwhelming lack of sleep. Everything is harder when you're sleep deprived. It's not just that the baby keeps me up at night, though. I can't sleep when he's sleeping, which is so frustrating, and my anxiety takes over in the evening, so I often wake in the middle of the night, too. I recently learned this lovely phenomenon is called postnatal insomnia (or postpartum insomnia) and that postnatal insomnia can affect your body, mind, and general wellbeing.

According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine Institute of Medicine Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research, in addition to a tired body and fuzzy mind, insomnia can also impact your body by increasing your risk for heart disease, obesity, strokes, depression, diabetes, and heart attacks. Psychology Today notes that insomnia can be caused by a number of parts of new mom life, including the fact that you had a major life change, are likely experiencing stress and hormone changes, and adjusting to a new routine on top of your physical recovery from childbirth. The good news is that there are a number of strategies you can try to get more rest and address underlying postpartum depression (PPD) or anxiety, which might be related to your inability to sleep.

According Karen Kleinman, MSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and author of the book Therapy and the Postpartum Woman, there are two types of insomnia: middle-of-the-night insomnia — waking and not being able to fall asleep — and initial insomnia — not being able to fall asleep at bedtime. The former is a common symptom of depression. The latter is more often associated with anxiety and an inability to unwind. Or, in my case, laying awake questioning every bad decision I've ever made and replaying embarrassing social encounters in my mind over and over again, like a bad movie.

As Kleinman writes for Psychology Today, postnatal insomnia is often related to postpartum depression or anxiety, but it's hard to know which came first, because postpartum mood disorders can cause insomnia, but insomnia caused by stress, health, or other causes can be a risk factor for and can worsen the impact of mood disorders, too. The good news is that if you have PPD and receive treatment, your insomnia might go away, and if you treat your insomnia, your mood might very well improve as well.

But postnatal insomnia doesn't just impact your mind — it can impact your body, too. If you are breastfeeding, the site Postpartum Progress notes that insomnia and resulting sleep deprivation can cause breast milk supply issues. Which seems so completely unfair, because what new breastfeeding mom isn't at least a little sleep deprived? (The answer is none of them, BTW.)

According to the Mayo Clinic, insomnia can have short term impacts on your body, causing physical symptoms like night sweats and a racing heart, but it also impact how well your immune system works to fight infections. The site explained further in the following passage:

During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you're under stress. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don't get enough sleep.

According to U.S. Institute of Medicine Institute of Medicine Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research, other physical health impacts of insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation, include an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Yikes.

So what can a tired new mom do to nip insomnia in the bud and get some damn sleep? If you find yourself waking up in the early hours of the night, at imagined sounds or for no apparent reason, and can't get back to sleep afterwards, Psychology Today recommends bringing it up with your doctor or midwife, as this type of insomnia can be a key symptom of postpartum depression.

If you have trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night, even when you are completely exhausted, the Baby Sleep Site recommends changing your bedtime routine to prepare your body for sleep — namely putting down your phone at least an hour before you plan to go to bed, limiting caffeine intake, and creating a soothing routine to help your body and mind relax and get primed for sleep. The same site suggests getting your partner, or another support person, involved to help you relax or to take a shift at night so you can get some rest.

Because insomnia at bedtime can be related to anxiety (for example — being unable to sleep because you are worried or your mind won't stop racing), the National Sleep Foundation suggests medical intervention or therapy to treat your anxiety and help you shut down anxious thoughts. If these strategies don't work, you should never hesitate to talk to your health care provider. You don't have to go it alone, and your body needs sleep to carry you through all of the struggles of new motherhood.

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