Postpartum Insomnia- The unconventional approach

When my daughter was 2 weeks old, she wasn’t sleeping much. And neither was I. This seems fairly normal for a brand new mom. It is often a rite of passage that you will be sleep deprived those first few weeks. But I knew there was something up. Even when she did sleep in small chunks, I struggled to shut off my brain and follow suit.  I would stay awake, riddled with anxiety, worried if she was still breathing,  that eventually turned into more anxiety about being awake.

My inability to sleep waxed and waned for a while but I still managed to sleep enough to get by. But then I was hit with some additional stressors when she was 7 months that really triggered the insomnia to spiral out of control. Turns out selling a house, signing up for an Ironman and starting a new job all within two weeks is a lot to take on mentally!
This is when I became very concerned for my health and my life began revolving around my sleep. I started googling postpartum insomnia trying to figure this problem out. But a lot of the traditional advice for insomnia wasn’t cutting it and my sleeping only continued to get worse.

This is when I knew I needed something more than your conventional tips and tricks. My journey through insomnia-land was bumpy but through it I learned a lot. Below I’ll explain a little bit more on what postpartum insomnia is and how you can overcome it!

What is it?

Postpartum Insomnia can include struggling to fall asleep initially at night, or  difficulty staying asleep within the first year of having a baby. It can feel very isolating when it is not often talked about like postpartum depression. And the nights awake alone at night only compound this feeling.

What makes your sleepless nights classified as postpartum insomnia is how you start to react to being awake. Oftentimes, anxiety and stress from life disrupt your sleep. This is normal, we all have those nights. But it’s when you start worrying about the lack of sleep, and becoming afraid of sleepless nights, that’s when the insomnia really will rear its head.

When I first started having issues with sleep, it scared me. My head would hit the pillow and my heart would start racing. My brain instantly started wondering what the night would entail, how I was going to manage yet another night without sleep. I was scared of the physical sensations in my body and so confused about what was going on.

Insomnia is fueled by this thing called hyperarousal. This is when the brain is on high alert, in a state of fight-or flight. Hyperarousal is that feeling you get when you feel wired and alert, like you have a constant source of caffeine running through your veins. It can feel good when you are trying to run a few miles around the track but not so great when you just want to sleep.

We need our fight or flight response to be on its game because it’s the part of our brain that keeps us safe. If there is a bear running towards you, you better hope that the activation system kicks in so you can run!

But sometimes hyperarousal occurs even when there is no tangible threat. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between different types of fears, it onlys knows how to do its thing, it doesn’t care what the source of the fear is. A hyper-aroused state can be relatively mild or, in the case of unrelenting insomnia, particularly severe. 

It’s helpful to know the initial stressors that disrupted your sleep are not the cause of your insomnia. For many moms this is baffling. It’s natural to want to blame your hormones, your new baby, your vitamin status or the stresses of mom life. While all these things contribute to some sleep disruption, what continued the cycles of insomnia was your fear of being awake. A fear that hyperarousal feeds off of.

Pressures to Sleep

When my daughter was a baby, I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to sleep. I worried how it would affect my health, my performance the next day, how I would be lacking as a mom, and even how it would affect my relationships. All of these thoughts really emphasized to my brain that sleep is important and I should really be afraid of not sleeping.

Moms have additional pressure to sleep when they know that their baby will be waking up in x amount of hours. I remember checking the clock just waiting until my daughter’s next feeding, feeling this overwhelming sense of doom. The more I desired sleep, the more my heart would race and I would be wide awake staring at the ceiling.

What I didn’t realize at the time, was all these pressures I had given myself to sleep were only contributing to the hyperarousal. Sleep is passive. The more we try to achieve sleep, the less our natural sleep system is able to do its thing.

The key to reducing hyperarousal is taking away the pressure to sleep and allowing your brain to feel safe at night.  This involves befriending wakefulness and doing things that tell your nervous system it’s ok to rest. 

Many moms fall into the trap of thinking they need to do more to sleep well. More supplements, more time in bed, more sleep hygiene, etc…But this often only exacerbates the issue. Instead, the approach should be to be present with what is happening. Embracing what is to come rather than resisting helps our mind realize that all is ok, it doesn’t need to be hyper aware because there really is no real threat.

It’s helpful to also realize that sleep isn’t the only determinant to a healthy body, a good day at work, how you perform as a mom, what you feel the next day, or how you look.  When we can take a step back and realize that all of these things do not solely depend on how much we sleep, we can start desiring perfect sleep less.  

Befriending Wakefulness

One of the keys to overcoming insomnia is being ok with insomnia. This means learning to embrace being awake at night. Our insomnia is fueled by our fear of being awake. But if you can learn to enjoy your time awake, you have nothing left to fear. To do this, it’s helpful to find activities you enjoy and that make you feel safe.

It can be helpful to look at nighttime with a different approach. Most moms have little time for hobbies during the day. Shifting your view from being annoyed at another sleepless night to being excited for a favorite activity can be a great way to teach your brain to no longer be afraid of wakefulness. Some ideas of activities include reading your favorite book, watching your favorite show, playing a game, an art project, etc…  The key is to do these activities for the sake of enjoying them, not to help induce sleep! This is how your brain truly starts to realize you are safe.

There is Hope

After months or years of insomnia, it can be easy to lose hope and begin to think that normal sleep will never come. That is completely understandable. But know that sleep is always there. Your brain is not broken. It just needs a little help letting go of the fear that is keeping your natural sleep system from doing its thing. I recovered completely from my postpartum insomnia after struggling for 2 years. You can too.

Love and support,