Every new mom very quickly discovers a level of exhaustion unlike anything she’s ever experienced. Between breastfeeding and/or pumping, wonky sleep schedules, high stress levels, and everything else we have to do to keep ourselves and our offspring alive, early motherhood can drain the life-force out of even the strongest women. We all look at other moms and wonder if they’re experiencing the same struggles that we are. The answer is always yes, yes, and yes — no matter how put together they may look on Instagram. But what if that mom is significantly younger, or older, than you are? Do moms in their 20s handle mom fatigue more easily than moms in their 30s?
Well, maybe. But no one’s getting off easily.
“All mothers at some point will feel fatigued,” says Jennifer Park, a 33-year-old mom who’s also a family medicine specialist with New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital. “There are certain times — such as the newborn period, teething, and illnesses — that lead to our children needing more contact with us, meaning less uninterrupted sleep for mom. There is nothing magical about starting a family in your 20s that allows you to escape that exhaustion.”
Sleep-deprivation doesn’t discriminate, but it can impact us differently at different stages of our lives. A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that age-related physiological changes may impact our ability to have restorative sleep.
Clinical health psychologist Urzula Klich, who had her own children at ages 29 and 39, confirms that there are well-known changes in sleep quality when we age. “The type of sleep rhythms we experience changes,” she tells Romper. “Meanwhile, chemicals responsible for helping us feel alert during the day decrease. Thus our overall capacity for sleep and feeling rested is diminished.”
Many women will note they seem to have lighter sleep and will wake much more easily to the sounds of our babies.
And less sleep is bad news for a busy mom, as Dr. Park knows from experience. “I vividly remember the long days and nights with a newborn, trying to figure out how I would feed myself, shower, or use the bathroom in between my daughter’s feedings,” she says. “During these long periods of decreased or broken-up sleep schedules, our moods can also change.”
We become more irritable and less patient, we lose our ability to multi-task, and our relationships and self-interests are put on the back burner as we focus on our kids. This can lead to isolation and loneliness.
And it doesn’t always get better as we exit the newborn stage.
“It’s important to know that when we become mothers, our sleep architecture changes, meaning the patterns and the soundness of our sleep is not the same,” Dr. Park notes. “So even when our babies have started to sleep for longer stretches, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting great quality of sleep during those times. Many women will note they seem to have lighter sleep and will wake much more easily to the sounds of our babies.”
While fatigue affects all moms at some point or another, younger women may in fact bounce back more quickly. Whether you have kids or not, most women in their 30s will notice that the ability to rebound after a long night (whether for fun or not) just isn’t the same as it used to be.
But while some of these variances can be attributed to metabolic fluctuations and hormonal differences, Dr. Park says that changes in lifestyle and responsibilities also play a big role in how we experience fatigue.
“With age comes more experience and potentially more complex demands on our time — maybe a larger family to care for, the need to balance competing interests among yourself, your spouse, and your children, or greater accountability in your career,” Dr. Park says. “These are all tasks for which we need to be alert and high-functioning in order to complete, and we find ourselves with less ability to catch up on sleep or allow our bodies and minds to take a break.”
Age can also bring more self-assurance, as 35-year-old mom of two Alicia Jones found. “I think it was actually harder when I was younger because I didn't have the coping skills that I have now, and I didn't have the wherewithal to ask for what I needed,” she says of having her first child at 27. “Also, my particular circumstances were different — I worked full-time in my 20s and not when my second was born — so that is a different kind of tired.”
Regardless of age, it’s important to recognize the difference between normal fatigue and dangerous levels of exhaustion. Some medical conditions can lead to extreme fatigue, such as thyroid disorders, infections, anemia, and autoimmune disorders. Depressive disorders can also present with fatigue as a main symptom.
“If your situation seems out of proportion to what other moms are experiencing, you should make an appointment to speak with your primary care provider,” Dr. Park says.
Warning signs include poor bonding with your child or lack of motivation to care for them, thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, heavy bleeding beyond the expected window described by your OB, or any major physical changes in your body you weren’t expecting. If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, muscle weakness, fevers, or fainting, call your doctor right away.
If you get to the point where you just feel like you can’t get through one more day, it’s a sign that you need a break in some way.
And if you’re just dealing with a completely normal case of the can’t-evens? There is hope for relief.
“If you get to the point where you just feel like you can’t get through one more day, it’s a sign that you need a break in some way,” Dr. Klich says. “If it’s intense and persistent, it suggests looking at your life more closely and getting help where you can. That can mean hiring a sitter or talking to a spouse or family member to take on some responsibility. Be creative: reach out to other moms who are likely feeling similarly. It can be helpful to exchange stories to make you feel more normal or exchange babysitting.”
Dr. Park also recommends exercise to help with exhaustion. “Exercise is sometimes the last thing we want to think about, but it will help with fatigue, sleep, mood, and overall health,” she says.
And yes, diet matters, too. Skipping processed foods with refined sugar can help you avoid quick spikes and drops in your blood sugar that make fatigue worse, Dr. Park says. And while it’s fine if caffeine is part of your day-to-day survival, make sure you’re not going overboard or indulging too late in the day, or it could wreck your sleep.
Lastly, give yourself a little grace. “We expect a lot out of ourselves as new moms, and despite the fact that there is no definitive how-to manual on raising children, we somehow beat ourselves up when things are not perfect,” Dr. Park says. “Remember that the sleep-deprived days get better.”