I thought I was golden once my daughter started sleeping through the night. Time to sleep, sleepy, sleep, all night long. My earplugs became my most prized nighttime accessory – the promise of an airtight cone of silence.
Unexpectedly though, I continued to wake to the sound of jarring screams. Only now, the screams were coming from inside my head. INSIDE my head.
Two and a half years later I’m still tethered to my earplugs. The phantom cries have loosened their grip but I’m lucky to have a *perfect* night’s sleep. I’ve heard this same baffled complaint from several new moms who’s families I’ve worked with around sleep.
I believe postnatal insomnia is experienced along a continuum. To some extent, it’s natural. Caring for a new, unpredictable and vulnerable human demands our hypervigilance. Research reveals this is especially true for nursing moms – our fight-or-flight responses are dialed up – we are tigresses in the wild. This is bigger and more primal than anxiety. As our babies’ sleep settles, a sense of trust wins over, cortisol levels drop and our own sleep comes with more predictability and ease. For some, this takes time, and healing.
What is postnatal insomnia?
Postnatal insomnia might be experienced as: staring at the ceiling for hours at bedtime; waking in the middle of the night with little hope of being able to roll over and slip back into sleep; waking in the morning long before the alarm or baby, and staring at the ceiling some more; and of course, waking to ‘phantom cries’ during the night.
The one commodity you couldn’t get enough of is now plentiful – but out of reach.
I wondered about a potential link between postnatal insomnia and postpartum depression (PPD). It turns out they are often connected, but not always. Many women experience some degree of ongoing sleep struggles with no PPD symptoms.
Healing your own sleep
I spoke with naturopath Dr. Kristin Heins, (Thrive Natural Family Health) about this. With a focus on young families, Dr. Heins sees many tired new moms with happily sleeping babies. Postnatal insomnia is real!
She explains how our sustained sympathetic nervous system (the ‘tigress’ fight-or-flight response) takes its toll on our adrenal glands, which manifests in other challenges around sleep.
Hormones play a big role too – weaning has been linked to hormonal shifts which can bring on temporary mood swings or depression (due to changes in serotonin) and also create difficulties with sleep regulation (what I think of as our ability to sleep ‘efficiently’). This makes a lot of sense.
Dr. Heins uses a customized and integrative approach when working with postnatal insomnia. She calls upon a combination of herbs, teas, dietary change, homeopathics, and supplements to support cortisol, repair adrenals, and restore hormone balance, depending on a woman’s specific symptoms and imbalances. One of her favorite remedies is milky oat seed because of its effectiveness and safeness for breastfeeding moms. Lovely.
A naturopathic consult would be an excellent place to start if you’re suffering from insomnia.
Reinstating sleep hygiene
New parents put a lot of energy into perfecting their children’s sleep environments and routines, while their own sleep hygiene efforts collect dust in the corner. I definitely don’t get a perfect score here:
- Give yourself a 30-minute wind-down routine before bed: bath, book, meditation, stretching, tea, are some ideas.
- Avoid screens 30-minutes before falling asleep (nearly impossible if you have Netflix, but highly effective).
- Transform your bedroom into a cozy cave at night. We need darkness for healthy melatonin production and quality sleep. A black-out solution in the bedroom is just as helpful for parents as it is for baby. My eye mask is another favorite nighttime accessory.
- Exercise + limit alcohol and caffeine (no surprises here).
Acupressure (shiatsu), acupuncture and craniosacral therapy are my personal favorites for restoring balance at the root level, and ushering in healthy sleep. The benefits are immediate (you will sleep like a rock after a good session), and regular maintenance will prevent sleep struggles down the road. When my sleep falls off the rails this is the first thing I get on top of.
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve struggled with postnatal insomnia and are looking for help, or if you’ve found something that’s worked to get you sleeping happily again.