When I was pregnant I spent the majority of my time staring at the white plaster ceiling above my bed, trying to will my body and mind to go to sleep. I never had trouble falling asleep before I had kids. As a child-free person I napped, went to bed early, and slept in on Saturdays. I can't help but wish that I had enjoyed more sleep before I got pregnant, because insomnia totally ruined my pregnancy. And, to make matters worse, it never really went away.
Pregnancy itself is noting short of exhausting. During my first trimester, I would fall asleep randomly at work, at the dinner table while eating, and even once at a stop light. Then I hit the magical second trimester and discovered that along with some new-found energy and and an end to morning sickness, I would face the crushing weight of insomnia. I could no longer sleep, even when I wanted to, and I had no idea that the end of my pregnancy wasn't going to change the situation.
Apparently, something about this hormone-laden, intense physical process of growing a human kept my mind from sufficiently shutting off when I needed it to. I had horrible anxiety, about my pregnancy, my baby, and even random things like how a conversation went five years prior that I wish I could change. Then my body got in on the action, and I constantly had to pee, had muscle cramps in my legs, and spent hours shifting positions trying to get comfortable.
So, I did what any pregnant person does when they can't sleep: I Googled my symptoms, arguably the worst idea in the world. And while I had to navigate a slew of extremely troubling information (did you know that people can actually die from sleep deprivation?) I also found out that I wasn't alone. According to What to Expect, 75 percent of pregnant people have insomnia. That didn't make me feel better, though, and it certainly didn't help me sleep through the night or function during the day.
I went home feeling tired, confused, and anxious about what would happen at bedtime and how many times I would wake up if I did manage to fall asleep.
I wanted to be one of those beautiful, serene pregnant women you see in stock photos and prenatal yoga classes, but I was too damn tired to look or feel like anything more than an aging dumpster fire. Insomnia made me an anxious mess at night and a sleep-deprived zombie during the day. So, I drank way more than the recommended amount of coffee during pregnancy, covered my under-eye circles with concealer, and tried to make it through the day without someone telling me how tired I looked.
At one prenatal appointment, I asked my midwife if there was anything I could do. She said, "Don't worry, a lot of pregnant women have trouble sleeping. You should try yoga or meditation." Perhaps her intentions were pure, but her comments felt dismissive. I was desperate and suffering, and she seemed like I should simply "lean in." I replied, "I haven't slept more than an hour in days." She laughed and said, "Consider this good practice for once baby is here." I didn't think her joke was funny. At all.
When I asked about medication for my insomnia, the same midwife told me that I couldn't really take anything because of the baby, and once again mentioned deep breathing and yoga. I went home feeling tired, confused, and anxious about what would happen at bedtime and how many times I would wake up if I did manage to fall asleep.
When people said things like, "Sleep now, because once your baby is born you won't ever sleep again," I believed them.
At the time, I didn't know that sometimes insomnia doesn't just impact your ability to sleep, but can prove detrimental to your mental health. In fact, it's even a symptom of depression or anxiety. According to Karen Kleiman, MSW, founder of The Postpartum Stress Center, insomnia at bedtime is often related to anxiety or the mind's inability to shut down, and waking up and not being able to fall back asleep is a common symptom of depression. During my many prenatal appointments, though, no one asked me about anxiety or depression. Not a single time.
The trouble with insomnia is that not only is it a symptom, but it can make mental conditions like depression and anxiety worse. I started to think I would have to learn to function on a couple of hours of sleep a night for the rest of my life. When people said things like, "Sleep now, because once your baby is born you won't ever sleep again," I believed them.
After my baby was born, my insomnia didn't end. In fact, it got worse, and so did the jokes about sleep deprivation. But after months of exhaustion and tossing and turning, I was too numb, exhausted, depressed, and suicidal to laugh at the "welcome to motherhood" jabs everyone seemed hellbent on sending my way. I didn't think anything about my pregnancy and postpartum insomnia was funny, nor did I consider my declining mental health to be some punch line.
Eventually I got help for my postpartum mental health and was finally able to fall asleep. Unfortunately, staying asleep proved to be difficult. Babies aren't exactly known for their ability to sleep through the night, and mine was no exception. Night time wake-ups continued for a couple of years, and I avoided taking sleep medication because I was worried I wouldn't be able to wake up with my baby if she needed me.
Insomnia may have ruined my pregnancy, but I learned that it didn't have to ruin my life.
Sleep deprivation interfered with all aspects of my life, including my ability to be a good parent. Instead of being a zombie, I was a zombie mom — numb, sad, and exhausted. And then I found out I was pregnant with my second child.
Friends, I can tell you with absolutely certainty that if there's anything worse than having pregnancy insomnia, it's having pregnancy insomnia while also trying to parent a toddler. The years of sleep deprivation took their toll. Exhausted during the day, but unable to sleep at night, it was like the second verse of the most annoying song you've ever heard. When my son was born, I worried that song would be stuck in my head forever.
Fortunately, the next (and final) time I got pregnant, and once again had insomnia, I was proactive about demanding treatment. I was honest with my OB-GYN about how my condition was impacting my life, and to my surprise she actually listened and offered me solutions. It turns out there are medications you can take that will safely treat pregnancy insomnia, underlying depression and anxiety, and help you fall and stay asleep.
After almost eight years of untreated insomnia, I was finally getting some sleep. And after my baby was born I continued taking my medications as directed (with some minor adjustments to allow for night time feedings). I also had an amazing partner who was willing to take night shifts so I could get a few hours of sleep.
Insomnia may have ruined my pregnancy, but I learned that it didn't have to ruin my life. I wish I had known that sooner, though, and I hope that more pregnant women start demanding answers about their health care so they can get the sleep they deserve.